By Wendy Verlaine/May 9, 2013
What do M&M’s, Godiva Chocolates, Butterfingers, Tide, Crest Toothpaste, Junior Mints, and Life Savers all have in common? “Wrapper artist” Charlotte Kruk. This creative force labors over candy wrappers and packaging with the same intensity and level of craftsmanship as a haute couture seamstress. Her art pieces are made of hundreds of wrappers, each carefully stitched side by side, evolving into a “new textile” which she calls “wearable sculpture.”
“I slyly wink at a culture that often compares women, particularly well-dressed women, to decorations, consumables, ‘eye candy.'” Charlotte Kruk
When I attended Charlotte’s San Francisco art opening at Dogpatch Café & Gallery sponsored by the Museum of Craft and Design, the excitement which surrounded her felt like a sugar high. This was one of countless California exhibits of her work, including shows at San Francisco’s Legion of Honor and the San Jose Museum of Art. I had to learn more.
I visited Charlotte in her home and back yard studio and was immediately charmed by this multifaceted artist and high school art teacher. She wore her hair up, fastened by a pink fabric flower. With a cup of tea and sitting across from one another in a restaurant booth in her kitchen, our lively conversation began…
WENDY: Your wrapper art works are extravagant examples of fine detail and imagination and a clever vehicle for your concerns about conservation, messaging in advertising and the psychology behind our fashion choices. How do you organize and construct the hundreds of tiny wrappers embellished with metalsmithed details into haute couture “sculptures”?
CHARLOTTE: I may start by researching history and images. Often I have to stop in the middle of things to learn a new skill before I can execute my vision. To preserve and strengthen my work I sew a plastic covering over each label. I have to cobble together 4-5 patterns to build my own working pattern.
WENDY: Are you changing the wrappers into “sculpture-wear’ in part to unravel their message and expose a myth behind the marketing promise?
CHARLOTTE: There are so many layers to what I’m doing and how it is received. I started thinking about it in terms of packaging and the promises within a package. I sew these things (wrappers, packaging) back together to original form, but with a new intent.
WENDY: You mention the influence your two grandmothers had on you. One represented conservation and the other extravagance, the yin and yang of human nature.
CHARLOTTE: Yes, one grandmother represents the Depression Era, saving the Christmas paper and bows for re-use, and my other grandmother lavishly designed extravagant presents. I’m part of the two. I have to have the extravagant richness, but need to preserve it, too, re-purposing it.
WENDY: Your Marie Antoinette sculpture dress evolved when you suddenly decided to join a photography group which was going to France. You researched various ideas but chose this icon. Why?
CHARLOTTE: The C & H sugar packaging is a fun play on Marie Antoinette’s ‘Let Them Eat cake.’ It’s ‘Let Them Bake Cake’ and has all the ingredients and décor of a wedding cake.
WENDY: Was it great fun to wear it in Paris?
CHARLOTTE: Yes! Tourists and Frenchmen flocked to have their picture taken with me. The French thought I WAS French. I’m bummed I didn’t wear it more, especially at Versailles, but it rained.
“People ‘package’ me alongside fashion designers, but that makes me feel a little confused…”
WENDY: Your art pieces, which you refer to as sculptures, can be worn. Does this cause confusion?
CHARLOTTE: I studied art, not fashion. People “package” me alongside fashion designers, but that makes me feel a little confused, at a loss because that isn’t what I am thinking.
WENDY: You are masterful at playing with image. Your humor and tongue in cheek “eye candy” may at first lead us on a lighthearted fantasy tour, but a second look prompts questions as provocative as those of the 1980’s rebellious punk designers with their use of safety pins and spike hardware. It seems you are rebelling, too.
CHARLOTTE: Yes. I slyly wink at a culture that often compares women, particularly well-dressed women, to decorations, consumables, or “eye candy.”
WENDY: Do you think many people feel dressing like an advertisement, such as a Ralph Lauren ad, can compensate for natural disadvantages?
CHARLOTTE: Paying huge amounts to say you’re wearing the design of someone else is something I don’t understand. Is it the hook to fit in? I’m making the point that in dressing you don’t have to conform. Use your own creativity to define yourself.
WENDY: Your M&M Matador sculpture outfit took six years to complete. It is a masterpiece of detailed stitching with hundreds of sequins and metal work embellishments. Was this sculpture a turning point for you?
CHARLOTTE: Yes, I felt my work needed to have a deliberate statement. I began to think about what costume means, and that what we choose to wear means something.
It’s about our affiliations with our own style, how we package ourselves for society and present ourselves. I asked myself what is the bravest and most decorated suit one can wear? It was the Matador.
WENDY: Tell me about the Flamenco Dancer with its layers of M&M ruffles
. You refer to it as the “duality of self,” meaning we are part feminine and masculine.
CHARLOTTE: We naturally contradict ourselves. So with the Matador, I then had to make the Flamenco Dress. This is the opposite side of the question or contradiction. The extra long ruffle represents the connection between them.
WENDY: You were asked to make a piece for Roseanne Barr. It is magnificent and reminds me of Dior couture. You even embellished the cape with
hand-made metalsmithed details. What did Roseanne think of the piece?
CHARLOTTE: Her people came to me and asked me to design a piece. She loves Godiva Chocolates, so I thought this was the perfect one. But we had “some problems” so I had them give it back. That’s why I don’t want to make work that other people consume. That’s why I teach!
WENDY: What stops you from venturing into more visually controversial territory like the Madonna corseted—pointed bra?
CHARLOTTE: You know what stops me? The way that I was raised. And I have a super gentle mom whom I wouldn’t want to offend. So it will likely keep me in some slight, gently-contained form. But I am always reaching outside of that, too.
WENDY: You like playing with the repeat of image on wrapper after wrapper, something Andy Warhol did. You are often compared to him.
CHARLOTTE: Yes, but I wasn’t influenced by Warhol. I learned a lot about him much later. Now I am so interested in seeing what he did. I love the original pre-cut sheets of candy wrappers.
WENDY: Thank you, Charlotte, for delighting us with your work. We look forward to more of your magnificent artistry, humor and teasingly poignant messages.
Charlotte reminds us that fashion is both social and political. She prompts us into thinking about what we reveal about ourselves with our fashion choices. What are we thinking when we dress one way one day and differently the next, be it fanciful or a serious quest? How quick are we to draw an impression by what someone wears? At the same time she encourages us to play with our persona. What are you thinking the next time you puzzle over what to wear?
Charlotte will be traveling her work to Los Angeles for an exhibition at Craft in America titled, “Good Enough to Eat: The Fusion of Food and Craft.” (Below is Charlotte’s Candy Art video that shows more of her designs.)