WALT MORTON: Cooper, you are best known as a modern illustrator with a signature personal style that combines elements of nature, animals, human figures and sex, into complex and beautiful graphic designs. This constellation of interest evokes illustrators ranging from Aubrey Beardsley to Jean Giraud and forward. I am wondering if you see yourself in that designer-illustrator tradition? And who are your influences? Also I often see you characterized as a “pop-surreal LA artist” not coming from this European illustrator tradition. How do you see yourself?
J.A.W. COOPER: Hmmm, that's a great question. I consider the fine-art work I do to be "Illustrative Fine Art" and closer to surreal (though not "pop surreal") than fantasy. One person early-on described it as illustrations of folklore from an alternate reality, which I greatly enjoyed. I also do quite a lot of personal work that is not intended for galleries, mostly ink and pencil sketches, which really run the gamut in subject matter and style. I pursue whatever I'm passionately curious about in the moment! My early influences were scientific illustrators like John James Audubon and Ernst Haeckel, as well as traditional ukiyo-e Japanese Woodblock masters like Katsushika Hokusai and Utagawa (Ando) Hiroshige. As I progressed, Alphonse Mucha, J.C. Leyendecker, John Singer Sargent, Ludwig Deutsch, Jules Chéret, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and Stepan Fjodorowitsch Kolesnikov all added to that list.
WALT MORTON: You’re a artist who can sculpt, paint, oil, gouache, pen-and-ink — skilled in many media — but it seems like your strongest super-power is drawing with a pencil. Can you talk about your relationship to pencil drawing? How you do it? How much time? Favorite drawing tools? What does mastery of the humble wood pencil give you?
J.A.W. COOPER: The hours I spend sketching just melt away. Drawing is most definitely my first love; the immediacy of graphite or ink on paper, the potential of a purposefully unfinished sketch, the elegance and efficiency of line... I swoon. I feel like you can really connect to the mind of the artist through their sketches – you see their playful experiments and decisions and feel their "hand." My favorite tools change from month-to-month but currently they are the Blackwing 602, Colerase in Carmine Red, Pentel Aquash in Light Black, Pentel Colorbrush in Grey, and Kuratake Brush Pen. My favorite paper to sketch on is Canson Recycled 50 lb Bond in rip-out pads, and my favorite papers for more finished works are Stonehenge and occasionally Fabriano Artistico. Drawing with pencil or pen feels like carving shapes out of the air.
WALT MORTON: Is all your drawing “sight size?” Do you do any measuring or kind of methodical /systematic approach to drawing like the Reilly method (or other) or do you just wing-it; all by eye?
J.A.W. COOPER: I usually start very loose holding the pencil obliquely to the paper and do build some forms from the inside-out and some I just carve out. I usually indicate some center lines and anatomical landmarks and try to incorporate these guiding lines into the final drawing as design elements or using details that fall along them. Sometimes it feels like the drawing is a persuasive argument; "As exaggerated as this may look it is how I see the world and there is truth in it" and then you back up that statement with concrete details in the form of building lines and indications of anatomical shapes and landmarks. I always like the very initial sketches best because to me there are all these layers of information building an argument in the form of an image.
WALT MORTON: You have developed recurring characters that appear in your art. Sphynx cats, psychic mutant tigers, red monkeys, etc. Are these special favorites to illustrate or is there a larger secret-world of story behind these characters, and might that become an illustrated story or book at some point?
J.A.W. COOPER: The recurring elements especially recurring animals usually mean something to me symbolically; monkeys are usually violence and rage, the Sphynx cats are something between civilized/domesticated and wild, the cicadas almost always have to do with cycles of life and death, etc. I do have some ideas for stories but they revolve more around some of my sillier characters from my personal drawings than my fine art work.
WALT MORTON: Content-wise, there are a lot of sexy women with cuddly animals, what’s that message about — and is it PC?
J.A.W. COOPER: In most of my work I see the humans as real and the animals as a part of the human; allegories for something inside them that we can't look at directly unless it is physically manifested somehow. There is often violence in my work and that is almost never intended literally either. As far as the nudity goes I guess I don't think nudity is always sexual and even when it is I don't think that sexuality is a dirty thing. I see the women I draw as simultaneously defiantly strong and vulnerable, but never weak or victimized.
WALT MORTON: You are active on social media (+287,000 instagram followers 05/04/17) and have a lot of engagement with your fans and followers. What do you think this does for your career? Do you get direct fan sales much? Is social media just for hip Sphynx cats or is it required for all artists now?
J.A.W. COOPER: I think that being prolific and engaged with a community helps to make my work more visible and also acts as a motivation for me to remain prolific and to indulge my many curiosities publicly. I generally prefer not to sell art directly but I think that it does help me to promote limited edition print runs and new work available through galleries. I absolutely do not think that social media is a requirement for all artists nor is it in any way an evaluation of your worth as an artist, it is only a tool and only a measurement of your ability to connect to a specific audience. Speaking personally, engaging with the warm and supportive community that I have found through Facebook and Instagram has been so rewarding!
WALT MORTON: You’ve already been able to do a lot of various professional art ranging from magazine illustration to character design and fine art in galleries. But what’s missing? What’s the ultimate Cooper art project that you’d like to do — if you had the funding to do it?
J.A.W. COOPER: Well it just so happens that I am currently running a Kickstarter campaign for the three-volume art book I am releasing through Flesk Publications! Putting together a collection of work like this has been a goal of mine for so many years and I have been unbelievably humbled by the incredible outpouring of support that this project has received. We were funded in the first 30 minutes and are now 857% funded on day 5 of the campaign! The most rewarding part of this whole experience has been the incredibly kind, moving, and, humorous messages and comments we have received; the cockles of my heart are bursting! The Kickstarter will run till Thursday June 8th, 2017 and if you would like to have a look at the books, prints, enamel pins, and goodies available you can follow this link: www.kickstarter.com/projects/481703930/the-art-of-jaw-cooper-three-book-set-with-prints
WALT MORTON: It’s great to see such a successful demonstration of an artist leveraging fans and followers to activation on Kickstarter. You got fully funded to do the book very fast, and now at this high-funding level you’ll be able to do a super-nice book with extra pages, a slipcover, and prize incentives for fans. Flesk does quality books, I’m sure the publication will be a very cool art book.
J.A.W. COOPER: The plan is to deliver books and prizes to Kickstarter backers starting October, 2017. Working with Flesk Publications has been an absolute joy, and utilizing Kickstarter has allowed us to directly connect to our supporters making publishing an art book more of a community event than the traditional methods of the past.
WALT MORTON: Thanks for letting us know how you think about art, Cooper.
J.A.W. COOPER: It is always a pleasure to communicate with you Walt!
J.A.W. Cooper was born in England to a South African-British mother and an American father - both freshwater ecologists. Cooper grew up in Kenya, Sweden, Ireland, various other places across Europe, and California. She currently lives, works, draws and paints in Los Angeles when not off camping.
Photo of J.A.W. COPPER BY Allan Amato.