Lois Cordelia was interviewed by Alex Assaly, a PhD candidate in English Literature at the University of Cambridge, for one of his series of "5 Questions" interviews with academics and artists.
Alex Assaly first encountered visual artist Lois Cordelia's work in Darren J.N. Middleton’s Rastafari and the Arts (2015), for which Lois contributed a number of images and an article written specifically for the book. Alex writes: "[Lois's] painting of Black Uhuru was one of the most arresting illustrations featured in the study." He conducted the interview with Lois via a series of email exchanges.
Lois talks to Alex about how she came to focus on the visual arts, some of the spiritual traditions that have influenced her life and work, and the prevailing themes of movement, dance and interconnectedness that are so characteristic of her art.
Loïs Cordelia Interview
I first encountered Loïs Cordelia’s work in Darren J.N. Middleton’s Rastafari and the Arts (2015). Her painting of Black Uhuru was one of the most arresting illustrations featured in the study. Cordelia paints Ducky Simpson, Puma Jones, and Michael Rose in bright green, yellow, and red, respectively. They press their bodies to each other in an act of intimacy and their gazes—directed outward—invite the observer to join their close coterie. The painting is more than just an exercise in similitude; it captures a mood. Cordelia manages to express the ideas, the same cadence and rhythm, of songs like “Solidarity” and “Time to Unite.” The painting is both sensitive and affective.
These two qualities appear again—this time in verbal form—in an interview (included as an appendix) featured in Rastafari and the Arts. In her answer to a question concerning the influence of Rastafari on her art, Cordelia gives a very personal account of her “love affair with roots reggae.” Reggae enraptured her, Cordelia writes, because of its message of “the unity of all people” and its capacity to kindle in her “the spirit of rebellion.” Her appraisal of this constructive-destructive duality reaches the very heart of Rastafari. And, with such sensitive knowledge, Rastafari’s mood, essence, spirit incarnates itself in the very materials of her art.
After I featured Black Uhuru (2011) in my interview with Darren J.N. Middleton, I reached out to Cordelia. She kindly agreed to a similar interview. Busy schedules inhibited us from meeting in person, so an e-mail interview has, thus far, taken the place of a live one. I hope that this will change sometime soon.
I organize my e-mail interview the way I did the one with Middleton: five questions on themes various enough to serve as a “very short introduction” to the interviewee’s work. The questions may seem disparate, but, I hope, some reading and analogical thinking will turn variety into a coherent web of ideas.
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Loïs Cordelia is an artist based in Ipswich, England. She works in cut-paper, acrylics, and mixed media. Her methods are diverse: at times she energetically speed-paints and, at others, she painstakingly uses a scalpel to create intricate paper cuts. Her work has been published in journals, books, and music albums in Great Britain, America, Germany, and Austria. She is beyond prolific. Examples of her work can be found on her personal website: http://www.loiscordelia.com. On her “events blog,” you can find a schedule of her upcoming live demos, workshops, talks, and publications: http://www.loiscordelia.com/blog
Question #1: Personal
As I familiarize myself with your oeuvre, I get the sense that there is an overarching theme to your work: interconnectedness. You use the term in relation to your scalpel paper-cut Gaze of the Green Man (April 2015). “The fragile interconnectedness of Nature” not only seems to apply to the paper-cut’s subject, but also (more broadly) to the nature of your very aesthetics. Your oeuvre is an (inter)connected web of methods (speed-painting, paper cutting), styles (portraiture, life drawing, cartography), and subjects (music, history, myth). You’re a “person of many parts,” to use the outdated idiom. Could you tell us, first, how you came to the visual arts and, second, how the visual arts became the means by which you could involve your various influences?
Firstly, Alex, many thanks for your glowing words of introduction and your thoughtfully worded interview text. I always enjoy the challenge of responding to such interesting questions, because it makes me stop and query every aspect of my own creative process.
Yes, all things are connected. As an artist, I consider part of my role is to open people's eyes to the extraordinary parallels that link every level of reality, because this is the basis of creativity, not to accept things simply at face value, but to go deeper. To quote John Muir: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe”.
As a child growing up in school, I rarely questioned the modern scientific mindset, with its emphasis on logical, linear thoughts, tending to dismiss interconnectedness in all but its most obvious forms. In evolving to become an artist, I have had to re-train my brain to think sideways, diagonally, cyclically, back-to-front, in loops and spirals, and beyond the confines of conventional thinking. Every artist runs the risk of being labelled 'crazy', but the more I delve into looking-glass land and logic, the more I consider this term a complement.
As you mention in your question, an intricately perforated paper-cut design is perhaps one of the clearest symbolic representations of interconnectedness. My paper-cuts often consist of a 'web' of paper strands, each one painstakingly cut out using a surgical scalpel blade. I inch my way down either side of pencil lines, and often have to hold my breath to keep my hand steady and avoid breaking a crucial structural strand. This makes me think of many parallels: the web of biodiversity, the Internet, the human brain – each with a mindboggling complexity of links.
On the subject of the brain, I saw a brilliant and very funny post a few weeks ago, circulating on one of the social media sites, which likened the brain of a creative person to a computer with several thousand tabs open simultaneously, all the time. This made me laugh, because I could wholly relate. The point is that these thousands of tabs are also interlinked, often in spirals and loops, and nested one inside another.
When links are broken, we swiftly notice the disruptive consequences. I am particularly fascinated by the theory of six degrees of separation, suggesting that everyone and everything on the planet can be connected to anyone or anything else by six or fewer steps. The more we tune in to this, the smaller the world becomes and the more familiar everything seems, because we acknowledge our shared ancestry, DNA, life experience, heritage, culture, spiritual principles, linguistic roots, anxieties, problems and so on.
Networking is everything. Nothing and noone can exist in isolation. With every passing day that connects me with more people and more ideas, I am grateful, because it shows me how important networking is – in particular to a freelance artist.
I defy the age old stereotype of the artist who labours in solitude, shut away from the world. Of course, every artist must spend periods of their life alone, practising, experimenting, researching, but prolonged isolation is unhealthy and not conducive to a successful career. For this reason, I perform live art demonstrations in public almost every week, engaging passers-by in conversation, listening, sharing anecdotes and inspiration, challenging people to think in fresh ways by introducing them to unusual approaches, and all the time I continue painting or paper-cutting or sculpting. I go into auto-pilot. My ego steps aside and I no longer feel self-conscious. I'm engaged in human interaction, and so the creative process simply flows. Many people tell me I'm brave to do so, but this is how I work best. Even when I work alone at home in my studio, I deliberately immerse myself in music, audiobooks or poetry, for the same reason.
Engaging complete strangers in unlikely conversations about art and philosophy has not always come so naturally to me. As a child, I spent most of my time alone, endlessly drawing. At first, I drew mostly from imagination: animals, horses, and mythical creatures. Later, about the age of ten, I began to draw increasingly from direct observation, creating accurate pencil and pen studies of museum specimens and natural forms, as well as realistic portraits from life sittings. I reconstructed 'artist's impressions' of dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures based on studies of fossil remains and skeletal structure. In this way, I became a skilled draughtsman at a young age, and no matter how far I shift away from photorealism towards creative expression, I still place great value on drawing skills. Being able to capture a likeness with minimal strokes and accurately judge complex relationships of different angles in a large composition is a great boost to confidence when painting live in public. When teaching art workshops, I always encourage people to loosen up, work from the shoulder, measure with their eyes and spend at least as much time looking at their subject matter as they do at their painting along the way, rather than spending hours meticulously sketching out the basis of a picture. I believe this is the surest way of improving drawing skills.
I continued formal study of art only as far as A-level (Northgate High School, Ipswich, 2001). I owe a debt of gratitude to my A-level Art teacher, Mr Dan Emery, who first encouraged me to let go my obsession with black and white drawing and evolve into colour, hence I began painting. My 'art education' since then has taken the form of working part-time as a personal studio assistant to artist and illustrator Jan Pienkowski (born 1936, Warsaw), most famous for his children's books, the Meg and Mog series and pioneering pop-up titles, including Haunted House. Working so closely with Jan in his beautiful, spacious west London studio has exposed me to new art mediums and styles, and given me an insight on the book publishing industry, but above all it has introduced me to Jan's radical, refreshing and often wonderfully eccentric philosophy towards art. What impressed me most was his carefree attitude to so-called 'mistakes'. Jan welcomes these as unexpected gifts that offer him a different way of seeing things. Genius!
In short, the visual arts have become far more to me than my career. They are my passion, the way I express myself best and the means by which I combine all my diverse influences.
Question #2: Spiritual
Your work seems to convey more than just a technical proficiency. In a work like Sioux (July 2014), you aim for more than similitude. You seem to want to convey an essence, to capture and express the person or the soul of your subject. In He Who Laughs Last (April 2014), you go so far as to make a triple portrait in order to capture the multi-faceted personality of Lenny Henry. It feels—if I may—spiritual, even sacramental. Is there a spiritual dimension to your work? If so, could you speak a bit about it?
In an ideal world, my artwork would exist entirely in a spiritual dimension and would be infinitely fluid in form – rather as I envision things in my mind. In my understanding, I equate spirit with movement, freedom and life, hence, most of my work is concerned with evoking a fleeting impression of spirit and pinning it down just long enough to capture its essence, without confining it too rigidly. Physical form can only contain spirit as long as it remains flexible enough to do so. The moment it loses this fluidity, it becomes a lifeless fossil, a brittle relic. I will speak further of the importance of movement in answer to question three.
My spiritual journey has been an intense one, at times lonely, at times euphoric. Looking back, I can relate each step of it to the archetypal mythic journey, which suddenly brings every painful episode, every 'triumph', every 'failure' into meaningful perspective in the wider context of the soul's development.
My early upbringing was not religious. Indeed, religion was practically a subject of taboo, and so it sparked in me an intense curiosity. I remember being fascinated by words such as 'infinite' and 'ultimate'. I explored science, seeking answers to the infinite question mark that floated in my mind, encountering astrophysics, black holes and quantum mechanics along the way. But I longed to explore beyond the boundaries of four dimensional space-time and the physical universe.
I began exploring religion, delving into various scriptures and traditions, being deeply influenced by a few in particular: Christian, Islamic, Sufi, Rastafarian, Hindu, before broadening into comparative religion and mythology, immersing myself in the poetry of Rumi, Ibn Arabi, Hildegard of Bingen, St John of the Cross and others. In the course of exciting adventures and forays into second hand bookshops and little known territories of the library during my first year at the University of Edinburgh, I encountered the works of Paramahansa Yogananda, Rudolf Steiner and Omraam Mikhaël Aïvanhov, whose combined teachings still form the basis of my spiritual worldview. Ultimately, I defy being labelled and steer clear of divisive language as much as possible, avoiding such terms as 'religion', which appears to be a western concept that has been at best awkwardly applied to eastern traditions, preferring to speak of a 'spiritual path' or 'tradition'.
I have no religion, other than Nature. In this sense, a lot of my artwork draws upon the ancient, timeless symbols and figures of the Pagan path: the Wanderer between Worlds, the Green Man, the World Tree, the Sun, Moon and Stars, magic, dance, faeries, ferns, and native flora and fauna. These are often combined and fused with powerful symbols of biblical imagery, largely influenced by my long love affair with the Rastafarian tradition: the crazed prophet, the Angel, the lion, the roots, the vine, the Christ, the Crown of Thorns, and the Tree of Life. My third major influence and source of symbolic imagery is Hindu spirituality, including four-armed Shiva Nataraj (Lord of the Dance), and Lord Krishna with his consort Radha. Such symbols are like seeds, dropped into the fertile ground of my imagination over many years and allowed to grow, evolving, fusing, entwining with others to take on ever new forms.
I am most interested in themes that speak of hope: rebirth, metamorphosis, transformation, transfiguration, evolution, because this is the uplifting message I wish my work to convey.
Question #3: Visual
Movement, energy, or dynamism is a distinctive feature of your art. On the level of method, you do a lot of speed painting demos. On the level of line, you often use jagged and curvilinear strokes or contours. In Tennyson Down - Isle of Wight (October 2012) and Sand Dunes at West Wittering (2014), the dynamism of the subject matter has an obvious cause: the wind. But, in other paintings, the source of its movement is unclear - it seems to emanate either from the person him/herself or, perhaps, from the dynamic impression you have of your subject. Can you explain what accounts for the energy, dynamism, or movement that is so characteristic of your work?
Movement links together all the apparently diverse mediums of my artistic expression. As I've mentioned, it also evokes my dynamic perception of spirit as striving to reach beyond the confines of physical form.
My so-called 'speed-painting' technique involves painting with acrylics on a large scale, launching in with a large brush, and working from my shoulder as opposed to my wrist to produce huge sweeping arcs of movement. I rarely take more than an hour or two at most to complete a painting or portrait, because I am keen to preserve the raw energy that fuelled the first few seconds or minutes. Life drawing and sketching, capturing the likeness of a live model, often within a space of a few minutes, is another excellent discipline, which I highly recommend to anyone wanting to improve their drawing skills. I often quote Leonardo da Vinci: “Art is never finished. It is only abandoned.” An artwork that is truly 'finished' seems to lose something, weighed down by obsession with detail and perfection. Less is more.
Similarly, with my paper-cuts, a swift, energetic sketch forms the basis of a very precise design that may take many hours to cut out, yet it is that raw energy that remains manifest on completion. In the case of my sculptures, the initial 'sketch' takes a bit longer to execute, being composed of wire, bent into shape with pliers and twisted together for strength, but the principle is the same: the emphasis is always on evoking movement. The figures in my work tend to dance, often with dramatic gestures and outstretched limbs. They are typically elongated, striving to reach beyond their physical limitations into spiritual dimensions. They represent the eternal longing of spirit for freedom of expression.
Movement is fundamental to life itself, whether in the flow of blood circulation or water, the economy, electricity, traffic, or conversation. Without fluency, life grinds to a halt and stagnation sets in. On the subject of movement, I will leave you with two favourite quotations of Friedrich Nietzsche: “I would never believe in a god who didn't know how to dance”, and, similarly, “You must have chaos within you to give birth to a dancing star.”
Question #4: Linguistic
Soon, the fourth volume of BirdBook: Poems and Illustrations Celebrating British Birds (2016) will feature a paper-cut of yours on its cover. You often work with the illustrator and writer Jan Pienkowski. You’ve studied Arabic, you’ve started a website that matches reggae lyrics to biblical scripture (Words of Wisdom), you have a “quotations” page on your website, and works like For what is it to die (July 2011) and Manisha (December 2015) incorporate the written word. You are obviously very attuned to the relationship between the visual and the linguistic. Do you use the written word solely as visual decoration, or is it something more powerful or inspirational?
I have always been fascinated by words and language, and specifically, as you mention, the relationship between the visual and the linguistic. It is true that a picture can paint a thousand words, but a single word can also evoke a thousand images.
The meaning of words is important to me, most especially in the context of names. From the moment I discovered in early childhood that people's names had meanings, I began intensively studying name dictionaries. I found out that my own first name 'Lois' is derived from the old Teutonic, meaning 'warrior maiden', and that my middle name 'Cordelia' (which I now use in my artist name) means 'warm-hearted', hence, 'warm-hearted warrior maiden' – I like the balance that this implies: the strength and determination of the warrior spirit, coupled with gentleness. I find that both are important in my work: being fearless and confident, yet sensitive, loving and dedicated.
A few years on from this etymological discovery, I had moved on to studying dinosaurs, and then trees, and, once again, I was most intrigued by the array of exotic sounding scientific names, which I gradually learned were derived mostly from Greek and Latin. Having a German mother and an English father meant that I grew up more or less bilingual, which no doubt gave me a head start in dealing with the unique challenges of languages. Over a period of ten years or so, at high school, sixth form and university, as well as in my own time, I studied French, Latin, Ancient Greek, Biblical Hebrew, Amharic, Sanskrit and Arabic. In the end, I had to narrow down my choice to one, and opted for Arabic as my degree subject. Being a perfectionist, I loved the patterns of grammar, and always wanted to compose perfectly grammatical sentences. At university, the walls of my student digs were covered in handwritten Arabic verb tables, and very pretty they looked, too.
The visual aspect of language appeals to me more than any other. Most of the languages I studied involved non-Roman alphabets, which gave me fascinating glimpses into how pronunciation and meaning can be conveyed through widely varying visual forms. Foreign scripts appeared mysterious, seductive, playful, almost mystical, until patient study revealed comparable meanings to our familiar Roman alphabet. This taught me a lot about the ways that language can be visually appealing, and set me thinking about the characters of different typefaces, fonts, styles of calligraphy and handwriting. To this day, I love writing and sending handwritten snail-mails, most often to my fiance in the timeless spirit of love letters, and often adorn and decorate both cards and envelopes with fancy scripts. Meanwhile, though I rarely use other languages for communication, their visual character still manifests in my artwork, most notably the cascading fluent lines and rhythms of Arabic script.
I have deep respect for the written word, and yet I treat it with caution. Ideas seem to have a dangerous degree of assumed validity stamped upon them the moment they are 'set in stone' in the form of writing. The obvious example is the minefield of religious scripture and dogma, the literal interpretations thereof, and the horrific consequences. I wonder when, if ever, the sacredness of the spoken word will be re-established. It is humbling to realise that our ancient ancestors memorised entire epic narratives, reciting them by heart and passing them on from generation to generation.
Language is also a living thing. It evolves and changes with time. I have great admiration for writers who use words creatively and playfully, and have had the great pleasure and privilege of collaborating with a number of skilful writers, creating illustrations inspired by their texts. I would not call myself a writer, though I enjoy the challenge of speaking articulately about visual art.
Question #5: Social
Pig Geswyk (2016) is now on display in Ipswich as part of Pigs Gone Wild 2016. Pig Geswyk even has its own Twitter account. How important is integrating or sharing your art with the community? Does an audience matter? And, finally, what can your audience expect from you in the coming months?
Creating art live in public is a crucial aspect of my work, and I often create some of my best pieces in this context. Having an audience, whether in the form of casual passers-by and visitors or a sit-down audience at an art club demonstration who watch from start to completion, turns visual art into a performance art. It means that I have no excuse: I have to simply launch in, which swiftly eliminates the fear of making a start on a blank canvas. The adrenaline kicks in and no doubt sharpens my thinking. A live audience offers instant feedback, critique and encouragement, which can be a valuable boost to confidence. Best of all, I have the opportunity to engage in conversation, learn, share, and inspire others to have a go themselves.
I am very proud of my pig, Pig-Geswyk. She has become my first public art, to be installed in the centre of my hometown of Ipswich for a period of ten weeks this Summer, along with 38 other pigs, as part of the Pigs Gone Wild art trail. The pigs have brought hundreds of thousands of visitors to Ipswich since the trail opened at the end of June, and it has been heartwarming to see families and individuals going to visit each pig. I chose the name Pig-geswyk in reference to the Medieval name of Ipswich, Gippeswyk ('Place of the River Gipping'). I depicted two of my favourite iconic local townscapes on the larger-than-life fibreglass model pig: the elegant facade of the Elizabethan Christchurch Mansion on one side and the stylish contemporary Waterfront on the other.
In the spirit of my live speed-acrylics demonstrations, I completed the entire painting of my pig within the space of two days, working live in public at a busy cafe in Ipswich town centre, talking with dozens of visitors of all ages while I painted. I loved every minute, and made many friends over those two days. The pig trail finishes this Friday 2nd September, and it will be sad to see them all go, though I am delighted to have been asked to perform a live speed-painting demonstration at the grand pig auction evening on 22nd September – it will be very exciting to witness the auction.
As for what to expect in the coming months, I am always working behind the scenes on any number of projects, as well as continually striving to innovate in all my practices. Not wishing to spoil any surprises, I won't say too much. At the present time, I am very busy creating a set of magical themed cut-paper illustrations for a children's fairytale story, to be published in Austria later this year. As soon as I've completed those, I will be focussing on another project which is likewise very close to my heart, though in a different way: creating a series of haunting, uplifting, atmospheric visuals to accompany a song dedicated to refugee children, in the form of a music video.
Exciting times ahead. Watch this space...!
You are welcome to browse my website and blog, drop by at my live art demonstrations and other public events, attend my art workshops, follow me on social media, and get in touch to discuss commissions.
Email: [email protected]
Artwork Portfolio & Blog: www.LoisCordelia.com
Many thanks for your interest in my work and I look forward to hearing from you!
Lois Cordelia, Ipswich, UK, August 2016