We met with the artist Charlotte MacMillan to learn more about her career in the performance industry, her work with celebrity clients and the influence her experiences have had on her diverse artistic practise. Read the full interview below.
You work in the performance industry, creating theatre sets, photographing performers and creating bespoke embroidered clothing for celebrity artists such as Coldplay and Boy George. Where does your love of performance and design come from?
I was very lucky to be surrounded by artists and designers from birth. My mother is a painter and my father, who worked in the theatre, commissioned painters, designers and sculptors. So, from an early age I witnessed the process of design for performance - from conception to first night. When I was 16 I had a summer work placement with a costume painter called Mathilde Sandberg. She could translate even the most fluid of designs into actual wearable costumes. Her skills in dyeing and hand paintings, embellishment and deconstruction piqued my passion for costumes. I ended up having the responsibility of painting one of Queen Elizabeth’s dresses designed by Alexandra Byrne for the film Elizabeth. Sadly, it took me another 20 years to really identify this as a future career, as I had decided to be a photographer instead….I now realise that I should have listened to that passion at 16!
Alongside this design work. we saw that you submitted your Boris Johnson artwork to Grayson's Art club during lockdown. Did you start making these political illustrations during lockdown as a reaction to the political climate or has your work always been connected to politics in some way?
I think we can all agree that Lockdown was the most extraordinary time that any of us have lived through. I’m sure most of us clung onto daily news briefings, even hourly updates to garner some sort of understanding of what was unfolding. I found it fascinating that politicians didn’t have the luxury of time and well thought out spin to show their true intentions, it was exposing. We all got to see the world leaders show their true colours, faced with such an existential threat. So I thought it funny and disarming to draw them naked….especially Trump, whose defensive and dishonest doublespeak just barely covers up a rampant insecurity. We all remember his ‘grab them by the pussy’ comment - I hand embroidered this into a vintage doily; all for permanence so none of us forget.
Can you tell us about your experience working on projects for celebrity clients? (How collaborative are your projects and where do you get your ideas from for the designs?)
For all my bespoke work, I have worked closely with an Art Director. William Baker and Boy George will work out seasonal looks for George’s various appearances and in turn I will translate some of those ideas using embroidery. For a while, I was producing embellishments for George on constructed outfits made by costumier Stevie Stewart; they largely drew on some of George’s favourite Bowie lyrics. Embroidered written text would adorn hats, jackets and shirts. I have also translated some of George’s own drawings and this can be seen on Culture Club’s latest album. For Coldplay, I worked very closely with designer Misty Buckley. Middle Eastern influences and lyrics from the album Everyday Life were our main motifs. I was invited by Misty and the band to accompany them on their promotional tour, being in the amazing position of embroidering on site in Jordan using fabrics from local Souks. It was an extraordinarily collaborative atmosphere.
Do you have a favourite commission you can tell us about?
Everything I’ve done has been my new favourite commission! Perhaps because I’ve been surprised by the different processes of each. I think the most challenging but satisfying commission was when I was asked to translate a photograph for the makeup artist Lan Nguyen-Grealis. It was a pair of lips with high contrast lip gloss most probably shot with UV light. Having been a photographer for 20 years, I could appreciate how technically difficult this was to light, but translating it into a large format embroidery was daunting. I broke the photograph down into colour sections with changes in tonal value, hue and patterning - and I had two weeks to do it in. The finished result was extremely successful and I even hand sewed little glass bugle beads in to suggest where the light was.
Your work spans a variety of mediums from digital art to embroidery. How do you determine which medium to use for which project and does each medium hold a specific significance for you?
I think due to my familial background in the Theatre, where stories are the integral part of creativity, this has always been my motivation. Abstraction hasn’t ever really been ‘my bag’, although I adore it in others’ work. I think what fascinates me is when a story reveals itself, whether that be in a painting, play, ballet or photograph. When I initially worked as a photographer I really struggled to find my voice. It wasn’t until I did a post graduate degree at LCP in photojournalism that I grasped why I loved all the works of extraordinary photographic storytellers like Robert Frank. So really, I will use any medium that I can pull out of the bag to tell the ’story’… for Coldplay’s textiles I used embroidery, patchwork, natural dyeing and fabric painting.
Has your work in the performance industry been affected by the closure of theatres and music venues? And how have you managed to get around this and continue to be creative?
My work has been greatly affected yes… everything has been cancelled. Everyone I know has been affected and it’s deeply upsetting. Live performance can only exist when there is that magical symbiosis between performer and audience; it can’t exist digitally, or at least it won’t exist with the same emotional impact as a live show. So really, I’m waiting, just like my colleagues for that drive to get back to work. In the meantime, I am making laser cut brooches based on my embroidered faces I made for George. I have been commissioned by Hidden Gallery in Bristol and Brighton to make Andy Warhol inspired faces which will be sold for a local Homeless Charity - even in these dark times it’s important to remember that there are people facing far more adversity than an embroiderer without a jacket to stitch.