Words: Kazeem Kuteyi Photography: Kahlil Hernandez.
When I was in high school, my mom would scold me for binge-watching television shows instead of doing my homework. In between the yelling, my dad would quip, “If this was a Chinese household, you wouldn’t be watching television”. He’d also add that many of the children who were of Chinese descent became medical doctors because of their hard work, a career path they so desperately wanted me to follow. Charlotte Mei is a curious case and during our conversation she validates my dad’s comment that “Chinese people have a notoriously strong work ethic”.
I say she’s a curious case because instead of riding the 9-5 train or living the never-ending shift of a doctor, she embraced her creativity and has built a name for herself by simply illustrating what comes to her mind. Her ability to tap into her childhood to create groundbreaking work has earned her the opportunity to do work for numerous clients, including global brands like Converse and music artists like Ryan Hemsworth and Hudson Mohawke. She’s even met the Duchess of Cambridge, Kate Middleton, while running a community project. Our in-depth conversation touches on topics regarding her inspirations, her thoughts on creativity and the ever-so-controversial topic of whether school is important for the young creative who is trying to get ahead.
Why do you do illustration?
I’ve always loved drawing. I was into video games and anime as a kid and I’d always draw characters and, you know, cartoons and stuff. Then I went to school and I didn’t realize you could do this as a job.
Which university did you go to?
I went to Camberwell College, which is part of the University of the Arts, London.
Did your family support what you were into?
I was brought up by my mom, who is Chinese, and Chinese people have a notoriously strong work ethic – so she was quite surprised when she learned I wanted to do this as a job. She’s always supported me, but I do have to convince her that I’m doing well.
Do you think that doing creative work is a risk as opposed to a 9-5 or is every type of work a risk?
I don’t think you are risking financial stability if you do a 9-5 job. You’re just risking never having fun again. I mean, everyone’s different, some people thrive off the routine but for me, I can’t imagine doing the same thing for the rest of my life. I feel super lucky to be in a position where I basically get to do my hobby for a job.
And speaking of not doing one thing, I feel your ideas transcend into other mediums; for example, your ceramics. How did you get into that?
I took an evening class in ceramics and I really enjoyed it, so I ended up doing my final project and exhibition in ceramics. It got picked up at the show and a few people bought my work. I only considered it as a project really but it just took off, and I’ve been doing it ever since then. I don’t consider myself a technical ceramicist; I think most schooled ceramicists who would see my work would be like, ‘What is that, what’s that technique?” because I don’t use normal techniques – I just love to use it as a way to express playfulness in the same way that I do painting.
What’s creativity to you?
Um, that’s such a hard question. I feel like people always want to create and that maybe we were made to create. Not everyone goes into creative subjects, but in one way or the other, I think everyone creates in some way. I, personally, would feel pointless if I wasn’t creating anything; it just gives me some meaning and a reason to get up every day.
“I, personally, would feel pointless if I wasn’t creating anything; it just gives me some meaning and a reason to get up every day.”
Do you think people are born with it?
Yeah, I mean, if you look at kids and stuff, I guess one would say yes. Because you can see it early on. And it’s not necessarily creating things out of nowhere, but it’s more about taking in your surroundings and interpreting them in a way that’s different from the norm.
How do you get your ideas?
Nothing’s changed since when I was a kid. I’m still very much into cartoons and games. Everyday stuff really, funny moments and my friends.
You talk about your childhood influencing your work. For anybody that wants to be creative, do you feel like they tap into that childlike behaviour? Personally, when I think of ideas, I sorta just think I’m playing.
Yeah, there’s something to be said for that. I mean, growing up is about learning all of the things you have to do, like social rules and stuff, and when you’re creating you have to drop all those inhibitions. I suppose creativity is quite contrary to what you normally have to do. Let’s say if you were working in an office or a shop – you’d have to get out of that normal frame of mind that there’s only one way to doing things.
In every discipline there are rules. Do you feel like you have to learn them before you break them to create something new?
Yeah, I feel like there’s value in learning craft, especially if that’s what you want to do. But I don’t think it’s crucial if you’re a creative person. I feel like you can form your own ways of doing things. I think it comes down to how much you want it and how much time you spend doing it. Like if you want to become an amazing ceramist and you want to learn certain techniques, you might also decide that you want to use the materials but use it in a completely new way and just ignore all the previous conventions.
What was the first project that made you go, oh, I think I’ve made it?
Haha, I don’t think I’ve made it!
Well, you do this full time. There’s something to be said about that.
Yeah, it’s been a gradual thing. I started off being part-time, having a part-time job, and working on this half and half. I was supporting myself having a part-time job and I’ve gradually diminished that until now when I’m able to support myself through freelance work. It’s been very slow but to think that last year this was a dream for me – that makes me really happy. The reason I wake up every day and do it is just because I want to make it work and I know that I can. I really want to make enough money to sustain myself doing this practice and I know it can be really difficult for creatives to pursue their dreams and aspirations – so if I can do that I’ll be truly fulfilled.
If you had a 15-year-old that wanted to do something similar to you, what would you say to them?
I would say that if you have something creative that you want to achieve like I did, you have to believe that you can do it. You need to work hard. It’s something that’ll take so many hours. And I think the notion that you have to go to school, and then get a job shouldn’t be so rigid. There other ways of doing things and I think that’s starting to sort off seep through younger peoples’ brains. There are numerous ways of making a living – you don’t have to go out and do the same thing that your parents did.
So you’re sorta saying that school is not necessary?
Or is it, if it works for you, it works for you?
Yeah, different things work for different people. Although I did have great times at school and I have great friends, part of me feels like school prepares you for work and to be an employee. I don’t know – it’s structured so rigidly and I’m certainly not saying that I’ve come up with something better because I haven’t, but it does force your mind into feeling like you have a certain path that you have to follow. You sorta just have to break that train of thought. But I don’t disagree with ‘school’ per se, just with the traditional framework which is at odds with creativity, and places creative subjects on the lowest rungs of the timetable, it systematically devalues them when creativity is important to society, industry, culture and morale.
Do you think we’re living in an era where young people want to do things on their own?
Yeah. At least I’m witnessing some change right now. I do some projects with 12 year-olds who are learning about entrepreneurship and stuff. I’m the artist who shows them technical things, and how they can think creatively and stuff, but these guys are 12 and they’re already being told if they want to start their own businesses, they can. I had no idea that you could start your own business unless you were already rich. I would’ve never thought that was possible when I was 12, so I guess kids growing up now are learning new ways of progressing.
Is it difficult to merge the creativity and the business side of things?
I find it really difficult running a business. I’ve been selling ceramics from my online shop for a couple of years now. As that gained momentum I was doing more and more administrative stuff and I got to a point where it’s like, no, this is not what I wanted to do. I just wanna design stuff. I don’t wanna make the same thing over and over again and post them out to a million people. It was great for a while and I felt really lucky to being doing that, doing something that I’ve created for myself, but it also felt that I was losing something that I really wanted to do. As it’s gone on, I’ve found ways to manage that and I’ve got a really good balance now. I still have to do a little admin, inevitably, and I’m still bad at answering emails, but you just have to do your best to keep on top of that.
Do you think it’s important for successful creatives to give back? I mean you’re working with 12 year-olds, which I think is cool.
For me, I don’t feel like I’m necessarily giving back. I’m doing it because I really like working with kids and I think it’s a fun chance to do something creative with people who are not inhibited by the same thing adults are. For creatives in general, I tend to think that their output is what they’re getting back and if they have a social message, that’s cool, but not everyone is programmed to have that social side. I don’t think you have to as a creative but I think it’s great to set an example for the younger generations.
Were you ever in a position where you wanted to give up?
I think I can be very pessimistic at times, but I tend to see challenges as challenges and something to work on for the next time. Somebody said (I don’t know who) that failure is one of the most important stages in the creative process, because if you’re constantly succeeding in your ideas, what is going to drive you to work harder and think more? I mean, if you feel like you’ve hit the ultimate success level and creativeness, what is going to drive you to carry on? So having those little things go wrong and making mistakes can be the basis of really exciting change. I don’t think it’s a bad thing.
View more of Charlotte’s work here
Follow Charlotte: Instagram.