I am reposting this wonderful interview I did many months ago of an extraordinary artist.
Close your eyes. Imagine yourself walking in a verdant wood. It bustles with life; squirrels, chipmunks, woodpeckers, hawks, insects, birds, bees… creatures alive, scampering and swooping with purpose, important lives of their own to lead, families to provide for.
You come to a road. On that road is one such animal, struck down. Maybe you continue on, or maybe you find a stick and gently move it off the road, hiding it in a grassy area off to the side, a simple burial. For a short moment, you ponder the fragility of life…then move on.
Charlie Mclenahan does not move on.
The friend said
It would not matter to me,
or the world to let them die
I believe the friend, is wrong (Charlie)
All day yesterday I wrestled with how to introduce her work, how I could put my intense feelings about it into words, how I could do it justice and make it stay with you, reader and viewer, as it has stayed with me. I cannot possibly describe the intensity of what her photos represent to me. The theatricality she has created in the scenes, the juxtapositioning of the posable drawing model... stiff, hard, unreal, human-manufactured in contrast with the dead bird- once vital, once alive, soft - and the excellence of the lighting and technical skill, is poetry in photography. I was absolutely blown away by the stories created and by the emotions culled from me while looking at her work.
Words are not important to Charlie; like life, they have purpose while needed, and are quickly forgotten when not.
It is the image that speaks.
A little background….Charlie lives in Moray, Scotland.
She has tons of pets and a husband, does animal first aid, and is a vegetarian. She loves books: making books, designing books and reading books. Charlie has a little fun hand made book about Bramble Heston Thomas Gore – her pet mouse - out at the moment, limited to 25 copies and given in return for the receiver making a donation to an animal charity of their choice.
hated school, was severely bullied by pupils and tutors for being different so never went much. She did want to go to art school, but her secondary school refused to sign the application paper, so instead she spent time in the Tate and other local London art galleries, museums and graveyards, drawing, painting and modeling. A few years back Charlie became a mature student at Moray School of Art UHI and got a BA in 2009. Charlie states, “Art school was amazing, had it not been for art school I would never have had the opportunity to explore photography (dark room and digital) as an art form. The negatives have to be the student loan that will have to be paid back.”
Charlie has exhibited her paintings in galleries previously, but this new photographic work has been a tough sell.
In all ways, I identify with Charlie. When you make work ripped from your soul, with a strong message to impart, it is difficult for most viewers to digest or consider collecting. Charlie and I both have, as she put it, “art in (our) bones and soul”. We are compelled, propelled and trying not to get felled….moving on, doing what comes from great passion and inner need, despite a lack of monetary or marketing success. As a vegetarian myself for 23 years now, it is with mutual compassion that we view the natural world; Charlie's shows the possibilities of alternative behavior by humanizing dead animals, and I create pieces and environments that transport one away from the negative, into an imaginary, wacky and wonderful world; at any rate, both of us are dissatisfied with the destruction and desecration we see happening in our world…and are trying to help viewers see things in a way that is full of consideration for all living things and a reverence and wonder at the beauty of the natural world.
Describe your present work:
My present work is a gentle, intense scream in the face of society.
I show the viewer the unseen. (The being of the nonbeing…Love the writings of Plato) The dead are given peace, in most images, but some are a little harder.
This latest work first started as a response to rereading the book by Rachel Carson ‘Silent Spring’. I have worked within the horticultural trade and it has made me realize how many chemicals are freely available that are designed to kill and how nature has a balance that man is wrecking. I now want to show all the deaths, Window kill, Road kill and other premature deaths directly and indirectly caused by man.
These images are designed to reflect the common belief that art should be saleable, inoffensive and without meaning. My work reflects none of these qualities, but displays, on first glance all of these qualities. It is the over sentimentality and over-sized image of the dead that allows the viewer to really look at the photograph, to engage and understand the emotion, in what is an unemotional image of still life, using wooden mannequins and dead animals. The work is a sugar coated reminder to society that when we live in a world void of wildlife, we have no world to live in. Nature can only repair so much damage to the planet, once pushed beyond a point of no return then man has not won the battle to be supreme ruler of all he has made, the has lost the balance between life, death and immortality.
The work is a juxtaposition of the mortal and immortal.Your main artistic medium:
I am now almost exclusively using digital photography for this work; my camera is a Panasonic Lumix DMC ZF50 no longer in production, so spares are now cheaper for it. I tend not to edit the images as it’s all set up in the shot, but if I do edit, I use Aperture 3. I have in the past used Photoshop but only use it if for the odd graphic design image now, I have gone past exploring Photoshop for my art images; the less my photographs are edited the better it is for them.
The photographer was once feared as a collector of souls, and I collect little lost souls to make them immortal within my work. Photography now suits this work best.
How do you feel about your present work?
Impotent, powerless, helpless, ineffective, should I go on…
Every time I get a new little soul to photograph I have failed.
Every time I get rejected from a gallery I have failed.
This work is not for me now, it’s for all the dead I have photographed, and so have a duty to get them seen, to create immortality for them.
Describe your process:
The process almost always involves a lot of tears, not all from me…sometimes if it’s road kill and the driver stopped to pick it up for me they can be quite emotional. Window kill is also quite upsetting for the ones who witness it. I tend to tap into this emotion and translate within the images. Sometimes it’s anger… the images are more extreme if it’s anger.
How did you start doing art? Why?
I didn’t start… It’s something I have always done. I have no memory of not drawing, painting, modeling it’s just something I do. When I was a child I was always collecting little dead animals, taking them home to keep them safe. As a child I loved the ‘immortalizesness’ of the taxidermy animals in the National history museum. (I cannot do taxidermy my self, as a vegetarian I find it impossible to cut into any animal; almost all the animals I get are photographed and buried)
How important is art to you?
I could not imagine my life without it. My art is my life, its always been there and the one constant in a changing life. It is important that I see other art; other artists’ work is so different, refreshing. Art is everywhere now and easy to find via the web, so it can be enjoyed and seen.
What was the first piece of art you did? What do you think about it now?
I cannot remember the first ever. I used to have books full of drawings of the statues in the graveyard at
Abney Park Cemetery, North London. But I was drawing and painting long before this. My first real art photographic piece while at college was a photograph of a bloody dead vole I coved with a small piece of white silk. The blood of the vole was seeping through the silk. It was death being covered with death, as the silkworms are killed to get the silk. It was then I knew this was what I needed to be working on. I feel now it was inspired. I went on to animation for a short while afterward, as I wanted to make the image last longer in the mind of the viewer. Sadly, I lost the vole silk image and others at that time due to a spectacular hard drive crash of my PC that took the external hard drive along with it. I lost a lot of great images in that first crash. I now use two computers (Mac & PC) and have two external hard drives of different makes to store my work.
Who/what inspires you?
Nature and life, my work is very focused but touched by everything I see, hear, taste, touch and feel. I also read the Tarot Cards; they can help to decide what needs doing.How has your work changed recently? Why?
Adding the mannequins has given my work a human connection. I wanted to show the five stages of grief and the use of a mannequin was easy way to portray anyone, every one.
Do you plan out your art?
Yes, I sketch, and make little mock ups of items. But, as I never know what the next body will be, this just gives me an idea, for an idea. When I get a new little soul I will spend some time with it, hold it, talk to it, then start to photograph.
Are you currently working on a commission and, if so, what is it and how did you get it?
No, commissions are not my style since I stopped painting. But I do have a friend’s dead hamster to photograph! A few years back I did design the image to edge the pages in a book of remembrance at The Oaks, a hospice local to me.
Do you sell much work? Do you care?
My work is not about selling, it’s about seeing, has art got to be for sale?
My work is for sale but the price is high, so no one buys it, I would like to sell more via books or as a collection to a gallery rather than individual pieces.
How do you network with other artists?
On line, lots of webs and groups. I am not good at getting out to galleries; they are all so far away now.
What about your art makes you feel passionate? Why?
Creating immortality, trying to change the world.
Why, because I am creating immortality and trying to change the world!
Do you follow politics? Does it inform your work?
I am a Green, but not active. Environmental issues are a big part of my work.
Where are you from?
I was born and lived in London most of my early life, in 1999 I moved to Scotland.
What arts groups do you belong to?
I do not join art groups per say, but do join lots of online art groups.
I am not good at being a team player, group shows, fundraising by selling work and coffee mornings are just not my thing.
Name an artist who has inspired you.
Helen Chadwick is the artist I respect the most for influencing my work along with Olivier Richon and Karl Bossfeldt, and so, so many more.
Name a book that has inspired you.
Silent Spring by Rachel Carson
Name anyone else outside of art who has inspired you.
Rachel Carson, and Bill Mckibben, read somewhere that Bill had written ‘We never thought that we could kill nature, we thought it was too vast and strong’ well, something like that, cannot remember all of it but have it in one of the sketchbooks, somewhere, if the mold and mice have not destroyed it.
How do you network?
On line, linked in, JPG world in pictures, behance, Flicker and so many others
How do you think people would describe your work?
It can be extreme, some really hate it, and they have describe it as ‘sick’. I had some framed images prematurely removed from the hall way in college, as it caused too many complaints from students, staff and the public.
Others do understand the work and say it is ‘inspired’ or ‘unique and without peer’.
Do you view art conceptually or formally?
Do you win a lot of prizes?
No, I don’t enter competitions
What do you think is the role of technology in art today?
Excellent. It is, and isn’t, important. I love the internet… to be able to view art from all around the world when and where I want to. It is also changing art in ways we have not realized yet.
Did you always want to be an artist?
I have never wanted to be an artist, I just am.
If you had one piece of advice to give someone just starting out as an artist, what would it be?
Be true to yourself. Don’t just chase the money; make the art that’s in your soul, not just to fill your pocket. Get into a good Art School if you can. Also remember your research is as important as your technique and know your subject inside out.
What special projects are you presently involved with?
I am trying to get a book of images published by a major publishing house, so fingers crossed that it works out.
My fingers are crossed for you, Charlie....you are amazing!