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Jessica Cooper artist Q and A

June 9, 2023
 |  by Site Administrator


How would you describe your current work?

My work is very much about the essence and core of things, it is about minimalism and paring down, about seeing familiar, domestic things in a different way – appreciating the overlooked and the unseen. I look at the different components of composition and space and how they work together, and I am always looking to create a sense of clarity and honesty within my work.



Does living in Cornwall have an influence on what you create?

West Penwith is quite a harsh environment to live and work in, whatever profession you’re in. You have to have a conviction, a belief in what you’re doing, if you want to make your mark. But on the other hand you have the peace and the quiet, and few distractions. For me, it is where I find a sense of stillness, which allows me to create.

Like Mark Jenkin (a Filmmaker who also has a studio in the School) I was brought up down here before Cornwall became ‘popular’, and I think a lot of his work, like mine, evokes the rawness and realities of surviving as artists and people in West Penwith. Even though my work is quite positive, it’s often centred around isolation and hardship.

For me, the weather here, also informs how and what I create. I get through the winters by working. I can come up to the studio and it’s my safe ship in a tumultuous sea!

Where did your interest in art come from?

Neither of my parents were artists as such, although they were interested in the arts. My father was a talented musician, with a passion for gardening. He created the most amazing garden at my childhood home. His love for nature, form and colour had a big impact on my work. My mum was a gifted seamstress and made all our clothes as children, later, she also attended life drawing classes.

My parents were quite bohemian. They had travelled and lived abroad before they settled in West Penwith. They loved the area and soon became part of an artistic community. A good friend of my mum’s was a nurse to the artist Roger Hilton, who lived up the road, and they were friends with Charles Breaker, who made incredible knitwear pieces, and Stella Benjamin, a brilliant weaver. So as I was growing up I was surrounded by artistic people.

As a young child I was always drawing. Being brought up in the small rural village of Trevowan, we didn’t have a phone until I was about 3; a TV until I was 6. If I was bored I was given pens and paper. I loved painting and creating. At home, we had two massive plate glass windows in the living room – one looked over the moor and my dad’s garden, and the other framed the cliffs and the sea. So from an early age I had an incredible visual palette to draw on. Now I look back, I realise that those elements still consistently inform my work.



How did studying both textiles and fine art at Goldsmiths influence your development as an artist?

I always had a love of fashion, fabric and design, so I was torn between studying textiles and fashion or pure painting. Goldsmith’s offered a course in both, so it seemed an obvious choice. After a year there I wished I had chosen to do pure fine art. I just wanted to paint.

I found it really tough at the time, but in hindsight, I’m so glad I stuck at it because during that first year we learnt about and were taught the fundamentals of weaving, embroidery and printmaking. Learning those skills was invaluable. I still find that my work crosses the line between being quite graphic and design led, and then freer and more painterly.

How did you get involved with Newlyn School of Art?

I first came to the School when a friend gifted me a one-day print course here. Henry [Garfit] introduced himself and showed me around the building and offered me a studio space. I love the fact that this was a school and now still is a working school. It has that lovely feel of being used, that it’s carrying on that tradition. You can see the old hopscotch marks peeking through the moss in the playground out the back. It is like an oasis at the top of the hill.

Later, Henry asked me if I’d like to teach here. I had taught as a freelance artist for years at the Tate and the Newlyn Art Gallery, amongst other places, but had given up teaching to concentrate on my own work. I always joke that Henry got me out of retirement! But for me it was an easy decision – I absolutely love the ethos of Newlyn School of Art and the programme, and it runs beautifully alongside my own practice.

Tell us more about you three-day Painting Essence of Form course and the other longer courses you teach on?

My, Painting Essence of Form course is geared around still life painting, but it is really stripped back. We take a still life set-up and look at it in a different way and find new approaches to representing it. It’s not simply about making a series of representational drawings and paintings.

On the first day I set a variety of exercises which are very pared back, such as blind drawing or looking at a vase of flowers but looking at the spaces in-between. The second day is a lot freer – we have a visit to my studio here and then develop different processes we’ve used on day one to create paintings. It’s about slowing down and really looking, and not being afraid of trying different approaches. It’s amazing seeing what our students can create and what they discover within themselves, just from two days of trying something different.

With the longer courses, it is an opportunity to share what inspires me and to show the students how I work and to develop a more in-depth learning for the students over a longer time frame. I encourage all my students to think more broadly and use many different elements within their work, it is about building a confidence and being open to everything.



Who would you say the course is for?

I get some practising artists and others who haven’t picked up a pencil for 20 years or who are just beginning to paint. It can be quite nerve-wracking for some people at first. I think there’s very often a fear in us when we are creating art. We can look at a vase of flowers and think ‘I could never draw that’, but it’s about really feeling your way into the subject and getting to know it, and also getting to know yourself.

Discovering what makes you tick as an artist or as an individual , is just as important as engaging with what you’re looking at. Art is about skill, knowledge, training and practice, but it is also very much about that untapped emotion that makes you, you. It might be happiness, sadness, love or dislike of a certain colour. True expression comes from tapping into all of that, and allowing the tension, the emotion and connection with your subject to come out in your work.

Can you share a little of your process? How do you begin your creative day?

I put on music, put the kettle on and walk around my space before I do anything. I’m like a cat, prowling around, taking my time and quietly observing things.

If I’m not in the mood to paint I’ll do practical stuff such as taking old canvasses off frames and sorting out my paints, or i will sit and think about things and let be. I know my practice and myself so well now. In the past I thought I had to paint all the time, but now I may just come in and sweep up the leaves outside. Some days I come in and I know exactly what I’m going to do and can’t wait to get painting. It’s very much about being in this space for the first hour before getting started.

I’m a huge advocate of the immediate mark, of spontaneity, but the ability to allow that to happen often comes from spending the time thinking about a painting. So I can have a long period where I’m contemplating a piece of work, before I can come into the studio and create it. When it all goes well, I can sometimes physically make a piece of artwork within hours. Other works can take weeks, months, years to create and resolve.

Whatever happens, at the end of each day I leave the studio completely clean, so that the following morning it’s like walking into a blank canvas.



Has your work changed noticeably during your career as a professional artist?

There has always been an element in my work of trying to find ‘the simplicity in the chaos’ and about highlighting the power of the line and the importance of space, but in the beginning, at the start of my career, it was very much about colour.

Then, someone wrote a review of my work and compared my use of colour to Matisse, and I just thought, ‘I’m never going to use colour again!’ I had to prove to myself that I was a painter without having to rely on colour within my work. So the colour became really pared down, and the subject matter became more and more minimal.

Years later I was living between Los Angeles and Cornwall. I was literally ‘caught between two places’. I was influenced by both: LA with its mid-century modern architecture, urban square buildings and palm trees popping up everywhere, and West Penwith with its wild beauty, sparseness and non-glitz.

Then the pandemic came with all its challenges. This studio was my sanctuary. Lots of artists began painting flowers as we were all so confined, but for me painting flowers took me right back to my childhood and roots and remembering all the drawings i had made of my dad’s garden. That simplicity of line, the essence of form, is a subject that I need and want to keep coming back to.

If I’ve learned anything about myself as an artist over the years it is that actually, I love painting, and to put it simply, I just want to paint.


Find more info and see a short film on the Painting Essence of Form three-day course page


You can see more info on Jessica Cooper and where to find her work for sale via https://jessicacooper.co.uk/


Interview and photographs by Kari Herbert