Charlotte Duffy is a cardboard connoisseur. For her, it’s all about the fluting – the width of the waves in the corrugated middle layer of a sheet of cardboard. Fine fluting makes the cardboard more pliable, while wide fluting offers more durability. Wherever it sits on the spectrum, every piece of cardboard that enters Charlotte’s Glasgow studio is carefully sorted into the elaborate filing system she has devised and refined over the years.
“It takes up an entire wall,” she says.
Since starting her studio, Waste of Paint Productions in 2010, the self-dubbed ‘Maker of Things’ has developed a habit of scouring street corners, hunting for the perfect crafting cardboard and “gathering as much of it as I can”. But, says Charlotte, finding a piece of cardboard is only the beginning – she also needs to be aware of the finer details, such as the cardboard’s recycling history; specifically how many times it has been broken down and reconstructed.
“[The recycling process] breaks down the fibres and can lead to an almost dusty texture,” she says. “I love getting a new piece and trying to work out what stage of its life cycle it’s at.”
Charlotte’s career as a maker has spanned sculpture, illustration, puppetry and theatre, but she is best known for her work shaping and building sculptures from cardboard. Some of her pieces are miniatures, including a tiny bear that fits in the palm of her hand. Others are built to scale, like her many human faces and a cartoonish flute with cut-out cardboard rounds for keys; details drawn on with a Sharpie. Still more are big enough to climb inside – spaces in which to reclaim a little bit of your childhood sense of wonder.
Playfulness is one of the big themes in Charlotte’s work. Everyone remembers making something out of cardboard, she says, which is what makes it so appealing to work with – it reminds us of a time when we believed we could make anything out of a few simple materials and some imagination.
Charlotte’s parents both work in the arts – her mother is a choreographer and teacher, and her father is an actor and puppeteer – so growing up in Scotland she was given free rein to explore her creativity. On being asked when she first started working with cardboard, she thinks back to age five.
“Our family cat, Tinkerbell, a giant male Maine Coon, was tormenting a mouse, so I made a video camera out of a toilet [paper] tube, a paper bag and an orange juice carton to capture the pursuit.”
Charlotte encourages people to reconnect with their sense of play through building what she has labelled ‘dens’ (what many call cubby houses). Dens have featured in several of her exhibitions, including one that was shown soon after the Scottish independence referendum in 2014. Made from cardboard boxes stitched together in the shape of a cave, the interior of the den was scrawled with political messages. The work served as both a sanctuary and a place to reflect on work yet to be done.
Charlotte says she can remember every den she built as a child. “My favourite was one I built with my dad,” she says. “We clad the A-frame of a broken swing set with railway sleepers and filled it with blankets and old carpet squares. Unfortunately, it became infested with woodlice and earwigs, and eventually became a permanent residence for our chicken.”
She says that a range of people have approached her to share their own stories of childhood dens. “They almost always fit into one of two categories: stories that focused on the act of building itself, and ones that looked at the experience in the den after it was built.
“I find dens meaningful because I think building something, often with other people, allows you to interact with commonplace environments around you in new ways. I don’t understand why we lose that childlike interest in changing spaces around us creatively and temporarily.”
Charlotte has made every effort to maintain that interest for herself and others; she has run den-building workshops for the public, and collaborated with the Scottish Book Trust to help them transform an underused space in their office into a reading den, complete with cardboard walls, fairy lights, curtains and peepholes for spying on the outside world.
“I found it fascinating to see how people who work with each other every day go about making something together,” Charlotte says. “It was also interesting to see how people who are used to interacting professionally adapted to a very playful and childlike environment.”
As well as accepting commissions (think cardboard sculptures of pets to gift to loved ones, or large-scale retail window installations), Charlotte also runs classes for adults to help them explore their creativity and the philosophy behind it. Making art more accessible is her mission.
“I’ve found that so many children and adults believe they can’t draw or can’t make art, and I really think it’s something everyone should feel capable of,” she says. “Often, with adults, it’s about trying to get them back in touch with that childlike urge to make things for fun, without inhibitions. It’s to do with trusting your creative instincts and having confidence in making things.”
In 2015, Charlotte had the opportunity to embrace her inner child and experiment with her own work when she took up an artist-in-residence position at maker’s studio MAKLab.
“It was an incredible experience because I rarely have the time to just play and learn and not be concerned about what comes out of it,” she says.
Drawing on the expertise of other artists at the maker’s studio, Charlotte combined her cardboard creations with discarded electronic equipment, like cassette decks, to create an interactive sculpture titled Will You Still Love Me When I’m Obsolete?
“I wanted to create something that looked at the decay of technology, and the frustration that comes with devices and their inability to interact and synchronise with their newer counterparts,” says Charlotte.
With an honours degree in philosophy from the University of St Andrews, the techniques Charlotte uses to sculpt her detailed, often melancholy, portraits, lively replicas of everyday objects and complex geometric and organic structures are all self-taught. She has found that when it comes to evolving as an artist, focusing on quantity often leads to quality.
“A lot of it has been a matter of trial and error, working things out as I go along,” she says. “But also, for the past four or five years, almost without fail, I’ve made something out of cardboard every day. I just figured that if I kept going it would be impossible to not get better. With every new piece I learn something new.”