Interview 006: Jo Cope
New Directions - 5 Steps to becoming a Feminist- Jo Cope 2021
How do you define art?
As an inspirational dialogue between artist and viewer and a social comment on the world at any given point. Art for me is a daily practice of asking questions and seeking to progress the medium of art itself. Art is ever moving and we are its shape shifters.
How have you developed your career, what gave you the desire and push to create and be an artist?
I am a second career artist, I lost the use of my hands for around two years in my twenties and as they recovered I started to think about the core of who I was- I have always been an artist but I had the opportunity to start the journey to become an artist as a career starting with the first step of doing an art foundation in 2003.
I have forged my own path in the arts rather than picking a well-trodden one, my practice is something that I must shape and constantly define and in turn I look for and create my own opportunities constantly, it’s not easy because I have chosen to be an outsider practice; one that doesn't fit a specific mould, but that is also the challenge that I love and live for.
Each day I ask myself why I'm creating the work, who it’s for, where it is meant to exist and what I should push next. I make small but important steps each day to realising my dream scenarios. I am very self-critical and self-reliant; I try and build relationships with people who I think have mutual interests and that are a good fit for my work and who I naturally get on well with. I have worked with organisations like The Venice Design Biennial to realise more ambitious performative projects and self-curated projects for London Craft Week.
The desire is a burning feeling in the mind and body, the realisation that I am an artist and with that comes a responsibility to myself to invest as much as I can into the progression of my creative practice, but also a social responsibility to create work which is relevant, beautifully executed and which speaks to people.
What does your work aim to say?
Some very simple universal messages about human experience but also some more complex and multi-layered narratives, the great thing about art is that each person’s experience of it is different and you can take as much or as little as you want or can translate.
The work has visual and historical references to fashion, it also draws on the semiotics of dress and works as social commentary. There are many signs and symbolism that are crafted into the pieces but also in the way it is displayed. The shoes in each piece aim to speak and communicate something that I am processing at that time- so it would aim to be a shared dialogue about something that needs addressing. For example In a current piece that I am developing into an installation on multi parts – 'Five Steps to Becoming a Feminist' is about my own journey as a woman and also concerns about recent media reports relating to gender inequality and a rise in awareness for gender based domestic violence, it is there as a social commentary on how and way women have to adapt to survive but also a positive portrayal of a woman's ability to transform and build individual and collective strength and knowledge.
Coming from a fashion background how and why did you decide to intertwine fashion and art together?
I believe that fashion has another life and many other ways of existing. My own interests are from a non-commercial perspective. It started with exploring how fashion could speak through performative language by using symbolic actions and movements. I'm interested in where the boundaries are, what hasn't yet been explored and how fashion can exist as an art form both with the body and independently of the wearer.
What inspires your practice?
Exploring universal human experiences which includes my life and wider observations of the lives of others and social -political trends. I often use my practice as a way of processing and overcoming obstacles. An obsession and hunger to learn, I am an eternal pupil in the school of life. I learn and process everything through my work. The desire to progress and ask questions of fashion outside of a commercial context to pushing boundaries, to challenge, to ask questions of and inspire others to see beyond what they already know.
Red is very prominent colour in your work why the use of red?
Red is the life blood in my work, it represents the lived moment that the work is exploring. The actual colour itself gives me energy to work, dynamic and visceral we feed off each other.
How has the Pandemic affected your creativity?
It gave me time to be very focused, to invest in cultural and historical reading, to walk and think, to observe shifts in human behaviour and to challenge my own craft, materials and making skills.
I was able to create a duration piece which started at the beginning of the first lockdown and ended pretty much around the last. It felt like a test of endurance and very positive to successfully manifest a highly crated installation piece under restricted circumstances. When I couldn't get hold of certain materials, I used whatever I could lay my hands on – at one point I was prototyping with fruit and paper to get the initial shapes. Both Covid and Brexit has made me think about the medium of film as something that can easily be transported but embodies the fashion artefacts and performative aspects of my practice. The pandemic also introduced me to new biomaterials possibilities and made me engage with and be creative with my natural environment.
How did you stay focused with each project during the pandemic, were there any elements of your artistic expression you focused on more?
I moved studios during the pandemic so there were logistical obstacles, sometimes I was working in the attic, a lot of the time I was balancing my practice with supporting students online. I have a natural inner drive and the pandemic was just a source of artistic fuel.
The pandemic started off with navigating disappointments- all the shows that got cancelled but then it was all about being brave and taking risks, I managed to visit Venice to create a roof top performance as well as facilitate a central London exhibition with restrictions which was also very successful. It was all about creatively adapting to succeed and being very flexible and open to last minute change.
How has your art changed/evolved over the years?
It has become more focused around the feet as a site to explore life from many different perspectives, I previously worked around the whole body but now the feet and all the philosophy and culture that surrounds them is a constant source of research and investigation, my practice is very multifaceted, so I think this one aspect of continuity helps. Over the years my craft skills have really developed, a lot of my methods are descended from knowledge passed on to me from amazing leather crafts people some with a lifetime of experience, I pick up something from every encounter I have creatively with people. As the saying goes: 'we are the sum total of everyone we have ever met'
My work has also become more abstract and worries less about its connection to the body on a physical level.
What do you wish your work would embody/narrate anything to the viewer? If so why and what?
The intention of the work is a social commentary so the combination of the strategic titles alongside the symbolic artefacts, I hope will make people think. I am often talking about universally experienced themes to do with things relating to; life, gender, love ect. In expressing and processing my own life experiences, in turn I hope that something maybe is learnt by me and that a connection will be made with the viewer. My work is very multi-layered so often reading about my work is sometimes necessary after viewing it to get a little deeper.
What do you wish your audience to take away after viewing your work?
The shoes I make are like people – so I hope they see an element of themselves in them. The main reactions I get to my work is often in relation to the labour of the craft so I would say their aesthetic beauty often seems to resonate with people. I am always looking to push the shoe beyond its rational existence in normal life, so I hope the viewer is excited and intrigued by the boundaries I am pushing and the new realities for the shoe I am creating.
How do you feel you'd like to see your works curated?
I think there are many possibilities, but I personally always imagine them as floor installations, I think my work is far more interesting when narrated in this way than an isolated object on a plinth. Performance or alongside film I think is also a way of bringing the artworks to life.
Do you feel something needs to change within the arts industry and the ways which exhibitions are curated post-lockdown?
Community and collaboration are key, we need to find spaces that maybe are more unexpected or more accessible, but which maybe partner with credible forces that can help support, fund, create exposure. Artists doing it for themselves and being creative rogues outside of the big establishments has been liberating to see. I think that we need to find strategic ways to encourage the public back to live art spaces and consider their needs and aspirations of art post lockdown.
Do you have any upcoming projects or exhibitions?
I am currently exhibiting in Israel; it is great that this show 'On and Beyond the Boot' has finally been able to open after a postponement of a year.
I have a collaborative project currently on show at The Gallery, Leicester and I am currently preparing the first tour of the Shoes Have Names exhibition my collaboration with the homeless charity Shelter which is due to open in January at New Brewery Arts in Cirencester in January 2022.
Current projects include -Bionic Boob, myself as part of a collective of artists and designers looking at the post mastectomy body- this is a long term project which will run for numerous years resulting in an exhibition. I am also starting to develop ideas for London Craft Week 2022.
Sept 2022 will be a retrospective of my work at The Leicester Gallery which is my hometown.
From the beginning of 2022 I am scheduling new filmic work to explore cultural histories through feet and shoes which will become moving image artworks funded by Arts Council England.