Cardboard Wizard Lottie Smith has been cutting and sticking since 1985. Here she talks about how she ended up working with cardboard, what life is like as a cardboard wizard and how she created The Polar Express train in our Attic this Christmas.

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

I’m Lottie or Charlotte to some. I love trees and books and the satisfaction of making things with my own hands. I studied Illustration with Animation at Manchester School of Art since then I've somehow segued into making larger 3D pieces and although the sketchbook has kept going those images rarely leave the safety of their fellow pages nowadays. I think they still matter though. Either way, when you find me I'm cutting and sticking.

When working with cardboard I like creating objects which interact with the space they're in or the people that come into contact with them. I like making people smile.

How and why did you start to work with cardboard?

I started working with cardboard a year or so after I graduated. I actually studied illustration so I had no experience making sculptural things. I’d just moved back to Manchester having been away for a few months and I had the tiniest room to live and work in and was struggling to find any job at all if I’m honest so I had free time and no money. I did, however, have all the boxes I had used to move and no recycling bin. So I made myself a routine to stop going stir crazy, job applications in the morning and making use of those boxes in the afternoon. I made them into 4/5 huge oversized stationery bits and bobs with working moving elements (scissors and a compass). I didn’t have a glue gun back then so everything was held together by brown gum tape as I had a huge roll of that in with my things left from uni. - I really can’t get rid of anything potentially useful. )This mostly consists of boxes of odd-shaped packaging and smaller and smaller and smaller bits of paper.)

Anyway, a friend of mine knew the folks who run Fred Aldous, an arts and crafts shop, and they’d recently expanded from their basement shop upstairs so had this huge empty shop front. They invited me to put the pieces I’d made in the window then asked if I’d make them a Christmas display. From there it just escalated. 

I could, of course, scrap all the above and say I started age 3 when I’d help (probably just got in the way of) my older brother who would build us dens or a race car around my tricycle. Just had a bit of a hiatus in between.

Is it important that your work can be recycled?

Yes, it is very important to me that what I do can get and does get recycled! Most of the work I do is only built for a temporary time frame/use and I’m not sure I’d be ok doing it if they were made out of something that couldn’t be reused or recycled.

I love big sculptures and window designs at events and festivals and around holidays but we really shouldn’t be using resources so wastefully especially on such short life outcomes! (I’m not advocating for no more fun things of course just more consideration for what we are using and how, Christmas is certainly a time of year where you see a lot of extra ‘stuff’ being used, stuff for stuff's sake and I am pleased that I’m not contributing another skip full! Or at least all my skips are going to recycling!)

What is life like as a cardboard wizard?

Life as a cardboard wizard is pretty magic! The things I make are different every time which I love and stops things getting boring day to day. I feel very lucky to have ended up in a job where I’ve been given a free pass to avoid being a real grownup, well mostly.

What are the most unusual things you’ve been asked to make out of cardboard or the things that you have most enjoyed making and why?

I think doing what I do means I’m not sure what usual is anymore, I’ve made all sorts. Some of my favourite jobs are simply recreating something very small as something very big. I like to include any movement in the objects in my cardboard versions too. For example, I’ve made all the components of a Lino printing kit including an enormous ink roller. Another example is making a 1.5 metre high school rucksack. There’s something about including all the little details when working with such a mundane material that I really enjoy.

I made all the props/sets for a music video for a silly song about David Attenborough too which lists 10s of animals throughout so I guess some of those were pretty odd, a cardboard frog? A mantis shrimp? Since then I’ve worked with the same band to make a stop motion video for a song all about cacti and succulents. So, ok maybe there are some unusual things to be made from cardboard.

You've created an amazing cardboard train as the setting in our Attic for our The Polar Express Festive Story Workshops. How did you go about approaching this?

I started with the height of the beams and worked the size out proportionally around them as they were the restrictive element to scale. I think about the underlying structure and stability beforehand but I design a lot as I go. I don’t use software or technical drawings just scribbled notes and a head that is good at proportions and geometry so if I have challenges and methods of overcoming them they’ll be discovered in the days I’m building!

We wanted the train to have as big an impact as possible in a space many visitors might already be familiar with so size was key to making the space feel different rather than just a small object lost in the middle of a familiar space. Unfortunately, it isn’t a train you can climb on board (I’d have needed to start making it in September and a lot more cardboard for that!) but there is a little hidden area for those families that come along to one of the workshops to discover.