Most of us work on a computer every day but how many of us consider its inner workings and what happens to them when the computer has past its use-by date? British cook-turned-artist Julie Alice Chappell rarely sits at a computer but knows her way around e-waste and the discards of technology so well that she can see beauty where others see rubbish dump.
After coming to art later in life, she has found her niche in creating beautiful bugs, butterflies and dragonflies using the remnants of unwanted computers. And now she has such a following and demand that her pieces get snapped up quicker than you can swat a fly! Even if you aren’t partial to a bug-eyed creature, you can’t help but be mesmerised by her detailed, colourful and realistic Computer Bugs and Circuit Board Butterflies. Here, Julie Alice talks about her work and her passion for protecting the environment.
Tell us about yourself and your background and how you’ve ended up where you are today?
When I was 19 I moved to Portsmouth to study the Art Foundation course at Portsmouth Art College. I stayed in Portsmouth and my children grew up here. In more recent years I attended Portsmouth University for four years, full time, studying Contemporary Fine Art BA (Hons) as a mature student but I consider myself to be a ‘self-taught’ artist. Upon completing my degree three years ago, I decided to give up my job as a cook and throw myself into my freelance art business.
On your Twitter account, you describe yourself as ‘artist/painter/photographer/creator of miniature worlds and subversive taxonomies exploring themes around the exploitation of nature’. Please explain.
Since going to university to study Contemporary Fine Art and learning about using ‘the found object’, the ‘ready-made’ and themes around this concept including the ‘altered ready-made’ as art, I wanted to find a way to bring the theoretical concepts involved into an art form which makes sense in the era in which we live. An art which relates to current environmental issues. An art form that could convey a serious message at the same time as being captivating for the audience and an art form which would turn people‘s thoughts to the beauty of the natural world and the threats facing it.
The first upcycled conceptual/contemporary piece I created was a called ‘Chaffinch’ and made from found glass, wire and lead. A tiny Victorian handmade bird was used, combining the old with the new. This was one of my first ‘subversive dioramas’ which was a comment on the man-made and its effects on the natural world.
Our way of life poses many threats on many levels to the natural environment. People are becoming increasingly aware of the current trend of ‘planned obsolescence’ and capitalist greed. Planned obsolescence is the absurd practice of designing products purposely to have a limited life span in order to maximise profits based on the false notion that infinite economic growth can be balanced by the finite recourses of the earth. This is especially so for the computer technology companies and it is this planned obsolescence which inspires my own work, the Computer Bugs, which are a direct response to the huge amounts of e-waste in the natural environment.
When and why did you begin exploring with discarded circuit boards?
The use of old electronic components in my work was first inspired when I found a box full of electronic bits and pieces at The Beneficial Foundation in Portsmouth – a craft bank – and my thoughts turned to the worrying trend of planned obsolescence. I wanted to find a way to re-use them in ‘found art’. While contemplating them I realised they actually looked like bugs with all their colourful and metallic bodies, wire legs and antennae. This is how Computer Bugs began. I then started to look out for discarded computers and gadgets in my local area which I would bring home to take apart.
Tell us about your creative process. Do you do a lot of research into the types of insects and butterflies you’d like to make? How do you make the wings?
In all my work I like to mix traditional techniques with the new. For example, with my Computer Bugs I hand-paint the wings in the meticulous style of the illustrations in old entomology reference books and then transform them with up-to-date design technology using computer design programmes and adding circuit board veins to the wings. When displaying the Bugs I incorporate ideas surrounding museology and the Victorian diorama but with a contemporary and often, subversive twist.
Who or what inspires you?
The natural world inspires me! Many artists inspire me especially artists whose work takes on natural and organic forms such as Chihuly and his beautiful glass work. Often it is something about an artist’s work that is a little controversial. The dystopian cities in miniature, created from discarded computer casings by Franco Recchia and Leonardo Ulian which suggest a kind of ‘worship’ of computer technology. My Computer Bugs, being from an imaginary future where they have evolved from the pollution left by the human race, have elements in them that echo, sometimes in the slightest ways, ideas within the work of other artists. One such artist is Cornelia Hesse-Honnege whose beautiful watercolour illustrations detail deformities in bugs found near nuclear power stations. Her work is often in opposition with the scientific orthodoxy. Damien Hirst’s controversial Entomology series has provoked my Bug Mandalas (work in progress), an alternative version in which no creatures are killed. The Victorian artist and biologist Ernst Haeckel’s Art Forms of Nature, 1899, the beautiful illustrations, a combination of art and science, the arrangements of creatures and the effects of the symmetry he used and the occasional exaggeration of his creature’s colours and forms in his stunning lithographic plates have influenced my Multi Bug Sculptural Arrangements.
How do you like to work best ie explain your ideal working conditions and environment?
In my studio, alone, with music playing loudly! If the neighbours are out.
What would be your dream project? Explain.
The ‘Japanese Butterfly Tree’ is my dream project for the moment. I’m currently working on a Japanese blossom tree made from recycled wire, life-size, with my Circuit Board Butterflies. It’s going to take some time.
It’s not very cool, but I really like … finding old frames with real pinned butterflies or old glass domes with dried out, rare or extinct butterflies and wildflowers in car boot sales. I have an idea for these but for now it’s a secret.
Have you ever had a ‘who’d have thought’ moment?
Upcoming exhibitions …
I’ll be taking part in a local group exhibition, The Summer Exhibition at The Art House in Southampton. It’s all about bees and the danger they are in.
Thanks so much Julie Alice!
You can find Julie Alice on FaceBook @ https://www.facebook.com/pages/Julie-Alice-Chappell-Artist
And you can email her @ firstname.lastname@example.org.