Have you seen our newly launched Mechanical Making Project Mini Automata kits? The quirky characters and concept were created by artist and artist facilitator Loulou Cousin who we’ve been working with over the past couple of years.
She skilfully brings to life comical scenes with card and collage and is one of the facilitators of our online Automata Tinkering Global Workshops where she encourages others to experiment with making funky mechanisms. Read on to have an insight into Loulou’s inventiveness and how she ingeniously weaves in her risquÃ© wit.
How did you come up with the characters in the kit?
I made lots of characters initially, a policeman, a robber, a lady with big bosoms and a shopping bag and all sorts of things like that. It wasn’t until we decided to make the kits that we had to narrow it down to ones that would be suitable for the public. Some of them were a little bit inappropriate. I do spend a lot of time making characters in my spare time, I don’t have a tv and I think that means that I spend a lot of time doodling and making automata. I probably make one a week, alot of the time it’s trial and error.
I’m often making commissions, which I hate because when you give the automata to them they say ‘Oh! Oh OK’, because they love the people they are buying them for and I make them look a little bit ugly. I pull out all their distinguishing features, if they’ve got glasses I make the glasses slightly bigger, if they’ve got a big nose, well I make it enormous, and funny teeth. Some people really like them and think they are hilarious and some people don’t. I do tell them that if you’re of a sensitive nature, then these aren’t for you. I’m not kind and they say ‘Oh no, no it’s fine’, then you make them and they say ‘Oh why did you do that’?
Are you influenced by other illustrators?
I think over the years I’ve had lots of influences. I studied graphics at Uni and thought about being an illustrator at one point and then decided I wanted to be a packaging designer. Neither of those things happened, I went into children’s publishing. I suppose I’ve taken little bits of illustrations I’ve seen over the years and sometimes I’ve thought something looks too much like you know, Wallace and Gromit, so I can’t use that. Sometimes you just go off and start drawing things and you don’t realise you’re going down a route. When I was at Uni, I loved Tim Hunkin, I loved the way he did his work and I was going to make a book like him, about making things. Then I went and worked for Usborne publishing and I had to use their style, I made books on how to make things.
What’s the trickiest bit, do people manage to make them and get inspired to make their own?
I go into schools and do projects with groups of children and children lose interest very quickly if it’s not easy, so I try to make things as least fiddly as possible. If I’m struggling with something then I know that’s not going to work. So when I make a slider cam for example, I have to think about how I’m going to make it easy to construct. I make quite a few before I find a way that is easy.
It’s not too bad, as long as you follow the instructions of the sizes of the bends and you have a pair of pliers. You do need some accuracy, some children manage but sometimes they need some help. Adults are different, I had a group with 2 men engineers and they didn’t want to listen, they both said they knew what they were doing and they both did it wrong, which I find quite amusing, the ladies were listening and they managed just fine.
The idea behind the kits is that you make one and then you can go on and make others. One of the things I say is, go get yourself some cardboard, some cereal packets, because you can make all sorts with that. I started off with cereal packets, then I found this really sexy card and I don’t bother with cereal packets now, but I do still collect them and take them into schools. Cereal packets are amazing as it’s really good quality card and can withstand lots of messing about.
I suppose, trying to open up the back of the little split pins can be quite frustrating for kids and they don’t always open them fully. When cutting out the characters I always tell everyone to leave a little bit of a margin around the cutting out, it doesn’t look bad and you don’t lose your line. It doesn’t matter how rough you do it, if you give it a bit of an edge, then it isn’t too fiddly, I don’t think fiddly lends itself to this. For the kits I use scissors, I take craft knives into school and nobody seems to mind, I write that into the risk assessment. I’ve not had any accidents, people have to learn to use tools, we have to learn to be dangerous and respect sharp things. Nobody messes about.
Your sense of humour is prominent in all of your work, what can you tell us about that?
A sense of humour has been something that has saved me. I had dyslexia, I wouldn’t say I wasn’t clever but I couldn’t manage school very well and I saved myself with humour. I was always able to draw so I used to draw cartoons and I used to mimic teachers which made me quite popular and I think humour was always there.
I was a stand up comedian for about a year, I could have been quite successful. I did a gig and I was picked up by an agent, I see lots of people on tv who I’ve worked with. I went travelling mainly to Brighton, London and Birmingham, which was a nightmare when you live down here (south east England) and I was also teaching part time so I gave it up.
I do think humour is really important for good mental health and I think if you find things funny it’s a really good thing for your soul. I do get told off for being too funny at inappropriate times because I find most things funny. I can always find the humour in everything and I have to stop myself sometimes. I hear the joke and I say ‘don’t say it!’.
I have been censored, I made some naked automata that I thought were hilarious but not everyone finds them hilarious, I understand that. I was ‘shadowed banned’ on instagram. I didn’t realise, I don’t need ‘likes’ but if you put something up on instagram and don’t get any likes, you think that’s funny, what happened? Someone must have complained and my account was cancelled for a while. The character was just a little man on a wheel and his willy was weighed at the back, with a big weight so it always dangled down and swung and he had knives being thrown at him. Look at the nipple, that always throws me that nipples are such scary things. When did that happen?
You talk about finding ‘the joy’, can you tell us more?
Life is difficult, it’s difficult for everyone, even if you’re a happy person, life can be difficult at times and it’s important that we all learn to find our joy. As children we are allowed to be joyous and then as we get older we’re supposed to grow up and I think that’s the biggest mistake anyone ever makes. You mustn’t grow up too much and you must always be able to find your joy and find your inner child and play and mess about and be naughty, but not too naughty or you get shadow banned.
What’s it like being part of the CMT Automata Tinkering Global Workshop, how does it work being online?
It’s quite difficult because you’ve got a big screen full of faces but you do have break out rooms where you have about 4 or 5 people in a room, which is much easier. In the breakout room you can all talk and all be heard, whereas in a big room you can’t. Also if you’re trying to explain something to someone, someone else might have something or an example to show them. You help each other which is really nice, which means you all become equal and you’re all making suggestions. I learn things all the time, every time I’ve learnt something, there’s always someone who says ‘oh you could use that, and you think ‘ooh how brilliant’.
I think there are pros and cons to being online, I think it’s really lovely doing face to face stuff because you’re there showing things, holding things, touching, you’re right there and you see it. Occasionally I get people on the online workshop that don’t get it and they get frustrated and you have to show them on a screen and try and position it with the camera so they can see what’s going on. I think sometimes they need to understand that simple is just as good. Some people want to get really technical. Lisa Slater, a guest automata maker on the course, is really the perfect example of simple working really well. I like to keep it really simple, like the simple little running legs. I think a lot of people think automata is going to be complicated and it’s not, just a simple motion can be really hilarious, I think. I find things really hilarious.
Do you run other workshops?
I used to be a mainstream art teacher, I got out of that. Now I work for local companies and work with children and mental health in schools. I do projects that last 6 to 12 weeks and that covers lots of making projects but I always bring automata as well because it’s one of those things that most kids don’t really have a go at. When they’ve had a go of it, it’s like showing someone magic. There’s that sort of gasp when something that they’ve made moves. They all like it, it’s really strange, they all have a go. I have a ‘have a go’ sort of mentality ‘you might not like it, have a go’ see what you think’. So everyone has to have a go and I always make things really simple.
When I go into schools I usually do the little jumping people on a small crank and they make them out of magazines and bits of bodies I find on the internet, they are slightly bigger than the kits. The children go through magazines looking for anything. It doesn’t have to be bits of body, it can actually be biscuits, it can be a kit-kat person. They find things they want to make a body out of and they find it really funny that they are using a bourbon biscuit, the humour of using a biscuit as a body or a washing machine.
What else do you make?
I got a call this morning from a local events organiser, Hatty Spice. She does events all over the world, she calls me and says ‘could you make me a giant handbag’, or a giant glue stick or whatever, I said ‘oh brilliant!’ and she thought I was being sarcastic. I wasn’t, I absolutely love making strange things.
I make cardboard furniture. I collect cardboard, I’ve got a bit of a cardboard fetish and if I see a nice bit of cardboard I’ll bring the car round and load up and if it’s a really good make of washing machine the cardboard is unbelievable and then I just think I’m gonna make something with that, a little bit of furniture.
When my son was little his whole bedroom was made of cardboard, except his bed. He had a Welsh dresser, he had a little shop, he had a rocket ship, table and chairs and children would come round and say ‘that’s not made of cardboard’ and they’d stand on it, stamp on it, they didn’t come back, they weren’t allowed back. It was me that had more fun than Oscar, I’d paint it, while he was in his rocket ship I would be making something else. The rocket ship was amazing, it had lights and buttons. I took things apart and used bottoms of yoghurt pots to cover the lights so he didn’t get electrocuted.
I’ve just bought a bundle of switches for next week’s online workshop as we’re doing motors. I’d like to be able to have one of my automata on a switch that you could turn on and it would go on and on. I made an automaton when I was at uni, I never thought that was very serious, in fact, I didn’t take uni very seriously at all and my degree show was a complete mess of sculpture, I didn’t look like a graphic student show at all. I got a job straight out of college which is a shame really because I went straight into publishing. I enjoyed making books for kids to make things and I think I’ve almost come a full circle back to that. Which is a good thing, it’s my passion, and I really like the challenge of making another kit, whether you want another kit or not, I’m going down that route, I just keep thinking I could make that and that and that could happen.
I get excited when I have a brief, it’s a bit like when Hattie calls me and asks me to make a giant handbag out of cardboard and I think oh my god yes I could, how big could I make it! It’s enjoyable working out how to make that work and so anyone can make one.
Interview by Lisa Finch. CMT Development Director
Find out more
To see more of Loulou’s wonderful creations follow her on instagram.
Get one of her mini automata kits.
The next Automata Tinkering Global Workshop starts online in May. Go to the eventbrite page for more information.