AN INTERVIEW WITH CHARLOTTE GREENWOOD:
THE 22 MAGAZINE: So you have a pretty long artistic history but first tell me a little about your parents shoe shop?
CHARLOTTE GREENWOOD: My parents started a business in the late 70's selling quality Italian shoes and leather goods. It started at home in our lounge and then grew from there. There were always big cardboard boxes and shoe boxes around the house, at delivery time, and my sister and I used to make them into streets and cities. They were a source of endless fun and creativity. So simple! No video games or computers back then, just our endless imagination to keep us occupied.
THE 22: You created designs for magazines when you were 8 and you had shows of landscape work of your early travels?
CG: I remember drawing a poster of The Da Vinci Shop, at the age of about 8. When I was older my Mom had kept it , and framed it and it was on the wall when they opened their high street shop. From then on I used to design their publicity for magazines and such. But at the age of 8, I doubt that I even knew what advertising was all about! I used to travel a lot around Europe when I was younger and I had a collection of landscape paintings that I exhibited in my parents shop too. So from an early age I have been used to sharing my work in a public environment. Then at 16 I was lucky enough to have my work selected for an exhibition at the Richmond Hill Gallery, in southwest London, U.K., which I don't think is there anymore. It was a group show around the theme of the Wimbledon Tennis Tournament. I had three paintings in gouache on paper, of Pat Cash, Ivan Lendl, and Martina Navratilova in that show. When Pat Cash won Wimbledon that year, I sold the one of him, so that was a bonus.
THE 22: Tell me a little about your art experience in London? When did you decide to move to sculpture from painting?
CG: At the beginning of my "adventures" as an artist, I had always only been a painter, and it was in the early 90s when I made the progression from painting to sculpture. I had just started my bachelors degree in painting, at Chelsea College of Art and Design, in London, and my work started becoming more and more textural. To the point where I really started to feel limited by the two dimensional surface, and I wanted to allow myself the freedom to be fully self expressed as an artist, and discover what I had to discover, with as much freedom as possible. I also thought to myself, I only have 4 years of this, with free access to the workshops and technicians etc, so I better make use of it all and gather as many practical skills as I can to be able to make the transition from this "luxurious" environment where everything I need is at my disposal, to "real life" where I will have to pay for it all. I decided that I wanted to be in the sculpture department, and I think there was only one place left at the time. I had to make a new application to be accepted into the sculpture department, and there were no guarantees that I would get accepted as there were other outside applicants also going for the place but, being the risk-taker that I am, I took the chance, and I got accepted. It was through my specialization in sculpture at art college that I developed the basic practical skill set that I needed to get on in film and television. With regards to my "art experience" in London, well after college, I didn't really know what to do. In my naive early 20s, I was pretty disappointed with the "Art World" as it was in the 1990s. Conceptualism was getting into its prime with the YBAs (Young British Artists) being the "in" crowd. Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, became household names. Throughout art college I was certain that Conceptualism was superficiality at its best, and didn't display any degree of technical skill by the artist, and that it was the perfect example of "the emperor's new clothes." I didn't want to be a part of it because it went largely contrary to my moral values of being authentic to who I am, and I was not "that!" In hindsight, I was clearly not quite understanding something. Some twenty odd years later, after working in all manner of jobs and travelling a large part of the world, I realize that no matter what business you choose to work in, the bull***t, that I thought was exclusive to the art world, is always there; the gossip, the backstabbing, the competition for attention, etc. People just want to survive and they will do whatever they can to do so. That's not wrong, it just is how things are. The common denominator that unites everything though, is people. So now, in my more mature skin, I see things differently. I have grown to love it, and I now actually really appreciate what Conceptualism stands for, and what some of the key artists of that time, have done for art history. I see it as a big game, and I play in it every day. It's so much more fun to see it that way. I became "at peace" with how I saw the art world, through working for 16 years in the Film and Television business, which, like the art business is cut-throat, and intense. After moving to Canada to "re-design" my life, I got to a point in 2008, after having contemplated the idea of going back to fine art for a while, that it was now or never. I had started to feel that my creativity was never allowed to be fully expressed working as a lab rat, a sculptor, or a special effects makeup artist in the workshop and on set. It was so rare that I was given free reign on any design work, as that is all done in the art department. So it was either get into the art department, or go back to fine art. I decided to go back to fine art because even in the art department you design around someone else's ideas. So after a lucrative contract in Toronto on a year and a half run of work there, I came back to Montreal with a full bank account. So I took a year off and used all that money to create the series "The Paradox of Consumerism in the Age of New Baroque." A series of big paintings. I went back to paintings for practical reasons mostly. I didn't have the space to make sculpture and the materials are too toxic for a home space. Oil painting can be bad enough. Also the issue of storage was a serious one to consider. I was moving house a lot until last year. It was in February this year that I finally participated in the Parallax Art Fair in the heart of Chelsea, London. It was the first time I had an art exhibition since 1994. So it was a big deal for me, and will now be more of a frequent feature in my yearly plans. And so my London art experience is starting to evolve again.
THE 22: How were you "discovered" by Jim Henson's Creature Shop?
CG: I heard about the Creature Shop through someone I was working with at a company called Artem who at the time did mostly TV commercials. I was at the end of my first contract there, and realized that I didn't have anymore work lined up and no contact database to speak of. So I asked around the other freelancers for tips on other companies I might find some work at. That's how it works usually, word of mouth. So then I called up Hensons and asked to speak to the contact name I had been given. It ended up in an interview and I went to see the shop. It was a long bike ride! That's one thing I remember about it, 18 miles I think, each way. It took a few visits and phone calls for me to receive a phone call to go and work there. I was invited to work on a theater production they did of Dr. Doolittle. It was a lot of fun. I remember from the first interview though, them saying to me "your paintings are so beautiful, you should be a painter, what do you want to work in the film business for?" My reply was always "I'll go back to that when I'm older, but right now I need to earn money and pay my rent." So I guess I'm older now, and I'm still paying my rent! It's not only through working in the film business though. It was a real privilege working there. It was a huge workshop and the people I worked with were always so talented. I learnt a lot from them. I used to talk with everybody. I found it so fascinating working there. All these different people, doing different jobs for the same creature or the same film. And then working on set and watching the puppeteers make the creature come to life. Priceless experience. Hard work, but it didn't seem like it because I was doing something I loved to do. It was cool to go to work everyday and see the display cases in the lobby and around the building of all the old characters they made there, including Kermit. It was a beautiful old building right by the canals at Camden Lock in London. Massive windows everywhere and creaking old floors. I remember sleeping on the big sofas in the kitchen sometimes after an all-nighter on some crazy deadlines. It was sad when I heard it was closed down in 2005 I think, or there abouts. It really brought home how much the business has changed now, especially that part of it. My generation of technicians saw the business go digital. A lot of people went out of business, and I remember it being a sore topic of discussion with many of the talented animatronics designers and fabricators I met there. I know two of them live in Canada now, in Vancouver. It's part of life though. Things will always evolve and transform, that's the only constant in life. It's taught me not to get too attached to things or even people, and really appreciate them when they are around. The thing is to evolve with what is evolving and keep up with it all...otherwise you risk to get left behind!
THE 22: Tell me about your work in television and movies?
CG: For a few years at the beginning of my career, I was a lab technician, mold maker, and a painter. I was then working at Jim Henson's Creature Shop in London (before it closed down) and there I was mostly a painter and a fabricator. I used to paint creature skins that were made of foam latex or silicone. They were skins that went over the top of animatronic creatures or puppets. I was "art-finishing coordinator" (that means in charge of the paint finishing of the creatures) for them on Five Children And It, which is a feature in a similar style as Harry Potter. Then I went onto Harry Potter and The Philosophers Stone, working in the creature department, and I was a silicone lab technician and a painter. I would run silicone molds all day making the Goblin head masks for all the actors in the Gringot's Bank scene. Also I would run the large scale Hagrid faces and hands. I also painted some of these things. After that, I went on to work in the model-making department on the same film as a miniatures sculptor. I had to sculpt the 1/5th scale picture frames to go in the model of the moving staircase. After that I went on to do a series of movies with the same company and I became their key painter/ finisher and model sculptor. I would head up the paint finishing team and had to design the paint look of the models that were built, and delegate the sculpting work to the others on my team. Often this was for stonework and detailing on castles, and on Ella Enchanted there was a lot of brick work to paint. There was also a model elf village which had a lot of wooden textures to paint. So that meant that I worked out the method of creating the textures and faux finishes, and the color order (which colors go on in which order). Then I had to teach that to the team of painters who were helping. I went onto do various jobs from armor fabrication on Kingdom of Heaven, where I was mostly a mold maker churning out fiberglass helmets and also a paint finisher, for the body armor parts. On Troy I was an assistant graphic designer, which meant that I worked with the chief graphic designer on the sets painting the mural decorations onto the columns and walls. I worked for Millenium FX , with Neill Gorton, which is now a leading make-up fx shop in the U.K., on Doctor Who. I was a senior sculptor there for a couple of years. I did sculpting, mold making, fabrication of prosthetics and also some painting on Charlie and The Chocolate Factory, I was a sculptor, and worked on the chocolate river set sculpting parts of the riverbanks. Then I moved to Canada in 2005. In Toronto I mostly got sculpting work, and became the key sculptor for a company who did a lot of creature work and commercials. In Vancouver I was a sculptor for X-Men 3 for the make-up fx department. In Toronto again I was working as a senior make-up artist on the pilot of Fringe at FX Smith, also a leading make-up FX studio on the east coast. He did all the X-men original designs back in the day amongst loads of other amazing stuff. Then in Montreal I have been make-up artist and sculptor /mold maker on different productions. Last year it was on Mirror Mirror, and War Bodies a zombie movie where I was a make-up artist for Maestro FX, working with Adrien Morot, very talented make-up fx artist and designer. I've had the opportunity and fortune to have worked with many fantastically talented artists in the film and TV business. Its been a humbling and inspiring time.
THE 22: What has been the most challenging television project? What has been the most rewarding? And why for both?
CG: That's a tough one to answer! I would say that there are a few that had tough elements to them. Two spring to mind. Making the pilot show for Fringe was very challenging. It was so in a good way. We had the luxury of having some valuable research and development time at the beginning of the project, as what we ended up doing hadn't been done before. We had to design a prosthetic to give the effect of a skin disease that made human skin turn transparent. So the challenge was to keep the prosthetic pieces as thin and true to the human form as possible, whilst creating the illusion of the interior of the human body. So we had to also create a transparent thickness on the exterior of the actor to create the illusion of depth. We ended up using a tattoo transfer method combined with sculpted silicone reusable prosthetic pieces, which then got covered with transparent gel once they were applied to the actor's body. I think there were around 50 separate prosthetic pieces for the complete effect. It was very intricate and involved a team of 4 special makeup artists to complete the application on the actor, who had to lie still for a few hours every time we applied the makeup. Then visual effects took what we created one step further, and digitally introduced interior body textures. They deepened our muscle structures and digitally inserted moving organs and a beating heart. The other job that stands out, is Five Children And It, that I worked on with Hensons, not long before I came to Canada. The challenge here was to make a prosthetic foam creature skin resilient to salty sea air. Salt breaks down the skin and also corrodes the animatronics underneath. So we came up with a way of siliconizing the skin through impregnating it with silicone, which was infused using special solvents. The other part of this project that was challenging was puppeteering on set underneath the table where the puppet was set up so we would not be seen by the camera. There were five adults under there, all with radio controls. I would say that was definitely on of the most hilarious set experiences I have had over my career. So that would also qualify it for being rewarding too! I think the more challenging a job, in general when the result is achieved, for me that is very rewarding. Its the part of being on that journey of not knowing how to do something at the outset and going on an adventure to find the way that brings the desired result. That's what I like. For me that is what I do everyday as and artist. Go into the unknown and create things. That's rewarding! It gives rise to accomplishment and inspiration.
THE 22: You eventually decided to go back to painting and to establish a studio? Why did you make this choice? Are you a full time painter now?
CG: In spring 2008 I decided to make my focus more on fine art and I stopped working in film and TV for a couple of years. It happened to coincide with an extremely sparse period of work for the entertainment business, as a result of strikes and tax break adjustments. So there were not many films being made for a while in Montreal. The reason for my choice to go back into the fine arts after so long, was because I wasn't in an environment where the full potential of my creativity could be expressed. When I work in film and TV, I am a technician, and I work in a team where my work is changed and sometimes cut all together, and it does not belong to me. I consider myself a service to the production, where my decision making capacity is decidedly less than working as a fine artist and designing my own projects. My intention was to fully explore my creativity and really find out who I am through that process, and share what I have to offer with the world, and inspire people as a representation of creativity. I cannot do that working on movies. In the years leading up to my decision, I felt stunted and that I had reached a ceiling. So it was up to me to create a life that was one that allowed me to reach my full potential and grow. I am not yet a full-time painter. Every year I get closer to that status. I am sewing the seeds and every year, I find that I am painting more and more. I'm a very patient and determined person, so I know that I can make that happen.
THE 22: One of your most interesting series is "The Paradox of Consumerism in the Age of New Baroque." Tell me a little about how you create these paintings, and what they are meant to convey?
CG: It took me two years to know how to paint them in the way that I did. I did a lot of research into the Flemish masters technique and the techniques of the Baroque period. There is a lot to know and its a very involved and disciplined way of painting. I watched videos, read books and websites, and picked a few peoples brains about all I could find on the subject in a short timeframe. I learnt a lot from painting those paintings in that style. The experience taught me about the importance of self-discipline, about time management, about process, and patience. Having done those paintings also showed me how much my technique had improved from having worked in the film and TV business for so long, and this was a reflection of how much more mature my "way of seeing and observation" had now become. I feel a sense of accomplishment, having completed them, having soldiered on through quite a few tears of frustration and exhaustion over that period working night after night to get them completed for the final exhibition in December 2009. Living that whole experience has certainly taken my painting to another level. They are a representation of my vision of how our society works. They are a discussion around how the machine of greed and consumerism works. On another level, they are a reflection of how human beings can be in Western societies. I feel that one of the biggest weaknesses of the human condition is greed. It is a byproduct of our programmed nature to survive. In a world where a big part of society have more than they need to survive, there is surplus. This cultivates an environment for greed to grow. My paintings are a discussion about how the machine of our society functions and is reflected in the urban environment that we create around us. They are illustrations of how we are born into all of this with a choice of either taking responsibility for what we have been born into and making it work, or choosing to live in denial and distraction. Both choices are impactful in different ways. These images are my vision of what I have experienced from being born in London and growing up in a massive urban metropolis. Most of my life has been lived in cities and the urban environment and what I find striking is that we are all important in keeping this machine going. That is the main point underlying The Rancid Feast. Despite the intricacies of what is actually in the painting, what is important to me in the conversation between the painting and the public, is that everything is so fragile, temporary and in constant evolution. Everything in the painting is supported by something else in the painting. If one element is taken away, the whole thing falls down and becomes dysfunctional. The dichotomy of life and death. Everything might seem so secure to us in our everyday lives, but realistically, it is so fragile. I chose to paint in this was because Baroque is characterized by drama, excess, exaggeration. I see this to be very present in our world today. I wanted to convey what I had to say about today's world, in a new context which was somewhat removed from how it might normally be seen. So creating a discourse about greed and consumerism in a Baroque-esque style, to me was a more mysterious or curious way to present it. Rather than just turning the audience away, with shock-value, I wanted to present them with something that was striking and beautiful but with a further look is actually depicting something that isn't so beautiful as it might have appeared to be at the first encounter. As far as being politically correct, my paintings are not about obese people. They are about the greed prevalent in human nature. There is a distinct difference between these two things. One is personal, and the other is universal. I chose to personify the greed present in human nature, in a universal sense by painting obese people. To me though, they have evolved further than people. They are more creatures to me. This series is not complete, and I intend on painting more obese creatures around this subject. It's a way of accepting the presence of greed, and knowing what to do with it.
THE 22: Can you tell me the story of how you first got this work shown? (How it got into the gallery, that is.)
CG: Well, after having moved house three times during the production of this series, I finally found a bit of stability for a year when I was living with my husband in the east end of Montreal. I remember having a discussion with him one morning about how to get my work seen, and to find artistic representation. He was so supportive of me and what I am aiming to accomplish through my art creation, and the projects that I do, that he said "I'm sure that if I go downtown and visit all the galleries, and show them your portfolio, that we can find someone who will want to exhibit your work, or at least give us some advice. You can stay home and carry on painting." So that was that, off he went in his Sunday best and did exactly that. In the late afternoon, he came back and told me his story, which went like this: After having been to a fair few galleries and not really getting much feedback, he went into the AKA Gallery which used to be on Cresent street. This is where he met Kat Coric, who was working there at the time. He explained how he has a wife who is a painter, who is currently looking for artistic representation or any advice regarding promotion of her work and approaching galleries. He said "I totally believe in her, I have her portfolio here if you could spare a few minutes to look through it, or if you might have some advise for her." It was at this point that Ms. Coric melted inside. She had just come out of a long marriage which had ended badly, just a few days prior, and here was this guy standing for his wife and showing her artwork around town, saying how much he believed in her. That was it. She took a look through my portfolio and gave some tips to change a few things about the presentation, and to change some things about the business card I had designed, and gave her own card to my husband. Over the next week I made the changes that had been suggested and my husband then made a follow-up call to Ms. Coric, and told her of the changes. She was impressed, and said to stay in touch if we had any more questions, but that she couldn't exhibit my work in the AKA Gallery because I was dedicated to one artist only. So about a month went by and I still hadn't found any work, or any representation, and nothing had really changed. So I found Ms. Coric's card again and gave her a call, thinking I had nothing to lose. It ended up in a meeting with her, where I explained my whole story and where I was with everything in my life at that time. We made an agreement, and she agreed to take me on and teach me what I needed to know to get started on my journey as an artist in Montreal. We ended up working together for the best part of two years. Ms. Coric helped to put me on the map in Montreal by organizing a private viewing of my new paintings at the end of 2009. She introduced me to people and found me a few portrait commissions, and did what she could to help me on my way. She has a healthy art collection of her own, and she also represents a small selection of artists from Montreal. It was a question of right place right time for my encounter with Kat Coric, and I learnt a lot from the experience. Through her I met Jean Fortin, the owner of Gallery D. Jean has been following my progress for the past 2-3 years and finally, the time was right early this year when I contacted him with the interest of having a show at his gallery. He said yes, and we set to work and planned a date. So my first solo exhibition in a public gallery will be at Gallery D, from 26th September-29th October 2012. It's been a bit of a long time coming, and this is the first step into a much bigger game. One thing is certain though, without the help and support of some wonderful people around me who believed in me, I would not be where I am today. So I thank everyone who has helped me and contributed to what I'm doing so far.
THE 22: In a radio interview you talk a little about philanthropy as a new fad. Do you think philanthropy in art is
CG: Yes, I was talking with Le Chronique du Conseil, a local radio show and group of young driven artists who support and report on what's happening around town in the Montreal arts scene. For me it is important to give back to the community, and to the world. I enjoy supporting causes which are doing something to help people in whichever way. I feel that I am fortunate to have the life I have. I worked patiently to create it, and I want to make sure that I can help as many people around me have a life they love and that they are inspired to live in everyday. Whether it be helping a charity or organization that already exists by donating a portion of sales I make in an exhibition, or through a project or initiative I have invented; it's the giving back that is important. If there is no connectivity in the world and people don't work together and help each other, things will never reach their full potential.
THE 22: You talk a little about working with toxic chemicals in special effects and how it went against your personal credos. Can you tell me a little about this experience?
CG: Yes, I like to think of myself as an environmentally conscious and environmentally friendly person. I do what I can but I'm not perfect! I haven't owned a car for over 7 years, I ride a bicycle everywhere, and use public transport. With that in mind, working in Special Effects for 16 years now, has put my opinions in check and made me really ask myself what I'm doing, and if I should keep doing it. Well, it seems that I'm going to carry on for a while! I like the variation in the work, and the intensity of the deadlines, and on the whole the crews I have worked with are full of awesome people. In a typical special effects workshop, we will use casting plastics, fiberglass, resins, polyurethanes, various expanding foams and prosthetic foam, MDF (Medium Density Fiberboard), polystyrene, welding, paint, acetone, methyl-hydrate. Most places have some kind of ventilation system, and most people use respirators and protective clothing when working with these products. Sometimes there have been cases where a company I worked for brought in a specialist to educate us in toxic materials and how to safely store stuff and what to write on containers etc. All workshops I've been through, have at some point had the health and safety officers come in and do checks, so it is somewhat regulated. Things get trickier when building large sets which have to be built in sometimes very old factory buildings where those ventilation systems were non existent. So then its down to production to pay for the right ventilation to be installed, and that doesn't always happen, and for the workers to be conscious of the others around them. It comes with the territory really to have contact with these products and materials, and their by-products. In the end its my choice to work in this business, so its my own responsibility to protect myself whenever I can. Working with these materials used to bother me a lot. I seem to have become more accepting of what I see to be the wrongs of the world. It leaves me in a more peaceful mental space, where I can be more effective and lead by example in my own projects, if I so choose. When you work on a big Hollywood production, the number of people involved is immense. I'm a technician in this environment and not an independent artist. So there are a lot of other people to consider. The timelines we have to deal with are crazy, and so if a technician starts piping up about not wasting so much material, or using so much plastic and throwing away recycling in the regular garbage, it will most likely fall on deaf ears. To make any sort of change in the way a special effects workshop is run, with regards to being environmentally friendly, would require a major overhaul of the materials we use to create the illusions we make and the environments our audiences flock to the cinema to see. The impact would be huge! Its an interesting question. So if anyone wants to take that on as a project, I'd be interested to see where it will end up!
THE 22: What are you currently working on?
CG: I am currently working as a sculptor in the construction department building details of the sets, on a feature production called White House Down, by director Roland Emmerich. I am preparing new artwork for my solo show at Galerie D, which opens in September, and I am running a project called "Carry Your Message," which is a community art project that I started at the end of last year.