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Bonker*s Clutterbucks - eccentric art from Haslingden

PUBLISHED: 00:00 06 June 2017

Miniature hot air balloons

Miniature hot air balloons

not Archant

Husband and wife artists inspired by a love of hares and their children’s imaginary friends are gaining fans across the world. Sue Riley reports.

Kate and Peter emerging from one of their creationsKate and Peter emerging from one of their creations

SITTING around Kate and Peter Caruana’s kitchen table has an Alice in Wonderland quality. Your dining partner might be a miniature hare dressed in Regency costume, a giraffe in a birdcage or, perhaps, their two daughters who gave them the initial inspiration for their artwork and business.

‘Our house is becoming more like our imagery,’ admits Peter. And what a fantastical house it is. It’s not only their home but also the place where they create their works under the eccentric name of “Bonker*s Clutterbucks.”

These pieces include tiny vintage tins full of enticing dioramas, battered old leather suitcases featuring hares in costume and miniature hot air balloons – all made in colourful paper and fabrics resembling the Victoria and Albert Museum in miniature.

The couple started their art company six years ago at their former corn warehouse home in the Rossendale town of Haslingden – Kate at the kitchen table and Peter in his studio on the ground floor which is filled with items which might come in useful one day.

Tins full of enticing dioramas, often involving hares dressed in clothesTins full of enticing dioramas, often involving hares dressed in clothes

They sell predominantly at art fairs across the UK, online and also undertake public and private commissions.

‘We have very specific collectors,’ said Kate. ‘Our work sells well in America with a few recent pieces going to New Zealand as well. They are objects in their own right, they’re not on the same scale as paintings but share many of the same qualities,’ said Peter, adding that they are often featured on Instagram as part of the ‘shelfies’ craze where their tiny, intricate objects are quite a hit.

The couple met at Winchester School of Art in 1992 and discovered they had a joint love of heritage and the same sort of imagery – hares are a recurring theme – and married a decade later. ‘We have the same eclectic taste in collecting,’ said Peter. ‘I have always made rabbits ever since I was a child and had a pet rabbit,’ added Kate. They spend time exploring bridle paths, abandoned mills, shepherds huts and rural dwellings on the tops. Peter enjoys using this type of imagery and cites the cult bestselling novel Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell as one of his inspirations. ‘It’s on my wavelength,’ he said.

Kate, originally from Huddersfield, returned north in 1998 to work as a designer at JH Birtwistle in Haslingden for seven years before taking redundancy.

Their work is now selling abroadTheir work is now selling abroad

It was around that time that she started collaborating on work with her husband and in 2011 they officially launched “Bonker*s Clutterbucks” (Kate’s relations were called Clutterbucks and they decided Bonkers covered the sort of work they wanted to do.) They travelled to Britanny to source furniture and other items for their ‘fairytale’ box pieces and the business took off.

They credit the original inspiration for Bonkers to their daughter’s imaginary friends Sarmi and Peggy-Knackers. They started to fantasise about the lives the imaginary characters would lead and went on to create some hot air balloon kits for children to make.

‘We took some of the hot air balloon models to a little photo shoot in a bluebell woods in Whalley and got talking to a woman who was walking there and we realised these could be art pieces in their own right,’ said Peter.

‘And then the dioramas started creeping in,’ added Kate. That led to their first collaborative exhibition at The Platform Gallery in Clitheroe, followed by Saltaire Arts Trail. ‘After that it just snowballed,’ said Peter.

They’ve now made Blackpool Tower kits and gondola tram kits which have been sold at Blackpool Visitor Information Centre and the town’s Grundy Gallery; given talks to large groups and regularly hold workshops for schoolchildren and adults.

The piece they created for Blackpool’s Comedy Carpet – a board game helping educate youngsters about the history of comedy, comedians and comic props – is still used in schools today.

The couple spend a lot of time scouring antique and junk shops looking for unusual items and salvage which they use in their work and also sell alongside their art pieces.

Those pieces came in handy this year when they were commissioned to make by far their largest piece – a 9ft high time machine inspired by the Standfast & Barracks fabric printers in Lancaster.

‘We usually work on a much smaller scale but we were commissioned by new arts and heritage company Mirador to create the piece for their Behind The Wall project and we were so enthused by the team’s vision and the huge site that we couldn’t resist.

‘It’s very large compared to our other pieces but it has also inspired us to do a few bigger and possibly outdoor pieces in the future, said Kate .

Peter is currently working on some anthropomorphic characters in period dress based on their Lakeland terrier Coco and Bedlington Beanie. Peter is also interested in developing a doll’s house theme, perhaps behind glass and scaling up some of their imagery using wood and collage.

‘I like the idea that our work has a portal quality, you are entering a room and leaving another...the space opens up,’ he said.

One thing’s for sure, whatever ‘bonkers’ ideas they come up with their working pattern is likely to remain the same. ‘Peter comes up with the crazy idea and I do the work. I can’t see that changing!’ said Kate. w

To see their work visit www.bonkersclutterbucks.com. They also sell their work at the Treacle Market in Macclesfield every month.

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