Rebecca Cowan is an artist who is living and working out of Kingston, Ontario. There she is surrounded by certain stillness and calm that often only exists outside of cities. Looking at images of Rebecca’s work on the Studio 22 website I can see how her surroundings have translated into inspiration and talking to Rebecca I could hear a gentle thoughtfulness in her voice which is also apparent in her work. Rebecca’s series INTO THE WOODS will be on exhibit at Graven Feather August 3rd to 28th. The Reception will be held on Thursday August 4th where you will be able to meet Rebecca and celebrate with her. I had a lovely discussion with Rebecca and here is what she had to say:
*Photo taken from STUDIO 22
ALEXIS: Where did your art journey begin?
REBECCA: Well I can hardly remember when I didn’t love to draw. So I guess as a small child, and I was always very interested in watching people paint. When I was young, very young my parents had friends who were lighthouse keepers near Queensville. So we would go to visit them and the woman, who lived there, used to paint. One of my very earliest memories is of this pink beach; for a long time I thought it was a dream, I didn’t think that it was real. And then maybe 25 or 30 years ago I mentioned it to my father and he couldn’t believe that I remembered it because he said, “You were only two, two and a half and you were watching Joyce paint for about an hour; just standing there and watching. None of us could believe you could be so quiet and patient.” So I guess it has always spoken to me in some way.
A: I have heard that you are a print maker. It is difficult to tell in the photos I have found of your art so I wonder what medium are you working in and planning to show at INTO THE WOODS
R: I would like to say that I am primarily a printmaker. I like to do a lot of dry point and etching. The work that I will be showing at Graven Feather is in fact a mixed media work that started out as working with dry point plates in a very loose way. Not trying to edition them but using colour and overlapping them. Then I printed them on light almost transparent Japanese paper. Then I did drawings on the pack of the paper and adhered the paper to stained wooden panels. I do some mixed media and collage work but it all still starts with print.
A: That is drawing you to print? What about it do you find so special and so important to your communication in art?
R: I was really drawn to etching in particular because it relies on drawing quite a bit. I just like that it is a fairly slow process. When I was younger and in art school, I would get really, really excited when I was painting. I would go crazy and ruin things a lot. Printmaking is really procedural, so while you can still go crazy and trust me I do; it is a little harder to do because of the process. It really slowed me down and I needed that. The thing I love about printmaking is that you make your marks on the plate and then you print it in reverse. The way that the ink sits in the lines is not always the way you anticipated it. It is always a bit of magic when you pull the print of the press and I love that. The etching process when you are making marks and putting plates in to acid, I really like that too because the acid reacts differently every time. Even if you are careful you can still have surprises and accidents. I often feel when I am etching that I am in a conversation with my plate. I am saying something on my plate then I put it in the acid and I clean it off and I proof it. Sometimes the print is speaking back to me exactly what I said, but more often then not it has a few words of its own, like we are in a creative conversation and I really, really like that bit of accident.
A: what scale are you working in for your current body of work?
R: The show at Graven feather ranges from 16-inch square to 6-inches by 8-inches. And usually I would say in the last few years I have been working in 16 or 18 inches square. I really like the square format and have used that a lot in my work over the years. I find it a challenging format but also a very nice way to have pieces co-ordinate and be a series.
A: As a print maker are you bound by the process to work in small sizes or do you prefer the smaller size. Some artists feel compelled to make these massive pieces and so as a print maker do you feel limited in not being able to do that or do you actually prefer?
R: That is something that I have thought about a lot. Although most of the work in tis show is 16 inches square I have done a lot of work that’s very small like 2 x 3 inches or 4 inches. I really think that etching in particular lends itself to a kind of intimate image and that the smallness makes it even more intimate; quite personal. You can make scary and difficult images and if they are that size they are manageable by the viewer. But I do not feel constrained by that when I want to print a much bigger print and I have printed much bigger 30 x 40 “ I print at Open studio where they have a large press.
A: From the images of your work I have been able to find I notice that all of your work is featuring trees (Rebecca laughs). What I found interesting was that they are silhouettes of trees that seem to be displaced. There isn’t really an indication landscape or a tree belonging to a certain area. So I am wondering why you are removing them from the environment and then what is the significance and what do you find special about the tree themselves.
R: Even though the work you are seeing online all has trees, the tree thing has been a very recent for me like 2010, 2012. Before that most of my work has been figurative. I was really looking at the trees just as beautiful things. The trees started when I was sitting at my dining room table one morning. I have two walnut trees in my backyard that I see and they are just beautiful; I started to really appreciate the strength of them. Moving to the trees was about accepting the fact that I live in Kingston. One of the nice things here is that there is more nature, or nature is more accessible than Toronto. I have been in Kingston for 15 years and I still miss Toronto and the big city. But you know I really love the trees, I think that they are such a universal image and they speak to so many people in a lot of different ways. I don’t know if there will be more trees I am thinking about if the next set of work will be more trees and it might be and it might be but on a bigger scale actually. I like that there is no horizon in these pictures. I want them to have an anywhere feel, I don’t want them to be grounded.
A: I think that that comes across. I like the idea of having an anywhere feel that is a nice message. I guess that your studio is located in your home?
A: so when you working in your studio and you have just had breakfast and you are looking at your beautiful trees what would you say is the state of mind that you are going through when you are printing and working on the etchings?
R: Well you know the trees, because there is a lot of drawing all the little leaves and all the small details that was almost meditative doing those plates, quite relaxing after the drawings were done. State of mind in the studio… I try to stay focused because it is very easy for me to just go off in 20 directions. I think that that is true for anybody, well at least for a lot of people. Quite often before I get to the studio I go for a walk and plan out my studio day, making a mental list of what I am going to do and how I will proceed. That is very helpful before getting to the space to do that.
A: there are elements of realism in your work- the ideas of the tree and the faces. Some are rendered very realistically, however the way that the pieces are coming together it is more like visual poetry than like someone who is portraying something that they have seen in real life. What has drawn you manipulate and abstract the images in that way that is almost gentle and like a day dream to me.
R: They are almost fantasy images in a way, these faces of the forest creatures the nymph and fairies grew out of an idea I have been things about for a long time about secrets and things that are hidden. How you only see part of a person and never see the whole person. About shifting realities, that is part of what is happening in the prints and the work at graven feather. It is part of that idea of secrets and the hidden self. It is interesting because that kind of work came about from several ideas that came together. One was this idea of secrets and the other was the idea of the Japanese concept that in English is called forest bathing. It is about the fact that when you walk in the forest and the smell and the sound and the calm of the forest actually releases endorphins and lowers blood pressure; it’s very healthy. So that is an idea I was thinking about the forest bathing and the calm.
A: This can be related to art or just in general with life and with your arts career. What is one of your best pieces of advice or a life tip that someone has given you along your journey?
R: I have been told to be more selfish **laughs** but I am still working on that. I think that you have to keep going and that the art life is a difficult one. It is really not easy I don’t think for any body, you have successes and failures. I think that one of the most difficult things is. I think that you keep raising the bar on your own work. What you thought was really great a few years ago, what you thought was really good you think no…oh…hmm…no. I always want to do work that pushes a little bit into areas that I don’t know, pushing technique. I want to be excited; I don’t want to repeat myself. I am always thinking and I think that looking at other people's work is very important; keeping that critical eye and listening. It is a tough thing because on some levels you don’t want to be too precious with your work because that is restricting, but you want to be confident in your work. I don’t think that that answers your questions.
Actually now I do know what to say that answers your question. When I was 13 I won a big national art contest sponsored by the United Nations association. When I was working on that piece and I was working on it day and night we had a family friend who was a painter, and he looked at it partially done and said that it was really coming together. I said that I was really proud of it that I think it is the best thing that I have ever done. He said to me that the way to really be good is to think just as you are finishing a piece that is the best thing you have ever done and days later you look at it again and you think; oh I could do that better.
A: What would you like the viewer to get from looking at your works?
R: I always want the viewer to somehow see something of themselves when they look at my work. So to have some identification with what is there, whether it is just the light and the shadow or the expression on the face or something like that and to be brought to some memory or to some experience in their own life. That some how it speaks to them.