The journey to Charles Wilkin’s beautiful home was the day of NY’s first snowfall of 2015. It was incredible watching the flurries come down from within his cozy studio, easily, a tranquil environment.
Charles’ main workspace in the room is covered with piles of magazine clippings, sorted in an “organized chaos” fashion. Hanging on the wall above his table is a collection of collages that Charles is currently working on for his upcoming show in DUMBO, January 29th. The images in each collage seamlessly blend together even though they reflect beauty and grotesque simultaneously.
Warm, charismatic and genuinely concerned about our world, Charles shared his creative process, his love for the medium of collage, the motivating energy of New York, and his adventures as a beekeeper.
I'm a collage artist and beekeeper. I generally keep my process simple and I don't spend a lot of time thinking about what it is exactly I'm going to create. I'm constantly taking notes on things I've seen; idle conversations, sound bites and news headlines. I'd say all of these things contribute to my work in some way and certainly help provide a conceptual foundation, but honestly my work is always created spontaneously. Collage for me has always been about making something out of nothing. I prefer to let the actual process of making my work be my guide. It's the challenge and occasional frustration of this technique that ultimately provides both my motivation and inspiration. Working this way also gives me the ability to explore new ideas easily while keeping my work free of expectation.
I use old magazines for the foundation art, I get those at thrift stores and flea markets. I buy a lot on Ebay. Then what I do is the filler parts, the stuff that actually gets collaged, is all modern. I love fashion magazines! I personally find Vogue useless but it’s great for collaging. I don’t really care about the fashion but those magazines are great because of the textures and colors. This season, there’s a lot of fur in my work because that’s what’s popular in the fashion magazine. I’m pulling from these new magazines while working with old ones. It sort of brings the two together. It’s easier that way because I love color and I love texture and in some of the old magazines you just can’t get that, I just like the subject matter of the older images.
Right now I’m really into portraiture, in the past I was doing more regular sort of collage, just trying to tell stories. I think in the last 3 years I’ve been trying to focus more on just doing portraiture. I felt like there was a part of my work that each piece would look so different than the previous one. I'm trying to have some more consistency visually.
How do you know when you're finished with a piece
Because I work spontaneously and there's often a lot of uncertainty and exploration as I go, I'd say there's usually an overwhelming sense of calmness and relief that indicates it's done. Of course, there are always those instances where a piece becomes too frustrating and just never feels finished. I'll often set those aside and start on another. I rarely abandon works completely because I even see the ones I don't think are successful or finished as part of the process. I like to tack everything, both good and bad, on the walls of my studio while I'm working. This really helps me see the progression and often helps me decide whether or not a work is finished. In the end I simply trust my instinct, if it feels right then it's probably done.
Do you recognize yourself in your work
I think I’m always in there. I don’t know at what level. I don’t think they are self portraits in anyway, I’m not interested in that. I’m personally more concerned with how fucked up the world is and that’s the part of me that gets out into this [the art]. It’s like people are ugly, people are mean, people are nasty, this world is crazy you know. I don’t get it, why people can be so cruel. And so, I think there’s that part that’s my personal concern that ends up in the work. But then, there’s a part of me that wants to convey the beauty and the flip-side of saying it’s not always that bad. It just can’t be that bad, I just don't believe it can be that bad. So the beauty part of my work focuses on that. I try to make them beautiful or pretty or bright colors or the layout is very attractive and pleasing. I think that’s the part of me that’s trying to say ‘it’s not always that bad’.
In the Catskills I have a much much bigger space and can do larger work. It’s hard [to have studios in different places] so I’m constantly taking stuff back and forth. And, while I have stuff up there to work on and with, what ends up happening is as I get in the groove, then I have stuff that I have to take with me [from Brooklyn] because I’m already thinking about it. It’s hard for me to just stop and sort of shift gears so I try and take stuff with me as I go. I feel I’m constantly in motion.
Music is always on in my studio. I also have art from friends, collectibles and oddities from my travels. I, of course, have work in progress hanging on the walls as well. Sometimes I'll clear everything out or put things away so the walls are blank, especially when I have a show coming up or if I'm feeling stuck. It sounds crazy but white walls make me insane and it sort of forces me to create new work just to cover them. Plus my studio can sometimes get a little out of control with the mess so an occasional reorganization can be a welcome reset.
I prefer to keep my work and personal spaces separate even if they are both within the same overall space. When I'm in my studio I'm there to work. Having the visual and emotional break a separate workspace provides helps keep me focused and lets me create an environment that's inspirational; two things [that are] essential to making meaningful work.
Living in New York is inspirational on every level. It sounds ridiculous but I find something new everyday. Yes, it's not always easy to live here, but it's often those challenges that make it even more exciting. I love the diversity of the people, languages and the frenetic energy that New York creates. This city is an endless stream of random conversation, unexpected experiences and cultural collisions. For me, New York is just one big collage and an infinite source of inspiration. I mean, even the piles of trash are collage-like.
About 6 years ago I was looking for some danger in my life, hoping the experience would help push my work forward. I considered skydiving but none of my family or friends shared my excitement so I decided beekeeping would be a great alternative. What I discovered is that beekeeping is not dangerous at all and instead found a hobby that influences my work in ways I have yet to understand. I've always been able to find inspiration in everyday things and willing to trust my instinct but beekeeping really allowed me to see the world differently. Beekeeping has helped me focus on what's truly important and meaningful by cutting through the noise of pop culture and the expectations of modern living. It has become an incredible source of intangible inspiration. I can't imagine making art without it.
It was nerve wrecking the first year I did it because I didn’t know what I was doing. But then, after a while I was like, well this isn’t dangerous, it’s not that scary. It’s actually wildly meditative. You have to be really quiet and gentle and move slow. You have to be very conscious of how you’re interacting with the bees. In a weird way it became this meditative sort of yoga-like experience.
Instead of me looking for danger I found this meditative, calming state of mind that I had never thought about engaging before.
I see success as a relative term and usually not something I think about when making work. I personally find that the failures or "mistakes" that happen while working usually end up being the greatest successes. I guess this is why I choose to work spontaneously. Sure it's incredibly satisfying to sell work and connect with collectors, but for me it's not really what determines if a piece is successful or not. I find that true success is often more about making meaningful work and finding some kind of peace within the creative process itself.
Currently I'm working some new collages and larger mixed media work for a show with Joram Roukes at Masters Projects in DUMBO.
It opens Jan 29th, 2015. I'll be showing over 20 recent and new works, probably the largest amount of my work ever showed together. Plus Joram's work is incredible and a perfect match to mine so I'm very excited and looking forward to the opening.
I’m hoping at least 2-4 pieces will be large ones. I normally don’t work this size [large] just in paper. Usually when I work large it’s more with mixed media and painting. I don’t really like to work large. I like the intimacy of the small work.
Near the end of his career, Rothko, abandoned all attempts at responding to those who inquired after the meaning and purpose behind his paintings. Finally responding that silence is 'so accurate'. How would you describe the meaning and purpose behind your work?
I see my work simply as a reflection of the current world we live in, with all its ugliness and cruelty. But within my work I strive to find the beauty and empathy underneath it all, the things that truly make us human. For me, collage as a medium in many ways replicates the frenetic and inherent collisions of people, cultures and emotions we all experience. I think too since my work is created spontaneously and in-the-moment the fundamental meaning is always derived, tempered and intertwined with current topics and associations I've formed over time. In the end I believe instinct and necessity are the two biggest [reasons] why I create and ultimately the sources from which the meaning in my work is derived.