Interview: Artist Charlotte Spafford

What is the nature of a mimicked object, especially when the object that ceases to serve its categorical imperative? When we remove an object from its context, how does its meaning change—and how can we then designate its function? Vancouver artist Charlotte Spafford tackles the Ship of Theseus problem of the art object in her project Precious Things, a collection of items imbued with sentimentality and emotion by loved ones and strangers alike, then recreated in Charlotte's own style. 

Precious Things open tomorrow night, June 22, for a one-night-only exhibition at 434 Columbia Street. Don't miss it!

Megan Jenkins: Tell us about yourself! Your art practice, how you got to this part of your practice, where you plan on going?

Charlotte Spafford: Hi! My name is Charlotte, I’m an abstract mixed media artist exploring precious objects in my work. I use a wide variety of materials—everything from glitter and string to paint and ink to create delicate, small-scale artworks.

I’ve always been interested in making, collecting, and arranging. Prior to this body of work, whenever I went on a hike or out into nature, I collected natural objects that seemed precious to me—interesting shaped leaves, pretty rocks, etc. I then arranged these objects and re-created them as 2D artworks that were a record of time, place, and season.

In January, I got a grant from the DTES Small Arts Grants, and wanted to use the grant for a project that had a participatory element, as well as more of a community focus. I got submissions from people across Vancouver of a photograph of their most precious object, along with a short description of why it is precious, which I then re-created into small mixed-media artworks. I’ve always been interested in what we value and what it says about who we are, and I felt this would be a great way to work with these ideas. I also like the creative challenge of re-creating objects that I wouldn’t normally choose, or have access to—as a way of expanding my visual vocabulary.

Moving forward, I’m hoping to continue to pursue the theme of precious things—my natural precious objects project is ongoing, as I want to capture the places I visit and the change in seasons over a number of years. I may also look into sculpture and installation… I’m fascinated by the physical acts of making and arranging things, which would translate well in 3D.

MJ: What is Precious Things about? What can viewers expect from the show?

CS: For Precious Things, I have received over 60 precious object submissions, which I have re-created as ‘art objects’ and then collected and arranged to create new artworks. There will be an installation of the precious objects, as well as a selection of larger works inspired by the objects.

I’m interested in what happens when these objects are in a room together. Most of the objects are unremarkable things that have deep meaning and rich stories—things like books, cups, teapots, pendants, rocks, etcetera. I’ve used my own style when re-creating these things—which includes elements of simplicity, delicacy, and whimsy—so the objects will be seen from a new perspective.

MJ: How does the act of recreating precious things and placing them in a new context, like collages, change their meaning or nature?

CS: I see it as creating new relationships—between the submitter, the viewer, the artist, and the objects themselves. As much as the elements and the meaning of the original objects is present in this show, it is an exhibition of my collection. In a way, it calls into question who these objects belong to now, and what the role of the artist really is. I am influenced by museum artefact collections, but by collecting and arranging things that are still in use by their owner, I am changing the narrative a bit.

MJ: How do you relate personally to items that other people cherish?

CS: I find it fascinating and heart-warming to hear the stories of people’s precious things. I also work part-time as an art therapist and program coordinator in long-term care, so I get a pretty clear view of the impermanence of life. When someone passes away, their precious things are really the only physical record of who they were and what they loved. These are the things that get passed down to children and grandchildren, and perhaps put in museums one day to show future generations who we were.

MJ: How does sentimental value translate into your practice? Where is it evident, if at all?

CS: I don’t think about sentimentality very much in what I do. This project inherently does have a bit of a sentimental flavour, but because the objects are abstracted, it takes some careful examination to uncover it. I want to create the objects as I see them, from my perspective—which strips some of the original meaning and sentiment. I’m ok with that—I'm interested in creating new meaning.

Don't miss the opening of Precious Things at 434 Columbia Street tomorrow night, for one night only. You can find more of Charlotte's work