Stourbridge locals were surprised to find pictures of cows and other farmyard animals on their empty milk bottles. A mystery 'Bottle Banksy' would carve intricately detailed designs into the glass and then return them to their doorsteps, undetected. The identity of this 'Pic-glasso' has since been revealed. For our Spring Preview magalogue, we caught up with Charlotte Hughes Martin to ask her more about her unusual hobby.

Charlotte, your milk bottles are amazing!
What gave you the idea to engrave them?

I did the first milk bottle to make my milkman laugh. He was called Frank and had the biggest and best moustache you can imagine, which jiggled when he laughed. I engraved one and left it on my doorstep for him to see what he'd think. He didn't notice, so I wondered what would happen if I dropped them on a few more doorsteps on his round. These also went unnoticed, at which point I wondered how far I could push the idea.

When did it all begin? Do you still engrave the bottles?
I engraved the first bottle in 2008. I have been doing them more sporadically in the past few years, though in the last couple of months I made a set for an exhibition in Germany.

When did it all begin? Do you still engrave the bottles?
I engraved the first bottle in 2008. I have been doing them more sporadically in the past few years, though in the last couple of months I made a set for an exhibition in Germany.

What do you think of the public’s reaction to your work?
The public's reaction has been great. Overwhelmingly positive, though I do get the a few people just thinking I am a bit odd.

What first attracted you to working with glass?
I originally wanted to make stained glass windows. I went away to Sunderland University to study Glass with 3D Design but this soon developed into glass blowing and then to engraving.

Do think that traditional methods have a place in the modern world?
Yes - absolutely!

Why cows? Do they have any special meaning to you?
I grew up in the countryside and was always well aware of where my food came from. I had friends that were dairy farmers and saw a real connection from farm to plate. After living in a city for the first time, it was a strange culture shock to discover that not everyone realized this. I think that's why I chose the dairy imagery.

People call you the ‘Bottle Banksy’, are you inspired by other ‘guerilla’ artists?
I wasn't influenced by them initially, but since the project began I have become a big fan. I'm a big Banksy fan, but isn't everyone these days? He is brilliant!

How do you think your work influences others?
I hope it makes people smile.

Do you think we live in a disposable culture?
Yes, although I hope that people are starting to wake up to this fact. Functional everyday glassware that we care so little for, is simply discarded. This is the same basic material as cut crystal, yet we look at it in such a different way. I love the idea of taking this familiar item of glass and elevating it to the level of 'art'. I imagine them in a well lit cabinet. I love the notion of a piece of parkly lead crystal sitting next to an old milk bottle.

Is your work in any way a reaction to this?
No. I'd been thinking about why some glass is considered precious, yet some is discarded like it's nothing. It seems that every family has a special set of glasses that are either never used, or just kept for special occasions, like Christmas. It always struck me that whenever I used these 'special' glasses I was always too nervous using them to enjoy the experience. As a glass maker myself I find this really frustrating. I've spent a lot of my life learning how to make glass which can be functional and beautiful and to find them relegated to the cupboard is sad.
 
They’re very intricate, do they take long to make?
They have taken between one and eight hours depending on the level of detail.

Do you work from existing images, real life, or your imagination?
All three. I take a lot of photos, and do a lot of sketching from life and I do just love starting and letting the image develop organically.

How do you carve them? What kind of tools do you use?
I use a hand tool with an abrasive diamond tip. I also have water constantly dripping on the glass to minimize dust and cool the glass, as the friction of engraving can make it crack.

Other than glass, which other materials do you like to work with?
I do a lot of mixed media work though I love glass and always seem to return to it.
Do you enjoy collaborating with other artists?
Yes, glass blowers struggle to work alone as it is usually a two man job. I do enjoy the free flow of ideas that comes with working with someone else.

Which milk bottle creation are you most proud of and why?
Usually the last one I've done as I'm quite fickle!
Do you have any advice that you’d like to give aspiring artists?
Get good images of your work, apply for everything and never give up.

How important is it to you to make art accessible to everyone?
Very. It makes me very sad that people don't feel that art can be for them. Art galleries are places where a large percentage of the population don't even think of going to, so to bring a little of that out into the world can't be a bad thing. I like the idea of finding art in unusual places. It's happened to me a few times, and when I get to see these special sights it makes me feel privileged, like I've been trusted with a really excellent secret, or I've been chosen for something exciting that most people don't grasp. I think everyone should be given the chance to feel the same way.

When you’re not carving milk bottles, what do you enjoy doing?
 I have a couple of other projects on the go right now, but they aren't ready to talk about quite yet. Other than arty things though, I love spending time with my husband and my dog, going out and seeing the world!

Has anyone ever given you a present in return?
Yes. Last Christmas I did a couple of bottles for a man who ran a wine importing business. I got a case of lovely Burgundy which sorted out Christmas!

Have you ever had any milk bottle casualties?
Plenty. Too many to count actually. As an artist that uses a lot of glass I have to remember that glass breaks and you just have to get used to it. I would go crazy otherwise!

What’s next? When and where is your next exhibition?
I currently have a position as visiting artist at a local hospital. I am working on a site specific large scale engraved glass piece based on the local glass history of the area. It'll be in a touring exhibition before installation throughout 2012-13.
If you live outside of the Stourbridge area but still want one of Charlotte’s milk bottles, visit her website, for more information.

Keep an eye on our new White Stuff Facebook Page – we’ll be doing an exciting competition with Charlotte soon…