J.A.W. Cooper deftly constructs her compositions and narratives with a majestically flowing line, which is simultaneously filled with both an unwavering confidence and a tangible vulnerability. This sense of duality is cleverly echoed within her female protagonists and their animal companions, through whom Cooper explores the complexities and contradictions of the human spirit and our equally complex relationships with the animal kingdom and the natural world we all inhabit. Through a surrealistic lens, symbolism and metaphor are employed with a sophistication which allows Cooper the leverage to communicate concepts sparked by the wealth of inspiration provided to her by the arenas of science, philosophy, psychology and folklore.
J.A.W. Cooper was born in England, although, due to the nature of her parents work (freshwater ecology), she grew up all over the world, in countries such as Kenya, Sweden and Ireland. Cooper currently lives in downtown Los Angeles, California. She studied Communication Arts at Otis College of Art and Design during 2005 – 2009, during which time she earned her BFA. Since graduating she has established herself as a successful freelance illustrator and a much sought after fine artist. Her artworks have appeared on the walls in numerous high profile galleries, such as the one and only La Luz De Jesus.
WOW x WOW is ever so grateful to Cooper for agreeing to take part in the following interview and for providing some truly candid responses to our questions. Read on!
Hi Cooper! Thanks ever so much for freeing up some of your valuable time to have this wee chat with us, we really appreciate it. To start us off, if you would please introduce yourself, touching on anything you feel relevant to story of J.A.W. Cooper the artist?
Thank you for inviting me to participate in WOW x WOW! I was born in England and since my parents work as ecologists we traveled a lot for research, living in Kenya, Sweden, Ireland, and California. My childhood experiences traveling strongly influence my work and interests. My name can confuse people; ‘J.A.W.’ is an acronym of my first three names but since I was a young child I have introduced myself simply by my last name ‘Cooper’ which suits me much better.
We’re interested to hear about where you’re currently living and what you like about the area? What is the art scene like there and do you feel a part of that community?
For the past 6 years I have lived in downtown Los Angeles which has changed dramatically in that time, but is very bustling, noisy, smelly, and interesting if a bit frenetic. Los Angeles has a really strong commercial need for artists and creatives with all the advertising and entertainment businesses and so there is a base of support financially and socially for art. I think this really strengthens the scene and legitimizes the career, but because of the shear scale of the community it is easy to become ensconced in one small facet of that community, so it can be a little incidentally cliquey.
Being both a commercial illustrator and a fine artist, does one discipline influence the other? Is there a certain type of synergy that exists or do you think of them as two separate entities?
Oh, I definitely find that my commercial work and personal work influence and support each other. My commercial work exposes me to new concepts, motifs, visuals, and executions that I would not have explored if left to my own devices, while my personal tastes, preferences, and interests give my commercial work a particular point of view and flavor, even when I’m working on a project seemingly incongruous to my own work. My commercial work pays the bills efficiently so that I have freedom with my schedule and time to invest in personal work without the added burden of financial responsibility and I get intense satisfaction from the challenge and from working on something larger than myself with a team. My personal work is extremely gratifying emotionally and energizing, which keeps me from becoming jaded or burnt out. Most of the commercial work I do is for advertising and entertainment companies, a lot of work for print/motion companies concepting on TV and movie posters and campaigns, but the majority of that work is covered under ‘non disclosure agreements’ so I can’t discuss the specifics.
The freelance work you do is of a nature that does not generally allow for you to share it with your audience, so for the remainder of our chat we’ll be referring to the personal artwork you create, which we all know and love. How do you approach the creative process? Talk us through how you construct an image. Do have a concrete idea of what it will look like before you get started? What type of reference do you use?
Words and lists are very important to the conceptual side of my process. When beginning a piece or a series, I start with a list of ideas, emotive words, motifs, etc., and run down it looking for patterns that spark me. From there I create a more precise concept and flesh out the visuals and begin sketching. I don’t usually thumbnail, I tend to launch straight into sketching loosely until I feel like one of the sketches has the seed of potential, and then I flesh it out to the level necessary depending on how I plan to execute it and how much room there will be for spontaneity at the painting stage. I often start with found reference but am careful to vary my sources and use a great deal of my own personal reference, and of course a good degree of pure imagination and existing knowledge.
As an artist whose work contains a strong narrative element, can you let us in on what initially got you interested in visual storytelling? Also, in your opinion, what would you say the are the most vital ingredients that go into creating a successful visual narrative?
Well, I’ve certainly always been interested in folklore and the exploration of human experience, psychology, and philosophy through a surreal lens. I am fascinated by how subjective our perception of ‘reality’ is, and of course there is often an autobiographical element hidden in a broader narrative which is cathartic for me personally.
Being an artist who works within the visual realm, can you shed some light on some of the most important inspirations and influences on your work that aren’t visual?
Certainly the sciences have always been fascinating to me. My parents study insects and ecosystems and I nearly pursued zoology rather than illustration as a career, but psychology and philosophy have become influential to me as well. I go camping about once a month sometimes for long periods of time and that adventure and solitude out in nature is very important to me.
Nature, and in particular the animal kingdom, provides many of your most returned to sources of inspiration. What are some of the earliest memories you have, which contributed to forming the foundation of your life long passion for, and interest in wildlife?
Well perhaps my earliest memory is going out to a small village in Kenya with my caretaker to visit her family for a celebration and watching them draw blood from the neck of a cow into a bowl of milk and then drinking from the bowl. I remember vividly seeing the blood come out in a solid rope-like stream from the neck of the cow, which wasn’t seriously harmed, just nicked enough to bleed into the bowl of milk. Another time our truck got stuck in mud in a National Park and we were stalked by lions the five miles back to the ranger’s station. I feel so lucky that I got to spend my earliest formative years in Kenya and while I was probably 10-12 years old when I lived in Ireland and Sweden they had a big impact on me as well.
As we move through life we continue to grow and change. In what ways have you seen your work evolve since you started down the path of being a professional artist?
Conceptually my work has certainly shifted constantly to reflect my changing interests, my taste has changed very dramatically especially since my work in advertising exposed me to a broader range of visual influences, and technically I continue to evolve and refine my processes and ways of working.
What is the most memorable thing anyone has ever said about your art?
Someone at a gallery show once told me that my work felt like “illustrations of folktales from an alternate reality” and I loved that.
Having been creating art professionally for a good number of years, what do things feel like at this point in your career?
I think the big themes for me at the moment are seeking balance between professional work, personal work, and living life (camping, traveling, etc.), and an increase in time and effort into the ‘business’ side of my personal work. I enjoy a good deal of freedom and would love to take greater advantage of my duel UK/US citizenship to live abroad and work remotely. I am so grateful for all of the support I receive from my fans, followers, and friends and am excited to continue fostering that relationship in 2016.
Your passion for travelling and living a life of adventure in the great outdoors is well known. Would you be willing to recall one of the most exciting experiences that you’ve had on your travels or camping expeditions?
I’ve had many ‘dramatic’ experiences (run-ins with wildlife, getting caught in a hail storm out on a trail, dodging dodgy hikers, being temporarily stranded, etc.) but honestly the fondest memories I have from my various camping excursions are unremarkable on the surface; turning a bend in the trail after a day of hiking without another seeing another soul and finding myself suddenly caught in a beautiful ray of sunshine peaking through the trees as the sun sets, glinting off of rocks and suspended dust. In those moments I feel so peaceful and present.
In order to get a better understanding of the personality of an artist, it can help to get a peek behind the curtain. Would you be willing to share a story from your own life, one which you feel has contributed to shaping the person and therefore the artist you are today?
Hmmm… as a child around 7 years old I found a Jerusalem Cricket, commonly known as a Potato Bug, barely alive and covered in ants outside of my classroom. I brushed the ants off and put the Jerusalem Cricket in a pencil box which I hid in my desk believing that it would certainly recover once rescued from the ants. I took the insect home after school and carried it into my backyard on a sheet of paper to observe it for signs of life as it had been moving and twitching ever so slightly on the ride home. I was too young to be able to immediately identify for certain if it had died or not (it most definitely had) and as I observed it closely a gust of wind caught it and dragged it’s heavy body across the sheet of paper making this horrible claws-on-paper scratching noise that seemed to amplify into a deafening scream in my head as the noise of the insect’s body dragging across the paper mixed with the instant realization of it’s demise and pure horror. Something about that experience triggered a deep irrational fear of crickets (though Jerusalem Crickets are not ‘true’ crickets) in me which I still struggle with to this day, and as an avid camper it certainly has many opportunities to surface.
What’s next for J.A.W. Cooper?
THE WORLD. The world would be lovely.