Sculptor and furniture designer Chantal Pitts is not one to accept the tyranny of the masses, she won't be told what to do. Her giant sculptured wooden furniture as art pieces, repurposed from old wood are simply breathtaking, and her in-demand smaller designs are uniquely graceful, charming and at times a little whimsical. Imbued with her urban experience. Then there's the reclaimed, reused and restored pieces often commissioned from the decomissioned detritus of the past. Chantal has a lot happening. No surprises then that it took a while to catch up with her, Chantal's days are sprawled out through the city, children in school across town, studio on the Eastside, home in the West. Chantal's is a big story with a bright future, and when she downed tools to meet at her local coffee shop, her optimism and ambition shone through. Erm, Like a diamond.
Outsideleft: So Wood. Why wood, what made you decide to work predominantly with wood? You use a lot of it too...
Chantal: Well, I spent my whole life trying various mediums from pencil to oils to clay and photography. I dabbled a bit in wood but it’s hard when you don’t have the proper tools. After I got my fine art degree I had my daughter. When she was about a year and a half old I got bored staying at home and decided to go to college to learn some new skills. There was a ‘women only’ furniture making course at the Sheffield College. It sounded awesome, it WAS awesome. I had found my calling. I went on to rent a space in a shared workshop in Sheffield from a wonderful man call Craig Helliwell after I left college. It gave me further access to the tools I needed to carry on with wood. I then met my partner, Nathan and moved to Birmingham where I eventually set up my own workshop/studio in Digbeth.
in the studio
I love the properties of wood. Each piece of wood has its own character and idiosyncrasies. I love the processes used to work it and the textures and the colours and the variety. Each type of wood has its own individual traits which lend themselves to various uses (such as Maple for chopping boards because of density and antibacterial properties or lime and oak for hand carving because it’s easy to work, soft and light etc).
I have a tonne of wood (maybe not literally but possibly) in the workshop. Some of it is very old spruce pine joists from a house that was being renovated. I have all of them I think. Then I had a piece of my work in an antiques shop, the shop later closed down and the owner let me have a load of antique furniture that needed a bit of TLC. I also have a tendency to save small bits, off cuts and end pieces. I just can’t throw them away. They all have potential.
Outsideleft: Do you have favourite woods?
Chantal: My favourite wood at the moment is walnut. It has a richness of colour and a sumptuous quality. I love the texture when carving and the pattern of the grain. But it’s not always suitable for some projects. Sometimes a lighter wood with less character is needed. Oak is another of my favourites. The old reclaimed oak in particular because it tends to be better quality as there was more of it then and the trees were older which provided denser, more mature heartwood. It connotes wisdom, grounding, roots and longevity. It comes with an inherent meaning
Outsideleft: Are there any artists that perhaps you might be able to say influenced your work or even further back, your career choices?
Chantal: I always loved Michaelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci as a child (I know, not very modern, on trend, cutting edge choices, I know but honest nonetheless). I can’t say they inspired me to BE an artist but they inspired me. I was amazed that human hands could create with such accuracy and convey such passion in such a cold medium as marble, and have the innovative ideas and create the amazing exploratory drawings like Da Vinci.
I also loved the perception of the artist per se: The rebel, the watcher, the observer, with passion and eccentricity. They were to me the unconventional and non-conformist voice of emotion and ideas, symbolism and visual rhetoric. The curious and free spirited. Daring to explore and discover the self and the environment.
But ultimately, I just loved making things and drawing ever since I could use my hands autonomously.
Street art and graffiti are my main sources of interest today. I love the use of the everyday, urban surroundings for creativity.
Outsideleft: How is your work evolving would you say?
Chantal: Well, my work has evolved from 2D to relief to 3D over the years. It has merged with furniture and functionality. I like the idea that art has a function. Like my walnut screen that has drawers in the bottom or my corner cabinet with carved figures and comic book style door, inspired by anime and Manga. I’ve explored all manner of materials and techniques and so now I am blending the various styles with wood (predominantly reclaimed). This is evolving somewhat into a more expressive form, more fine art(ish). It’s difficult to bridge the gaps of design, fine art, furniture and craft, which is kind of what I do.
Outsideleft: Let’s do some biography stuff... You studied in Sheffield where you grew up...
Chantal: Yes. I spent most of my life in Sheffield. When I left school I did a hairdressing and beauty therapy course, specialising in plaits and extensions and dreadlocks (quite often on white clients back in the 90’s in the days of Christina Aguilera), it has helped me get by through the years. I then applied for and got a ‘Prince’s Trust’ loan in the late 90’s to open an art shop called ‘Crafty People’. The idea was to sell the work of local artists because I’d always struggled to find a forum in which to market myself and sell my own work. Good intentions were not enough and my shop closed around a year later.
So then I went to Sheffield Hallam University to study industrial Design, initially. I wanted creative discipline. But it wasn’t for me. Not enough scope for self expression and a very much male dominated field. I struggled with the 3D CAD stuff and the macho attitudes to design and (dare I say it) ‘women’! I dropped out of that course and took a couple of separate modules while re-evaluating my direction, one of which was ‘wearing the message, clothing codes and society’, which I thoroughly enjoyed. It stimulated that inquisitive, creative side of me. It was an observational look into the messages that we send when we wear suits, uniforms, fashions, work wear, etc. It reawakened my artistic and expressive spirit so I decided to go back to my roots and finish off with fine art. As I mentioned before, I went on to do the furniture making course where I got a distinction and a student of the year award that I am extremely proud of. In fact, I think I am more proud of my C&G furniture qualification than I am of my degree. My experience at the Sheffield college women’s course was one of the best times in my life. I loved the atmosphere, the work, the supportive and inspirational teachers, and the other students, all of it. After college with the guidance of the tutors I did a PTLLS (preparing to teach in the lifelong learning sector) course at the South Yorkshire Women’s Construction Centre (as it was then known. Now it’s called WICAT, Women in Construction, Art and Technology). It was a 6 week course in which I learned some basic teaching skills. This led me on to teach a basic DIY course for women in Barnsley and Doncaster for the centre.
I’ve done art commissions, hairdressing, cleaning, worked in shops, even onion peeling. One of my favourite jobs though was working at an art shop selling art materials. We were encouraged to use the stock to gain knowledge of the products. I sold a fair bit of art that way too.
in the studio
Outsideleft: And how d'you end up in Bearwood - it's regarded as a burgeoning art and intellectual quarter outside the city confines (and costs)?
Chantal: We moved to Birmingham from Sheffield in 2013. We found a flat in Moseley and lived there for just over 3 years. But then our landlord died and the property was sold and we had to move. We did a search around Moseley and kings Heath because our children go to school there. But we were either priced out or the affordable properties were taken too fast, and we had a deadline. We stumbled on a house in Bearwood and although it was a bit too far from school and what we knew, it was affordable, and we were accepted as tenants (it’s not easy to find a rental when you’re self employed!). I didn’t know Bearwood very well. I had picked up/delivered stock to Clive Mark Schoolwear in Bearwood for the annual school sales as I have worked for them during the summers a few times (the money helps and I get a change of pace and get to know a bit more of Birmingham) but that was all I knew. I asked around to find out a bit more about Bearwood and the reviews were very positive. I have discovered a substantial Creative population here too, with artists, craftspeople, writers and musicians which sounded great to me being an artist. So we made the move and I love it. It feels homely, cool, vibrant, family orientated, friendly. I think it was a good move. It’s affordable too with great shopping, parks, good schools, good bus routes to the city centre and ‘Hagley road’ (it reminds me of my birth town, London). I like that we’re on Harborne’s doorstep too. We’re just starting to explore Smethwick and Oldbury. Bearwood is more affordable than Moseley and Kings Heath and you get more for your money. I read online that Bearwood is to Harborne what Kings Heath is to Moseley. And I can see the similarities. Bearwood is an up and coming area and I feel lucky to have found myself here at this time.
Outsideleft: Now and Next? What's happening with your work?
Chantal: I’m working towards doing some wall mounted pieces inspired by the streets. I’ve been focussing on bricks, dereliction, weeds, and hidden beauty, the often overlooked beauty that is all around us, like a derelict building that has a past, now abandoned. But it’s still living, host to plants and animals, the canvass for graffiti and street art and retains a piece of the city’s history, homage to the skills of the builders and the architect and the lives of the people who once lived or worked there, each brick a once valued fragment of something larger. Like people, people who are forgotten and overlooked and undervalued but that add to the diversity of life. Ghettocentricity is my artist statement and website appendage because finding beauty in the city and/or creating beauty to enhance a place is something that impassions me. It’s also a great platform for ‘speaking to’ and reaching the public with political and social statements. Although I have not done any street art or graffiti myself, they are inspiration for my work. I am currently interested in carved graffiti because it’s the total antithesis of what street art and graffiti are all about. It has a longevity that the original medium doesn’t have. It takes time. Maybe a kind of meditative, slower paced, version of a city life. Less rushed, stressed, frantic, on the edge. Although the ‘fast lane’ and being on the edge have a certain appeal, I am more of a laid back, take time kind of soul at heart. I like the idea of carved bricks too, or bricks as individuals, a kind of testament to the individual within a society.
Craft has been growing in my repertoire of work too. I used to make small mechanical art pieces. Turn a handle and something moves kind of thing. I’m thinking of returning to that concept. They are good fun pieces that are more affordable in these times of social and financial insecurity.
I also make hand-made wooden books with carved or wood burned images or covers.
I think at this stage I’m evolving more towards sculpture than furniture although I love regenerating old, tired furniture or designing and making sculptural furniture I have struggled to find a market for it so far. Maybe I’ll open a pop-up shop for my furniture once I have established myself.
This has been a very cathartic experience. It’s good to remember where you’ve been and where you are and where you’re heading.