Autumn 2015 sees the publication and launch of the long anticipated third volume of the award winning "BirdBook" series of illustrated anthologies, themed on British bird species, compiled and published by Kirsten Irving and Jon Stone of Sidekick Books. Lois Cordelia's dramatic silhouette artwork features on the front cover of each volume. Lois and her mother Erika have both also contributed paper-cut bird designs that feature among the many interior vignette illustrations that accompany each poem.
Kirsten interviewed Lois Cordelia on 26th November 2015 about her illustrations for the "BirdBook" series, and more generally about her work in other mediums, her inspirations and current projects.
To order a copy of Birdbook iii: http://www.sidekickbooks.com/birdbookiii.php, or drop by at one of Lois's paper-cutting demos, and get a signed copy :-)
1. For those new to your work, could you explain a little about your scalpel cutting?
All of the illustrations I've created for the BirdBook series are cut out of black paper using a surgical scalpel. No wonder I am often asked: "Do you do brain surgery in your spare time?"
I like to balance the meticulous precision of the blade cut with free-flowing lines that convey movement. My artwork is all about energy and flow. Nevertheless, paper-cutting tends to be a time-consuming process, taking many hours of painstaking concentration.
My front cover designs for the BirdBook series take the form of pure silhouette, featuring the lithe, willowy figure of the charismatic alchemist Dr Fulminare, conjuring flocks of birds out of thin air. Smaller vignette illustrations of specific bird species, showing details of patterns and plumage, accompany the relevant poems in the volume.
My mother Erika also does paper-cutting, with tiny scissors, as opposed to a knife. A number of her silhouette bird illustrations are featured in the BirdBook series. Thankfully, she and I work in completely different ways, and distinct styles, so we never tread on each other's toes. People mistakenly assume that I have learned my paper-cut techniques from her, but this is not the case. I began experimenting independently with knife paper-cutting about fifteen years ago, and have focussed on it since I resumed visual art following my graduation from the University of Edinburgh (MA Hons Arabic, 2006).
2. You do a lot of live scalpel demos, sometimes in collaboration with your mother, Erika. What do you enjoy about these, and what feedback have you had?
Live art demonstrations are a major part of my freelance art activities. Art can be an intensely solitary occupation, so I think it's extremely important to interact with people as much as possible. This is not only great fun but also enriching, inspiring and informative, both for me as the 'performing' artist, and for the people who come to watch.
In our closely guarded society, it takes some courage to launch into being spontaneously creative in public, but as soon as I start, I am carried forward by my own momentum. Live art demos allow me as an artist to engage with my audience, demonstrating my techniques, explaining about the meaning of the work, and encouraging people to share ideas and have a go themselves. Some of the most rewarding conversations I have are with young children, who often ask the most interesting and thoughtful questions.
I do some of my best work while demoing in public. Being constantly engaged in conversation means that my focus is on talking with people, rather than on the artwork, and as a result, I switch into 'auto-pilot' mode. At that moment, I no longer feel self-conscious, I no longer worry about choices, options or mistakes, because I have no excuses - I simply have to get on with it. Meanwhile, the artwork simply 'happens' in front of me, and I feel more like an observer.
Specifically relating to paper-cutting, my mother and I sometimes collaborate in performing live demos, demonstrating two very different techniques, using different cutting tools, and different styles of work, within the context of paper-cutting. People remark that this creates a particularly interesting opportunity to observe, learn, compare and contrast.
3. You also do speed painting demos. What challenges does this present at a live event and what difference does it make to the finished piece?
In many respects, speed-painting is the opposite end of the scale from scalpel paper-cutting, being typically large scale, bold, colourful and very swiftly executed. I complete a painting within an hour or two at most, and so people can watch a work unfolding even in the space of a few minutes. I often hear: "But I only went away to make a cup of coffee, and came back, and you'd almost finished!" There is something very special about painting live in public. It is more than just a creative process. It is a dynamic, interactive performance art.
People come up to me, even while I'm still setting up my easel and squeezing out my acrylic paints onto my palette, and they ask: "Are you about to start a painting?" In that context, there is no opportunity to hesitate or deliberate over choices of colour, composition, or subject matter. Here is someone standing at my elbow, waiting to see me in action. The momentary feeling of being daunted by a blank canvas thrills me. I have no option but to brush that feeling aside, and begin painting. This has influenced my painting style and process a lot, with the result that I never do any form of preliminary pencil or chalk sketch - I simply launch in.
One of my favourite types of live art demo is portrait painting from a live model. This presents some additional unique challenges, not least having to engage with my sitter, encourage them to relax, talk to me and share anecdotes, while at the same time engaging with other people stopping to watch and ask questions. Recently, I have also begun doing speed-portraits from life in paper-cut, using my scalpel and cutting mat - again, this forces me to loosen up and ignore my inhibitions. It's an excellent discipline for an artist.
4. In stark contrast to your scalpelled silhouettes, you paint a lot of portraits, notably of reggae artists. Has this been a long-standing interest?
I love the unique challenges of portraiture, whether from life, or based on photographs. I try to strike a balance between capturing a recognisable likeness and evoking something deeper. A physical likeness is important, but I want to do more than a camera can do. I use non-realistic colours, often bold and unexpected, to suggest character, emotions, moods, a sense of humour, a spark of defiance...
Over the years, I have often painted series of portraits, inspired by themes that have shaped my creative output. Among these, roots reggae and the Rastafarian spiritual tradition have for a long time been a rich source of symbolic imagery in my work. The Rastafarian philosophy fascinates me, because it invokes both the unity of universal brother-sister-hood and also a fierce spirit of individualism. This strikes me as an ideal balance for contemporary society, particularly for a freelance creative practitioner, who must network and interact with society, but equally rebel against conventions. I have frequently performed live painting demos at music and dance venues, directly inspired by the music, dancing along while I painted. This has greatly influenced by approach to painting, teaching me not to worry about colour - I've sometimes had only candle light to work by, meaning that I could not even tell which colours I had in my palette.
Portrait of Joseph Hill
5. Who, living or dead, would you most like to paint a portrait of?
I like a face that tells a story. Especially a story of defiance against persecution, or triumph over hardship. The legendary warrior queen Boadicea (Boudicca), who famously resisted the Roman invasion and occupation of her lands in East Anglia, springs to mind.
In an ideal world, where such things were more feasible, I would particularly like to capture portraits of people who are classed as social outcasts or isolated in some way, and delve beneath the clichés: the homeless beggar huddled in blankets on a pavement in the midst of an affluent metropolis, the rebellious modern youth with outrageous attire and shocking appearance, the colourful crazy hippy at one with nature, the prisoner behind bars, the eternally unwelcome refugee, the lonely old man or woman sitting silently in a nursing home... The list goes on.
As the saying goes: "Beware of artists. They mix with all classes of society and are therefore the most dangerous." In a sense, every full-time artist, poet or musician is rejected by society, labelled as slightly insane, expected to give up their creative passion and "get a proper job in the real world".
Being an artist myself, I would therefore most of all like to paint portraits of other artists.
6. Your mum Erika also works with silhouettes, describing her work as Scherenschnitte. How does your work differ from this method?
The German term Scherenschnitte means literally 'scissor-cuts', in reference to the specialised paper-cutting scissors she uses. She uses very thin black paper, which she holds in her hand while piercing and cutting into it. By contrast, I lay my paper down on a cutting mat, and cut into it with my surgical scalpel. The paper I use tends to be more substantial, ideally something like pastel or cartridge paper.
Both techniques require great levels of precision and care, and good lighting. One false slip, and half the design falls off. It is always possible to cut more away, but not so easy to stick bits back on.
7. What attracted you to the Sidekick Books Birdbook project?
Birds have always held a fascination for me. As a child, I spent many hours closely observing visitors to our garden bird table, and was endlessly delighted by their ability to fly, flit, dart, soar, glide, hover, swoop, and plummet. To this day, wings and feathers have a powerful magic association for me. Our local Victorian Natural History Museum in Ipswich has a vast collection of bird specimens, the Ogilvie Collection, preserved in exquisite detail, which inspired me to learn about British birds of other habitats. The BirdBook series celebrates many lesser known species as well as familiar feathered friends.
Of course, presiding over the BirdBook series, there is also the enigmatic shadowy figure of the alchemist Dr Fulminare, who evolved in my imagination out of various archetypes of wise wizards and wanderers between the worlds. He is strongly linked in my interpretation with the Norse All-Father god Odin, who is associated with two Ravens, representing Thought and Memory. Dr Fulminare conjures whole flocks of birds out of thin air, using only his bare hands.
Hands, like feathered wings, are magical and very expressive. In metaphysics and alchemy, they are often considered as spiritual antennae, having immense power to convey healing or harm. Dr Fulminare's hands are his most important feature, with characteristically long, witchy fingers. He is tall and graceful, with a long elegant robe, frayed and feathered at the bottom. Above him, very thin paper strands cut in sweeping lines and energetic zigzags evoke the fleeting presence of birds in flight.
Alchemy is about transformation, evolution, metamorphosis. It encourages us to transform the ordinary into the extraordinary, which is what I seek to do with paper-cutting, creating an exquisite artwork out of a humble piece of paper.
Front cover of BirdBook I
Front cover of BirdBook II
Front cover of BirdBook iii
8. Who are your major artistic influences?
My major artistic influence has been children's illustrator Jan Pienkowski (born 1936, in Warsaw), in whose West London studio I have worked part-time as an artist's assistant since the days of my GCSE art reference project (1999). Jan is best known for his Meg and Mog series, and for his pioneering pop-up books, including Haunted House, but he has also created many volumes of silhouette illustrations with a strong fairy-tale emphasis. His intricate silhouettes were originally hand-drawn, until I began cutting them out for him, based on his drawings, using a scalpel.
The most valuable thing I have absorbed from working so closely with Jan all these years is not the knowledge of art techniques, but rather his eccentric, sometimes completely 'crazy' approach towards art, and more generally towards life.
Most refreshing of all is his attitude towards so-called 'mistakes': Jan does not believe in mistakes. When something has just gone horribly 'wrong', he exclaims: "Wait! Maybe it's better like that!"
9. Are there any mediums/artforms you've not yet had a chance to explore, but are curious about?
I am always keen to explore the expressive potential of new mediums. Even within the context of paper-cutting, for example, I discover new things with almost every piece I create. Increasingly, I experiment with combining paper-cutting, drawing, painting, photography and digital art, to create dramatic, magical and unexpected results. Our alchemist friend would no doubt approve.
Yesterday evening, I tried knife-painting for the first time in my life (with a palette knife, not my scalpel, I hasten to add). I felt like someone had given me an extra hand. Art tools are merely extensions of our hands and fingers, conveying their magic touch onto the canvas.
Meanwhile, I like to break out of two dimensions into three, and have recently resumed sculpting in mixed-media, transforming the 'base metals' of mundane objects into the 'gold' of a beautiful form.
We are all alchemists.
Illustration for the poem "Waldzauber" ("Forest Magic"), by Marion Hartmann, published in the SternenBlick I German anthology (Mattner, Spring 2015).
10. Lastly, what projects are you currently working on, and where can we see you in action?
I have recently completed a set of illustrations for the second volume of a German anthology called SternenBlick ("Glance of the Stars"), and am still working on the 'grand finale' of a series of fairy-tale illustrations for a book to be published next year in Austria, SternenKnoepfe ("Star-Buttons") - apparently unconnected, but on a similar starry theme.
I am also currently working on numerous paper-cut gift commissions, each one personalised with meaningful details for the intended recipient. I specialise in creating unique paper-cut gifts for first (i.e. paper) wedding anniversaries and other occasions.
The best way to see me in action is to drop by at one of my ongoing series of live art demos, including scalpel paper-cutting, acrylic speed-painting and portraiture, and mixed media sculpture, which will continue throughout 2016, most often at branches of Tindalls Art & Crafts in Colchester, Newmarket and Ely. I also present talks, demos and workshops, and am happy to travel further afield on request. My blog (www.LoisCordelia.com/blog) is a colourful and dynamic record of my busy live art events schedule, as well as exhibitions, publications, interviews, creative collaborations, and occasional sneak previews of work in progress. Stay tuned, and thanks for listening!
Lois Cordelia, ASGFA. Ipswich. November 26th 2015. With special thanks to Kirsten Irving for her excellent interview questions.