Creative Lives — “There’s no expiry date on your artistic process”: Artist and illustrator Charlotte Edey
Charlotte Edey is a London-based artist and illustrator, specialising in tapestry, textile and embroidery. The multidisciplinary artist juggles exhibiting her work in galleries like Somerset House, PUBLIC Gallery and Palm Vaults to working two days a week as a graphic designer. Looking back, though, Charlotte reckons it took her about three years before she started to find her feet in industry. Here, we talk to Charlotte about her experiences as an artist in London, starting out and sending a “mortifying” amount of emails in search of commissions and how spirituality has shaped her storytelling.
Artist and Illustrator
Miu Miu, The New York Times, Penguin Random House, WeTransfer, The Guardian, BBC
Receptionist, Serial Intern, Bodypainter, Graphic Designer
Charlotte photographed by Anna Stokland
How would you describe what you do?
I would describe myself as an artist but my practice is quite divided in terms of commissioned and self-directed work. As an artist, I now work primarily with tapestry and embroidery alongside works on paper. I’ve exhibited with Flowers Gallery, TJ Boulting, PUBLIC Gallery and Mall Galleries in the last couple of years.
As an illustrator, I’ve worked with clients including Miu Miu, The New York Times, Penguin Random House, WeTransfer, The Guardian and BBC. I also work as a graphic designer two days a week, alongside illustrating. It’s kind of sporadic but it works.
What does a typical working day look like and where does it happen?
Prior to this, a typical day usually involved admin, if I was being good. I’m much more of a night person by nature; 11pm is my golden hour in terms of decision making. I’ve accepted the fact that I’m currently most productive with a very teenage nocturnal schedule, and I’m forgiving it. Also, the kitchen table is less in demand after 8pm. I have been working loosely; drawing from observation, reading and taking the time to think. I’m dividing time between works on paper and embroidery. Embroidery being such a slow, rhythmic practice has felt like a haven, and the quietness of working at night is unparalleled.
“Embroidery being such a slow, rhythmic practice has felt like a haven, and the quietness of working at night is unparalleled.”
How are you right now and how has this period changed the way you work?
I’m adjusting – I oddly feel in the midst of a teenage regression; something like daydreaming while being grounded. I’m grateful to be safe, healthy, and with family. We have been lucky so far and so thankful for the NHS at this time.
My studio has changed from my living room in London to my mum’s kitchen table. Working in a domestic space is familiar, it is the external landscape that is unrecognisable. The lack of autonomy that defines this time has led me to look at the symbolism of paths; the energy of spiral forms and crossroads confronting the potency of change. In this ambiguity, the only real certainty is the significance of the transitions we are both living through and anticipating. I keep returning to this thought in some form or other.
‘Jasmine’ Miu Miu commission 2018
What is it that you enjoy most about working with print, textiles and embroidery?
Drawing has always been the base of my practice. I see most of my material exploration as an extension of my drawing; the tapestries are pencil drawings translated via digital jacquard loom, and the satin-stitch embroidery follows a similar pattern to line drawing. The digital element of this correlates with some of my prints – like working with digital collages. Drawing feels most intuitive but textile is more exciting.
What themes do you often grapple with in your work, and why?
A lot of my work is concerned with the politics of space, centered on the experience of womxn of colour: who can occupy it, and the spatial structuring we navigate. I find imagining a parallel existence very powerful. It offers the opportunity to transcend our reality while creating a space to investigate who and where we are. It is optimistic; it looks forward to imagine a new reality. I think often about the Octavia Butler quote “There’s nothing new under the sun, but there are new suns”.
Is there anything that is particularly inspiring you at this time?
Improvised masks, this piece by Olga Tokarczuk, the beach after sunset, Yoga with Adriene, writing to and from friends, repotting plants, a reading list (Maggie Nelson, Zora Neale Hurston, Rachel Cusk, Octavia Butler, Olivia Laing, Elena Ferrante), collecting broken shells, The Pattern, Drag Race season 12, Studio Ghibli on Netflix, avoiding the news where possible, Jessica Pratt, my Juul (argh!) but above all, my work has felt like a complete sanctuary.
What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
It really depends on the week. It can be meditative, particularly embroidery, and I love the loose quietness of my work. It can feel like a sanctuary of your own when it’s going well. A lot of my work is portable too, it’s incredibly freeing to be able to work in different places across the world and see how it informs your practice. The negative is, unsurprisingly, that it’s impossible to turn off. Having total autonomy is wonderful and having total responsibility is terrifying all at the same time. I’d say there’s a general hum of productivity and finance-related nerves which can be unhelpful creatively.
“Having total autonomy is wonderful, and having total responsibility is terrifying all at the same time.”
What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
I had an exciting autumn. My solo show Echolocation at PUBLIC Gallery opened in September. It was a culmination of most of the year’s work and it felt really intentional; the first opportunity to be so single-minded. It was followed by The Great Women Artists residency at Palazzo Monti in Brescia, which really crystallised the intent from Echolocation. The residency set the tone for the works I’ve been making these last few months.
What skills would you say are essential to your job?
Some form of stubborn discipline; even if it appears chaotic, whatever works best for you. Just having the will to continue to make work and make it work – ‘it’ being everything that supports your ability to make art. You need to feel mentally and physically well enough to devote to your practice. With the world halted, I’ve been navel-gazing to try to assess why and how I make work the last few weeks. The idea that whatever I’m making won’t be seen for months has been freeing – like the ownership has returned with the physical audience entirely removed. I feel I can create and respond authentically.
What tools do you use most for your work?
Graphite pencil and fineliner pens are the basis for most of my drawings – usually done on recycled or textured card or paper, depending on the style. I make digital collages and colour using Photoshop. For embroidery I work with silk, cotton and occasionally rayon thread and I embellish with freshwater pearl and chains. The tapestries are created on a digital jacquard loom.
How I Got Here
What did you want to be growing up?
Initially, the lady who recorded the ‘leave a message after the tone’ message.
How do you think your upbringing influenced your choice of career?
I spent so much of my childhood reading – usually fantasy, which definitely staged an interest in world-building. I have young parents who are both pretty relaxed and open minded, and being from a huge extended family that is a complete mix of personalities, races, and religions meant exposure to a multitude of lifestyles, too. I was was able to express myself from a young age, whether through music, fashion or art. There aren’t any artists in my family, so I never felt that there was any standard that I wasn’t meeting. I was given the freedom to choose my own path professionally, and personally. I didn’t realise what a luxury that was until recently.
‘Mine III’ 2020
‘Mine II’ 2019
Do you feel you need a formal education for what you do?
I did a foundation year in visual communication and following that I became self-taught. I wasn’t in a great place while I was studying, and my attendance was quite poor. I was only planning on taking a year out and yet somehow it’s nearly a decade later. I am torn on the question; I wouldn’t say formal education is absolutely essential for commercial work, but I think a formal education can refine your style much quicker.
There were definitely opportunities I missed because of not having a degree, but I also learned a lot of mistakes early on which have been useful. I have applied for bursaries and completed short courses on various things since then (weaving, embroidery, copper engraving) as YouTube tutorials can only take you so far. I actually think I crave instruction more as I get older.
“I wouldn’t say formal education is absolutely essential for commercial work, but I think a formal education can refine your style much quicker.”
What were your initial steps once you decided to leave your foundation course?
After my foundation year, I had a string of odd jobs – from admin to seasonal festival work alongside graphic design internships. I did about four part-time unpaid internships that year, before finding a part-time paid graphic design job. It’s worth mentioning that I grew up in London and I was able to live at home. I stayed at the graphic design job for a year which afforded me to spend two days a week on my own work. I drew a lot that year and sent a mortifying amount of emails to anyone and everyone who’s email address I could find online. I started getting small illustration commissions to build up my portfolio, while uploading my own work on Tumblr and eventually Instagram. I think it took about three years until I found my feet.
‘Fresh Water’ 2018
Would you say you ever experienced a lucky break?
I think a lot of my breaks were lucky: growing up in London was undeniably helpful in terms of access. The work I was making when I started out coincided with wider digital movements focused on WoC [Women of Colour] artists and female artists, like being commissioned by gal-dem, Art Hoe Collective and The Great Women Artists. I think making the decision to work with textiles in 2017 was a big moment for me. It really challenged and extended my craft, and I’ve become a lot more intentional in terms of both presentation and material theory. To bring luck back into the equation, textiles and particularly weaving have seen a real resurgence recently with major institutional shows by artists like Anni Albers, Sheila Hicks and Faith Ringgold.
What’s been your biggest challenge along the way?
Probably the happy marriage that is imposter syndrome and financial instability!
What have been your biggest learnings with making money as a creative?
I’ve always had a regular-ish job or long-term clients to support me. I think the biggest lesson is learning where to save and where to spend. It’s worth spending on your development and on research where you can. It’s not worth working for ‘exposure’. None of the work I did for free ever led to anything directly. Equally, it’s worth saving where possible, so you can afford to experiment materially.
How important have you found social media and self-promotion in your work?
It’s not very chic, but it has been essential for me. Instagram has basically served as both my agent and portfolio: a huge amount of the clients and galleries I’ve worked with came through it. Working with tapestry and embroidery has been amazing in re-assessing my relationship with digital platforms.
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give to an emerging creative wanting to get into the same line of work?
Go into yourself and allow yourself to make in whatever capacity you are capable of. Be kind to yourself – and forgiving, too – if you aren’t able to create immediately or constantly in this moment.
Don’t let rejection deter you. Remember why you wanted to devote your life to this. Learn from and collaborate with your peers. There’s no shame in your day job and there’s no expiry date on your artistic process. Don’t expect it to look like you thought it would and keep going!