The Wild Ambition of J.A.W. Cooper

0 Comments 03 August 2015

jaw cooper art

Artist J.A.W. Cooper talks living internationally, creating worlds, and her love of nature in advance of her solo show “Viscera” at La Luz de Jesus.

by Daniel Barron



J.A.W. Cooper creates worlds that resonate on a mythic level, at once remotely and alien and yet intimately familiar. With her biologist’s attention to anatomy and an anthropological interest in preserving a sense time and place, her lush conjurations recall the intricate world-building of modern masters such as Moebius and Hayao Miyazaki.

“Someone told me about my work, ‘It’s like folklore from an alternate reality,'” she says.  And she loves that. “I don’t want it to be tied to a time or a place, or even Earth. I’m creating my own history and cultures and then the folklore for that.”

Siphoned from a lifetime spent absorbing cultures abroad, from Kenya to Sweden to Ireland, Cooper has deepened her spectacular visions with a new show, “Viscera,” opening on Friday, August 7th at the La Luz de Jesus Gallery in Silverlake. We sat down to talk about her love of traveling, nature, and the creative ambitions behind her latest series.



You’ve lived all over the world. What did you parents do?

My parents are freshwater ecologists and they specialize in invertebrates, which is basically stream insects. My mother does species analysis, identification and scientific illustration, and my father does analysis as well and is also a professor and a researcher, so between professor exchanges, sabbaticals and traveling for research, we lived for three years in Kenya- in Nairobi- Sweden, Ireland, and did a lot of general traveling. There were long periods of time where we were just moving every couple of weeks, and I loved it.



Yeah. I did not hate it at all. Some children feel, “Oh, I don’t want to be away from my friends,” but there was never a point where I didn’t enjoy the traveling.


Did you sort of live in your own world or were you just so outgoing that you could make friends and meet people wherever you went?

Well, I have a younger sister who is only a year-and-a-half younger so I always had my best friend with me. We did some home schooling if we were in a country where English wasn’t the main language. But in Ireland, for instance, we went to school there and I never found it too difficult to make friends. Growing up my sister and I spent more time with adults than kids, hanging out with my parents’ friends, so I think we related a bit more to adults.



Do you like the United States? You’ve seen how so much of the rest of the world lives now.

Yeah, I love America! Everything is different. The thing I got from traveling that continues to be important thematically in my work is that wherever you go and even within a culture there is this huge range in how people experience reality. Everyone wants purpose and community and love and all of these things, so in some ways we are all the same in our basic needs and motivations, but we all perceive reality in a way specific to ourselves. I have preferences as far as some cultural perceptions of reality may resonate more strongly with me, but within any culture you can find people who resonate with how you see the world. So I love America and I love Los Angeles, but it took a little while.


How long have you been living in Los Angeles?

I’ve been here for ten or eleven years.


I think it takes about two or three years in order to fully acclimate.

Exactly! And that was my experience, too. I hated it when I first moved here for college and then you find the little places where you find peace and fit in. You just have to search a little harder.



Why did you initially hate LA?

I disliked it because I like nature, I like the outdoors, I don’t usually like crowds or aggression and here people drive really angrily and they can be kind of unpleasant sometimes. And you have to drive to get around; in Sweden you could just bike and walk everywhere. Now I usually do a camping trip every month to balance my time in the hustle and bustle, mostly I camp solo so I can adventure more spontaneously.


When you do those trips are you just reenergizing your batteries or are you also gathering reference materials and inspiration? Do you bring any art supplies?

I always intend to go and paint a lot, but once I get out there I just want to be present and experience it. I take a lot of photos and the photos do end up as backgrounds for the paintings so it does inform the work, but I usually just end up going hiking the whole time.



There is a lot of world-building present in your art, particularly involving imagery inspired by indigenous cultures. Are there any cultures or points in history that are of particular fascination to you? What do you find yourself revisiting over and over again?

There’s nothing super modern in my work. I go for a look that can’t be pinpointed into any one time or place, but it’s still familiar. It references cultures in history but it has no time and place. There are sneakers or tennis shoes in my work.

As far as personal experience, in Kenya in Nairobi the Swahili people that lived all around us- in this show there’s actually a piece of a cow bleeding from the neck. And that’s my earliest memory. Without my parents’ knowledge, my caretaker had taken me to a celebration in her village and they were doing this traditional thing where they take milk in a bowl and they bleed a cow- just a little bit so that they don’t kill it or even hurt it much- into the milk so that it’s blood-milk. And then they share it. They invited me to try it and I remember feeling so honored. Even as a little kid I knew that it was a special thing to be invited to participate.



I’ve been to a few countries such as Australia and England and Spain and Italy, but it wasn’t until I went to Turkey last year that I truly felt like I was in a foreign country. By that I mean it was the first time in which I had to actually adjust or recalibrate my behavior in order to suit the customs of the region.

Yeah! Do you enjoy that? Some people find discomfort in culture-shock.


I appreciated it. I finally felt like I was off the reserve and I instilled me with more of a vigor to explore other cultures.

Right, in England it’s so easy.


Or even in Italy. The broad strokes of so-called Western culture aren’t too dissimilar from each other, especially with American culture and business being so globally pervasive. In Istanbul you couldn’t wear shorts past the knee, when we entered mosques my mother and sisters had to cover up. And then there’s the fact that there’s a siren five times a day so that people can pray towards Mecca. Going to a bazaar is an experience because you’re elbow-to-elbow with people while merchants are pushing stuff in your face trying to aggressively sell you something…

That sounds amazing! I’ve been dying to go there! I love the places that push you out of your comfort zone, and I think it matters how you travel, too. Not that you always have to be uncomfortable, but if you wander off the beaten path, or you have to travel really cheap, or travel alone, all of those things can put you in situations where you’re forced to engage with the culture in a more intimate way.



Where have you felt the farthest from Kansas, so to speak? What is default J.A.W. Cooper?

You mean where do I feel most at home? LA is pretty normal for me. I moved here for college, and my loft in downtown has felt like home in a way that nowhere else has. Of the countries we lived growing up Sweden was my favorite. Obviously Nairobi was quite different but at the time that was all I knew, that was my normal. There was no sense of culture shock because that was the culture that I was raised in, and I think children are pretty elastic in adjusting to new cultures.


So it doesn’t feel terribly boring when someone says, “Let’s go party at a bar tonight!”? You don’t want to say, “No, let’s go spelunking in some cave in Peru!”?

[laughs] I hardly drink. Maybe once a year.


[In valley girl affectation] “Let’s go dancing!”

My good buddies all know my limits now and they don’t mind me wandering off to do my own thing. I deal with city life by camping a lot, just going on my own adventures.


By yourself or with friends?

Sometimes friends will join but most of them have day jobs so it’s hard for them to just leave to go camping for weeks at a time.



So your parents are into bugs. Was that ever weird for you?

No, you never think it’s weird growing up because that’s all you know. And, in fact, I thought everyone’s parents studied bugs, because all of my parents’ friends were also ecologists. We definitely had insects in our fridge all of the time. That was where my friends would go, “Oh my god!” at the vials of floating preserved specimens sitting next to the butter.


Did you learn which ones taste good?

Okay, so I did eat a lot of bugs in Kenya, but mostly against my parents’ wishes. My sister and I would clear the piles of dead insects off the windowsills when no one was looking and eat them. We definitely ate termites too. I still have a strong love of insects but my hunger for them is gone. Obviously!



Collab with photographer Allan Amato for the Temple of Art project.


There’s an obvious fascination with biology and anatomy in your illustrations. I remember when I was an art student the most prodigious artist in my class actually had a dual major in biology. He said that he could look at the bones of an animal and draw what it looked like with skin and vice versa. It was incredible.

I was actually going to be a zoologist up until the end of high school. I wasn’t going to be an artist at all. In high school I took city college classes in zoology and stuff like that. I really didn’t want to become an artist because I thought it was kind of self-serving. It was impractical and I thought, “I’m practical, and I want to be independent.” Junior and Senior year I took an intensive art class and thought, “Y’know, I think I could do this.” The pivotal point was when I realized that concept art existed as a field, for movies and video games, and eventually realized that there were many commercial and lucrative applications in art.


What did you set out to do thematically and aesthetically with your latest series “Viscera”? How did you hope to set it apart from past shows?

With my previous solo show in 2013 I came up with the theme very early on. That show was about vulnerability. It was very straightforward in that I had sketches and then I executed the sketches. I had a lot of planning in how all of the pieces would work together. For “Viscera” I specifically tried not to plan so much. I tried to let the pieces unfold more naturally, intuitively, and spontaneously. Viscera is “guts,” the literal translation, what this is about it more “visceral” as in “a gut feeling.” It’s something you experience intuitively that isn’t intellectually planned out, it’s more of an emotional reaction. So execution-wise this solo show is also very much about intuition, the guts of the work, that initial spark of creativity.



Collab with photographer Allan Amato for the Temple of Art project.


jaw cooper art

Under the Skin art for Yay! Horror Movie A Day


And now a sneak peak at “Viscera”….











jaw cooper art

Under the Skin art for Yay! Horror Movie A Day



“Viscera” opens on Friday, August 7th at 8pm at the La Luz de Jesus Gallery (4633 Hollywood Blvd, Los Angeles CA 90027).

View more art on J.A.W. Cooper’s website.

Follow J.A.W. Cooper: Twitter, Instagram

Read more on J.A.W. Cooper in our feature on Allan Amato’s ambitious Temple of Art project.

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- who has written 423 posts on Yay! LA | Arts & Culture Magazine.

Rudderless college graduate Daniel Barron founded Yay! LA Magazine on a love of writing, passion for the arts, and a firm belief that people really like talking about themselves. He contributed to a number of publications, including LA Music Blog and the defunct The Site Unscene, before deciding to cover arts and entertainment the way he wanted to read it. He works as a freelance writer and digital PR consultant in his current home of Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter at @YayDanielBarron.

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