Artist Jessica Cooper: on Still Life, Spontaneity & Empty Spaces

We spent an inspiring day in the studio with this Newlyn-based painter. Watch our video interview.

Seasalt has always celebrated Cornwall’s creative community, shining a light on the county’s artists and pioneers each month, in our Modern Creatives series.

If you’re taking this time to rekindle your creative spark, you can’t fail to be inspired by the journey of artist and teacher Jessica Cooper. We joined her for a day in the studio at Newlyn School of Art.

You’ve lived and worked in West Penwith for most of your life, how does it influence your work?

It goes back to grounding and realness. Living and working in West Penwith is hard, it’s a harsh environment, whatever profession you have. You have to fight to make a mark or conviction, believe in what you’re doing.

There are no distractions in West Penwith, you’re very much at peace. It’s never been about the light or artistic heritage for me, it’s the place and the feeling of stillness it brings. It allows me to create my work. I fought with myself for years because I based myself here rather than London. A lot of people were asking me to come back, to get a studio in London, it was all too much. I needed separation to focus on my work and concentrate, West Penwith allows me space in which to work, I love it.

I don’t love the coldness of winter but I love that there is nothing to do other than work. I have productive winters in the studio, working through the rain, mist and fog. In summer, the sun comes out and it’s a time for me to look at things outside again.

Have you always wanted to be an artist?

I was about six, when I wrote in a card, “Dear Daddy, when I grow up I want to be an artist”. There is a joke in the family because I also said I wanted to be a big fat cook, but I’m no good at cooking – so I didn’t have much choice in the matter.

I’ve always drawn, I’ve always written. I didn’t set out to be an artist when I started my A-Levels. I applied to Reading University to do a degree in Architecture and History of Art but at the time it felt too much like hard work. The alternative was to apply to Falmouth School of Art to do a one year Foundation course, which is what I did. There I fell in love with art, textiles and fashion.

How would you describe your work?

I think for artists it’s the hardest question. I still don’t know, I get really tongue tied, I say, ‘Google me’ and then you can make up your own mind.

I would say it has always been along the lines of semi-abstraction. There is always a notifier that you can identify, a vase of flowers or a house in an empty landscape. There is a lot of space and I really advocate minimalism and composition. Blank grey space surrounding a vase of flowers becomes as important as the actual subject matter itself, the work then revolves around that.

I want to give people the space to step away, if they can identify a familiar object it allows them to step back into the painting. The minimalism and space allow the viewer to form their own opinions and allows the imagination to flow.

What is it about the subject matter that keeps you coming back to it, like houses, objects and still life?

I’ve been showing and exhibiting for 30 years. In life things go full circle. A few years ago, I thought about why I never step away from that subject matter of the interior, still life and landscape.

There are two drawings that I still have from when I was about eight years old. One is of a house in the middle of a piece of paper and above it I’ve written ‘house’. The other is an apple, the outline of an apple and above it is written ‘apple’. I think these are two iconic images, subconsciously stuck in my head for a long time, now they’re more conscious.

With my work I always try and look for an honesty and the core of a subject matter. We live in a world which is full of transient moving images and sensationalism. So I don’t get completely caught up in that, I always go back to these childhood images. It keeps my feet on the ground.

How long do you typically spend on one of your pieces?

I’m an advocate of the immediate mark and spontaneity. I could have four weeks, where I’m thinking about a piece of work, then I could make that piece in four hours. It’s the whole thought process and knowing the subject and wanting to get into it.

I was driving to the studio, when a flock of crows flew up from a field. I almost crashed, it was so amazing. I came into the studio and had to paint it. It was finished in 10 minutes. The irony is that it was part of a show a year later and was the first piece that sold. It can take years to complete a painting but sometimes it will take minutes.

Some take much longer. I call these my jinx paintings. You can come in and be clear about the subject matter but spend weeks on it and it just doesn’t work out. I tend to put these on the wall and come back to them weeks later.

There is a black square on the wall of my studio that is my nemesis. Under the black square are around 20 paintings, which I come back to every now and again and then it just gets re-covered.

Often the titles of your work are intriguing and mysterious, can you talk us through them?

I have always loved writing, reading and film, so with my work titles I go through phases. Due to the simplicity and minimalism of my work I find that they are a slight detachment for me. Often, the titles can be quite removed from the actual subject matter.

If the painting was emotionally fired and I was going through heartbreak or trauma, I may use a title which lightens it. I think the titles help people relax. Sometimes I use cynical titles related to what’s going on in the world. Sometimes they come from something a friend has said. Sometimes I use song lyrics or something I’ve heard on BBC radio 4, from an interview or a serious statement; I also use lines from plays, titles come from a variety of places.

When you’re an artist you have to be an actor or actress, you’re putting yourself out there into the public realm. I’ve always been guarded, I don’t want to give everything away. When I work I really bare my soul, like most creative people. Some works are difficult to title, I finish the painting and it can take me a month to title the work, then I will have a serendipitous moment and I will think, ‘I’ve got it’.

The critic Joan Bakewell said to me that every painting tells a story. That stuck in my mind … the artist might have a story and the viewer will have a different story again.

Who or what inspires you?

I did my degree at Goldsmiths, London in the late ’80s. It was the rebirth of the conceptual movement. After I finished my degree I didn’t want anything to do with the world of art. I didn’t want to talk about art, I didn’t go to shows or exhibitions for years. I found my inspiration in ‘normal’ people.

Now I find my inspiration from conversations with friends, people that give you a smile in the street, strangers that will engage in conversation. I love openness.

Karl Weschke is an inspiration to me. I knew him for a few years later in his life. I remember him working on these massive canvases, he used to have step ladders and scaffolding to work from as he was short. He would climb up to do the top. I love the work of Ed Ruscha who is an American, Los Angeles based photographer and painter. I’ve recently discovered the work of Luc Tuymans and it’s fantastic. A lot of his work is figurative, figure is not obvious in my work right now, but I love his work.

There is a Mexican architect called Luis Barragán who advocated bringing colour to minimalist concrete spaces. His passion for the garden and nature, which he brings to the harsh architectural work, I love this concept. Religion was important to him and even though I am an agnostic, the way he worked makes me understand why people may want a religion in their life.

I’m inspired by everything really. I think you need to keep an openness about things. I can be inspired by watching a child fishing off the end of the pier in Newlyn or sitting and looking up at the stars at night.

Your studio is here at Newlyn Art School, how do you balance teaching and your own practice?

When I started out, I did a lot of freelance teaching. I worked at Tate St Ives when it opened as a freelancer. I come from a family of teachers, so I’ve always believed in education, especially for the arts. For about 15 years I juggled studio practice with teaching, I felt like I was a tutor in art, I had nothing left to give and was becoming quite cynical. I had to stop because I couldn’t give it what it deserved.

I took this studio seven years ago. Henry Garfit is the director of Newlyn Art School and is very persuasive and talked me into teaching a course here. We have this joke that he brought me out of retirement.

I find the balance is good. I’ve reached an age now where I’ve become less cynical and more confident. I run a two day course here and I am a visiting artist on the year long courses. I find I have something to give, I’ve found my passion and love for teaching again. I learn so much from the students, sometimes I don’t talk, just listen to what they have to say.

What sort of clothes do you like wearing when you’re working in your studio?

For years I used to wear dungarees and overalls, but they can be a pain when you need to go to the loo, especially if you’re working in a cold studio.

My son did a fine art degree and I remember telling him off in a motherly way for getting his clothes covered in paint. He said that when he goes into the studio, he wants to feel good in what he’s wearing. What he said has changed my opinion. I love fashion, textiles and fabric. If I have a pair of jeans that I feel good in I think why not wear them in the studio. If you’re wearing clothes that you love then you will work better. I have ruined a lot of expensive items.

Where is your favourite off-the-beaten-track place to go and relax?

I have two places. One is to walk to the end of Newlyn Pier. It’s fantastic because you can’t go any further. The sea is on the other side, you can sit at the end of the pier and you’re looking out and there is a big wide world out there. They have massive chunks of wood under this dark, sort of galvanised bit at the end. I sit there, have a rollie, look out at the sea and switch off.

The other place is Gwenver Beach, people are probably to kill me for saying. I was brought up as a child with summer holidays on the beach, in the sea, on the sand. I love to go down to Gwenver and sit, relax, surf and look at the incredible sea. You can go anywhere in the world and you’ll never find sea as clear as there.

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