Clay peppermint candies adorn the walls of Charlotte Kruk’s home studio in San Jose. (Photo by Magali Gauthier)

Charlotte Kruk is a cross between Donna Karan and…Willy Wonka?

They say our homes embody our personalities, a reflection of what’s going on in our minds. So it’s no wonder then that New Museum Los Gatos (or NUMU) selected local sculpture artist Charlotte Kruk for their latest installment of In The Artist Studio, an exhibition series celebrating not only art, but the artist and the creative spaces that they work in.

Without knowing anything about the outfits she crafts out of candy wrappers and other packaging, passersby need only drive past Kruk’s residence to recognize there’s a creative soul housed within. It’s pretty hard to miss. Look for the San Jose dwelling painted a shade of gingerbread brown with a school of salmon-sized Swedish fish fixed to its walls.

Charlotte Kruk glues a wrapper onto a fortune cookie figurine at her home studio. (Photo by Magali Gauthier)

As one might expect, the whimsy doesn’t stop at her front door. When she welcomes you inside, you’ll discover walls coated in shades of Skittles green, bubble gum pink and gummy shark blue. Three sewing machines perch expectantly on side tables. Vintage Mrs. Buttersworth’s jars line the bathroom window sill, their amber glass glowing in the sunlight.

“Just making a colorful environment makes me super joyful,” she enthuses as she heads to the entrance of her backyard studio.

Enter, and it’s like stepping into a childhood daydream. Within, a host of mannequins posture in candy wrapper ensembles, giving the space a life-sized Candyland-meets-Project Runway kind of vibe. One model sports a graduation cap and gown fashioned from Smarties wrappers. A dashing matador mannequin and his flamenco dancer date flaunt garments of yellow and red M&M’s packets. A plastic lady sprawls leisurely across a countertop in a flapper dress, tiny pink Baskin-Robbins sample spoons for tassels.

The zany playfulness of the space is contagious. Certainly, NUMU’s interest in this artist and her studio is attention well-earned.

Sweet outfit: (clockwise from top left) Kruk’s “Come Fly With Me” stewardess outfit made from Southwest Airlines peanut wrappers; “Charla Antoinette, Let Me Make Cake,” made from recycled sugar bags and flour sacks; Kruk’s tribute to Frida Kahlo made from Mexican candy wrappers; a work-in-progress circus ringleader costume made from Animal Crackers boxes. (Images via Kruk’s Facebook page and Instagram)

Unwrapping her themes

Point to any outfit — from the Bazooka bubble gum suit jacket to the Starburst cocktail dress — and Kruk will happily fill you in on the fascinating stories behind the piece. Take that trio of revealing costumes made of Cherryhead, Lemonhead and Grapehead packaging. Those were for a show featuring Kruk’s samba dancer friend and two other performers. “My girl can shake it,” she notes appreciatively — but then tells of how she danced right out of the dress. “She was so cute! She shimmied off stage and snapped herself back together. And she shimmied back on stage and finished that performance,” Kruk marvels. “Me? I’d have run off stage and you would never have seen me again! She’s such a pro.”

Interested in the backstory behind that Marie Antoinette mannequin with the period ballgown of C&H Sugar bags and Le Boulanger flour sacks? A good portion of this “Let Them Bake Cake” gown was salvaged dumpster diving behind a local bakery. The costume was intended for a Paris photoshoot. So how does one get a voluminous paper dress onto an airplane exactly? “You tell them that it’s your wedding gown,” Kruk says, flashing a mischievous grin. Fortunately, she didn’t have to resort to that backup plan because international flights provide plenty of carry-on space. “First class has this wardrobe closet that you would not believe,” she informs. “So this dress flew better than me!”

As could be expected from working with a myriad of wrappers, Kruk’s recurring themes are multi-faceted and deeply thought out. “There’s so many layers of the way that I’ve thought about what I’m doing and why I’m doing it and why it’s important for me to keep doing it ”

Charlotte Kruk works on a piece of clay shaped like a piece of Hershey’s chocolate that reads “HERSHESAYS” in her backyard studio in San Jose. (Photo by Magali Gauthier)

She pokes fun at expensive brand name-driven luxury clothing. She criticizes the custom of sexualizing women as “eye candy” or just another consumable good. She encourages re-purposing and conservationism in an often wasteful and overindulgent nation. Yet despite weighty messages, Kruk’s artwork remains joyful in tone. She wants to make a point — but “not in a super pointed-finger, shame-y kind of way.” The bright colors and pastels certainly help. As do the delightful designs.

Furthermore, Kruk’s work examines the intersection of clothing and identity. “We package ourselves as a person to present ourselves,” she notes, specifying that many conscious and unconscious considerations factor into getting dressed each morning. “And if you’re savvy enough you can create a façade,” she remarks. “Our clothing can be somewhat of a peacock for us.”

Charlotte Kruk sews a backing onto Oreo packaging in one of her numerous home studio sewing stations. (Photo by Magali Gauthier)

Personal metamorphosis

Kruk’s tasteful designs have influenced her personal style and habits over the years. Earlier in life, she admits to having been a bit of a tomboy. “At the time, you couldn’t make me wear a dress.” And forget anything pink. “My dad died when I was little, and I was hell-bent to be the man of the family,” she explains, before then recounting how she initially rejected the sewing habits of her mom and grandmother.

But as many artists find, Kruk’s creative explorations carried her in unexpected directions. It caused her to break all of her old rules. Nowadays, wearing pink and dresses (and pink dresses) are all valid options. And she’s finally adopted her family’s fondness for the sewing machine. Her work seems to have ushered her into deeper self-acceptance. Today, her boisterous laugh is sweeter than a Snickers bar. And her contagious energy is clearly powered by more than just a sugar high.

“Why do I need to create?” Kruk asks as she exits her sweet-tooth sanctuary, closing the door behind her. “Why does it feed an inner peace? I have no idea. But if I don’t create, I start to lose it a little bit!”

NUMU’s latest “In the Artist’s Studio” allows viewers to make their own observations of Kruk and the space where she creates. Gather insight from behind-the-scene pictures of the studio, displays of wrapper outfits and other found objects and even an interactive element that will engage not only your eye, but also your taste buds.

Charlotte Kruk poses for a portrait surrounded by her work within her home studio, in San Jose. (Photo by Magali Gauthier)

In the Artists Studio: featuring Charlotte Kruk runs at New Museum of Los Gatos until September 1.

To meet Charlotte in person and hear her discuss her work, attend her upcoming “coffee tawk” at the New Museum: August 8 at 2 p.m.; or catch her in-person art demo on August 24 at 1 p.m.

See more of Charlotte’s work on her website

Or follow her on Instagram @charlotte.kruk

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Journalist with a fondness for micro-cultures and all things quirky.

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