Ashley Norwood Cooper is having a solo painting show at First Street Gallery in NYC. The show title, “The Likes of Us,” is taken from a line in “Waiting for Godot,” about the moon looking down on our ordinary lives. The first thing that caught my attention in Cooper’s work was the just right mix of raw quality and subtle sensibility to detail, depicting narratives that both intimate and universal. In this interview the artist talks about her process of painting from the imagination, her approach to color, and how she got to art.
AS: You grew up in Greenville, SC and attended the University of Georgia, graduating with a major in Latin. What brought you to painting?
Ashley Norwood Cooper: I had amazing high school art teachers in South Carolina. When I went to college I intended to major in art. Athens, GA in the late 1980’s had a big music scene. The creative energy was exciting and a lot of it revolved around the art department, but I really felt out of place with so many would-be rock stars. I fell in with some bookish classics students and changed my major. I even became a Latin teacher for a while.
It was probably foolish. I was meant to be an artist and had little talent for languages. What I think I got out of it was a feeling that the history of art and literature are very present for me. I count a lot of famous dead people as my personal friends and that has allowed me to continue to develop as an artist even at times when I was isolated from a creative community.
AS: You are having an upcoming solo show at First Street Gallery in NYC. Can you talk about your body of work in this show?
Ashley Norwood Cooper: My show at First Street is called “The Likes of Us.” The title is taken from a line in “Waiting for Godot” about the moon looking down on the likes of us. It includes paintings of figures, mostly in interiors. This is not observational figure painting. The paintings are made from imagination – focusing on color relationships and handling of paint.
AS: Looking at your paintings, it seems to me that domesticity, autobiography, and family life, play central thematic roles in your work. What is your take on that?
Ashley Norwood Cooper: I guess for some people art is about having a meaning or a message. They find a medium that will best express that meaning. For me, however, painting is a practice. I paint every day and whatever thoughts I have, whatever comes at me, I grapple with it all by moving colors around on a flat surface.
I live in a small town in central New York. I have three teenage children and a husband. The mundane details of my life don’t seem like art. That is what I do in the studio, I make all of that into art.
AS: Tell me about color. How do you choose your palette?
Ashley Norwood Cooper: I am a color addict and I buy a lot of paint. I use oil paints and paint sticks. I don’t squeeze out the same palette every day. I dig through my colors and think of a palette I want to use on a specific painting, then I might add to it as I go along.
Sometimes a single color inspires a painting, as in “Blue Boy with Yellow Bird” or “Gary and His Guys.” Color intensity and hue contrast are important. I think about how color can create emphases in a painting. Color can make one shape in a painting reveal itself very quickly while other shapes hold back and reveal themselves more slowly. I think this introduces to painting an element of time, which is difficult to get from a still image on a flat surface.
AS: There is a strong sense of immediacy and rawness in your painting. Tell me about your process.
Ashley Norwood Cooper: I do not work from photographs or direct observation. I do very quick and rudimentary sketches in my sketchbook. Some of my sketches start completely abstractly. I am just playing around with how to divide a two-dimensional space and then I start imagining subject matter from there. Other times I have a subject in mind and I am looking for the abstraction.
I go straight to the painting surface, though, from a very simple sketch. I really want most of my ideas to develop while I am painting. I paint very directly, using palette knives, brushes and my fingers. I use scrafitto and I sketch back into my paintings with graphite sticks. I try to get as many different kinds of marks and surfaces as I can.
To me, a painting is really about the fraught relationship between form and content. How they push against each other, how they fight and make up. It like a very intense love story that never arrives at happily ever after. I want to expose those tensions more than I want to resolve them. Often the most awkward moments in my paintings are my favorite parts.
AS: I am curious to know if art history / other artists / literature / other forms play an important role for you or inform your work in any way.
Ashley Norwood Cooper: I love art history. I am especially fond of Giotto, Soutine and Bonnard. Among contemporary artists, I am inspired by Brenda Goodman and Peter Williams. Brenda Goodman, for how she makes abstraction so intimate and personal, and Peter Williams for the way he creates a heightened, overstimulated, environment in his paintings that feels like the way we live now.
I also like to learn from artists in other fields. I like to hear them talk about their creative process and think about how that applies to painting. George Saunder’s novel “Lincoln in the Bardo” absolutely blows me away, how he opens up the whole form of the novel, creating something that speaks very powerfully to our time. But he does it with such reverence for things that have come before – Buddhism, Dante, Abraham Lincoln. And when he talks about writing, I am inspired by what he says about compassion as part of the creative process. I think about that a lot when I am in the studio.
I have a friendship with the poet A.E. Stallings. She has been an inspiration and very supportive. I think she has most influenced me in helping me to see art history (and literary history) as a conversation I can take part in. I also think she has helped me understand that the ordinary details of contemporary life are worthy of art.
AS: Let’s take “Hungry Boys” from 2018. What is the genesis and process in this one?
Ashley Norwood Cooper: This is a painting that developed out of a group of still life paintings that I did using food and objects associated with picnics. I am doing Still Lifes because they are so open ended and allow me to focus on abstraction. As I was working from imagination I became interested in imagining colored glass dishes in my Still Lifes, just as a color exercise. What would happen to all these colors if they were translated to shades of blue? Then the painting needed a pink cake and a hand serving the cake. This is a painting where the abstraction drove the imagery entirely.
AS: In your 2014 interview in “MW Capacity” you describe the years you kept on painting isolated from the art world in rural NY raising your family. I loved your analogy of an artist to Penelope, Odysseus’ wife, who kept weaving a funeral shroud for her father in law to keep her suiters at a distance, weaving and waiting patiently for her husband’s return from the Trojan War for twenty years. Can you elaborate on that a bit?
Ashley Norwood Cooper: The MW Capacity interview is about a series of paintings that I did when my husband was deployed in Afghanistan with the Navy. He was gone for 9 months. It was sort of an awful time for me both personally and creatively. I knew I had to paint about it, but I couldn’t figure out how. How do you paint an absence? I kept making paintings and scraping them down again. I was getting nowhere.
This is what got me thinking about Penelope weaving the funeral shroud of Laertes. She had promised that when the shroud was finished, she would give up on Odysseus return and marry one of her suitors. She would, however, wake up in the middle of the night and unweave the work she had done each day. She kept weaving and unweaving, just as I was painting and unpainting.
A cool thing is that in a way Odysseus was weaving as well. Whenever Odysseus tells a lie to help secure his way back home, Homer says he “weaves a tale.” I think there is something powerful about art and its ability, not just to create meaning, but also to change meaning. Also, in Penelope’s story there is something about the power of the process and how an unfinished work of art contains such hope and possibility. A finished work loses that, and is, for the artist, at least, a little bit sad, a representation of a lost possibility.
AS: Looking at your body of work from 2010, “Down from the Hill,” depicts an intriguing duality of in and out, landscape and interior; your recent paintings “The Likes of Us,” invites us mostly into an interior space, with a sense of both intimacy and enclosure. Does that reading make sense to you and how do you see your work evolved throughout the last 9 years?
Ashley Norwood Cooper: For a number of years, I painted cut-away houses. I was interested in domestic life. I was also interested in the difference between interior and exterior light and even in the way that light changes in different rooms of the house.
When I painted the “Deployment Series” this really changed. I ended up doing a series of paintings about my correspondence with my husband in Afghanistan over cell phones and computer screens. I became interested in the kind of light that screens project and in the way light carries information. At this time, I also switched from casein paint to oil paint. I was exploring the variety of textures and surfaces that oil paint can form. The scale of my paintings started to get larger in order to accommodate this.
The “Deployment Paintings” were my most autobiographical paintings. In the paintings for “The Likes of Us” I have allowed myself more freedom to make things up. Still, some things derive from very personal experience, my son’s pet dove, for example, informs “Boy with a Black Eye and his Barbary Dove.” But a lot is made up. I recently heard a songwriter say, “Pronouns mean nothing in my songs.” I kind of think of these paintings that way. The identity of the figures is slippery in these paintings. These people are like us, but they aren’t really us.
Also, this show isn’t held together by quite so tight a theme as the earlier series. I just gave myself freedom to paint whatever I wanted. The images relate more because of a way of handling paint and an approach to color and composition. This may be a sign that I am gaining confidence as a painter. I do think these pieces represent a new level of maturation in terms of skill. I am very happy with this series and excited to get the work out for people to see.