An Interview with Charles Wilkin, Graphic Collagist

Ten years ago, graphic designer Charles Wilkin began making collages from found photographs, pages of old catalogs and magazines, and random scraps of text. In them, he has found a professional application of personal expression. He discusses the process and effect with Metropolis senior editor Karen E. Steen.

KS: What inspired you to create collages?
CW: I have an ongoing theme that I’ve been working on for maybe ten years. It’s this idea of taking discarded paper media and trying to transform it into something new. Being a graphic designer, we make so much waste in terms of paper media and printed media. I’m just taking these old things that people toss out and trying to reinvent them and put a little bit of myself into them. It becomes a personal expression, but it also crosses back over into graphic design and trying to find some new commercial use for things. I’m not very good at putting my finger on what it is because I don’t like to do that.

Why don’t you like to do that?
The way I work with the collage is so spontaneous and of the moment. When I start a collage, I don’t really like to know what it’s about until I actually get to a point where I say, “I think it’s done.” I also leave these empty spaces in the work, not meaning physical spaces but in terms of the context or the content. I try to leave a little bit of a void so people can put themselves into it, maybe discover something new for themselves.

So it’s up to people to interpret the links between images?
Exactly. This also comes back to the idea of using discarded media like photographs and stuff out of magazines and books. We’ve all seen it already, so I’m taking this idea of the familiar and reworking it into something that maybe gets you to rethink what you already know. I am trying to skew your perception. That’s why, in terms of a theme, I like to leave it vague and open-ended.

How do you find these images? Are you buying old photographs at thrift stores or looking for recurring things?
I buy a lot of catalogs—Sears catalogs, old Spiegel catalogs—just because they’re full of photos of junk. When I see an image of a piece of machinery, or a landscape, or something, I try to pick it for the associations that it already has and then figure out how to use that as a spring board for people to enter [the piece]. Then by what I surround the image with or how I manipulate it, I can make it something new or unexpected and allow that particular object or image to bring you in. Then, with all of the other things going on, I sort of disorient you so that when you exit, you have a new perception of what you just saw.

I do try to stay away from images that are too obvious or have too much visual baggage—a company or a product or a celebrity. I also try to stay away from images that are super- kitschy, like a retro vacuum cleaner. It’s corny and it’s kind of been done. I don’t think I could get anything out of it or convince people that there’s something new there.

How do the collages inspire the commercial work that you do?
When I approach a project for a client, I try to give it the same spin, the same feel of distressed or found-looking objects or old images. I try to use collage in each commercial piece because I’m really about the merging of personal expression with professional application. When I’m working on a project with a client, especially a client that’s selling a product or service, I think: How would I use this product? What does this product mean to me? How do I feel about it? That’s where it starts, based on those associations that I have—and what the client’s needs are in terms of marketing or look or concept. Then I mix the two and try to get them to work together.

If you’ve read any books about branding, it’s so much about creating this image, not only a visual image that’s recognizable, but also sorting out a way to connect with a client: connecting with how they feel about a brand or creating a mood or feeling that they then associate with that product. That’s what I’m doing, but I’m basing it on this idea of “we’re all emotional beings and we’re all looking for something to connect with.”

This also comes around to this notion of using the familiar: It’s a way to disarm people. People are comfortable with the familiar, so I use that to get them to open up to something, to a product or a service. Then by twisting that reality, I can get them to rethink what’s expected, but also maybe get them to create a new perception about something they’ve already seen or a product that they’ve already been using.

Of course I was not a psychology major and I don’t read books about how to manipulate people. People either get my work or they don’t. And some people are very scared of my work because of that hidden message; you can’t really control it, and I can understand why some people are nervous about that. But when I do commercial work, I think above all about the message the clients want or they need; I try to keep that prominent.

So what are some examples of commercial projects you’ve worked on in this way?
A long time ago I worked with Tommy Steele at Capitol Records, [who asked] me to do an ad for an MTV Awards book. He faxed me four words and said, “Make a piece of art that feels like these words but is not literal.” So he really used me in a way that was very true to my work. He just pointed me in a direction and let me discover it. That’s a perfect example of the way I work and how my work can be used.

In stores right now are some hang tags I did for [clothing company] Express Men’s. They did this whole campaign of tags for their denim; they asked 15 different designers to do hang tags for a specific type of jeans. They asked David Carson, Paula Scher, Neville Brody, all these huge names — and me, right? Here I am, little me. But their whole approach was, “Here’s our jeans, here’s what they’re about. We want you to interpret the style, the cut, and the fashion into your style, then create some sort of mood or feeling based on your philosophy or work.” So I did two hang tags. They have collages on them; they’re in this series.

[Express Men’s] was looking for this personal expression, this added value—not only trying to synch it up with the brand, but also trying to make a statement in terms of how the company views designers and artists.

What is behind your Cyclops theme? You have made at least three different collages where a person has only one eye.
I don’t know. I love cutting the eyes out! It sounds kind of morbid. Whenever I get a photograph of somebody, especially these vintage ones that I get at flea markets for a dollar, there’s a certain part of me that has to, in some way, remove the person’s identity in order to start in on what I’m about to do. While I hope I’m preserving this person’s memory, at the same time I have to cut it out, because when I start a collage, I want to start free of any sort of obvious baggage. I think of that old saying, “When you look into a person’s eyes, you’re looking into their soul.” So I cut the eyes out or I manipulate the eyes because people instantly make a beeline for that.

One [of these collages] has printed matter that says “the careful reader.” That’s one of the older collages. I had found this daily memo book. It would say “February 8” and then it would have some really random quote. I would take those phrases and cut them up and jumble the words to get something new. With those older collages, I would just make the collage, cut words out of books or magazines or whatever, reassemble them, and then just stick them on there to let the association create its own dynamic.

I saw this ’70s documentary on David Bowie. The filmmakers were asking him about his lyrics, and he said that’s what he did: Cut words out of magazines and newspapers and tape them together to get the lyrics for his songs. I thought, “Wow, that is so amazing.” So I applied a similar principal to collage. Eventually I’d find a set of words that made some weird association that worked with the image.

To me, that’s also a theme: words and images. I love type and I love making these weird collages, and I think the combination of the two is really powerful. As a graphic designer, that’s something that you’re taught from the very beginning and that you use on a daily basis. Plus it’s another way to lead people in. I hate to say it, but on some of the newer collages I’ve taken the words off because some people use the words too much as a crutch. They rely on them and think, “Oh, that’s what the message is.” But that’s not always the case. People find a piece of it, and they stick to it and won’t let go.

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