TOAST Magazine

In the Studio with Eileen Cooper

ARTS & CULTURE

In this series, we chat with inspiring women artists around the world about their life and work and everything in between.

When Eileen Cooper was a child, her mother used to sit and draw with her in biro on a notepad. “Not that she was ever able to pursue a career in art and I don’t know if she ever had an interest really,” says Eileen, “but I obviously did.” Now in her late-60s, a Royal Academician (who became the RA’s first female Keeper) with an OBE, Eileen is widely celebrated for her ambitious drawings, prints and paintings of monumental, mythic women accompanied by partners, children, plants and animals.

We’re chatting over Zoom, Eileen from the ground-floor studio in the South-London home she and her family moved to more than 30 years ago. “How tidy it is depends on how hard I’m working,” she says, the corners of her lips curling upwards. The walls are white, the wooden floorboards bare. There’s a large chest of drawers and a crowded bookcase. A handful of recent paintings are on display and a work-in-progress – two figures and a bushy-tailed fox huddled around a flaming campfire – rests on an easel. A couple of windows overlooking the garden let in natural light, which catches in what Eileen calls her reluctantly grey hair.

“It’s the main room in the house, which is unusual for a lot of women artists,” she says. “Sometimes, even if their homes are quite grand, they have a back bedroom.” About five years ago, sometime after her children had moved out, Eileen converted an upstairs room into a storage space and drawing studio and built a print studio out the back. “The hall is a bit of an overspill space, and there’s no water in here so I wash my brushes in the kitchen.” She has the flexibility of the whole house.

Eileen didn’t plan on becoming an artist – partly because she didn’t know any artists. As a middle child growing up in a not particularly happy family in the Peak District, art was her escape. From a young age she was singled out for her drawings and by the time she started secondary school teachers were pushing her to pursue her talent. So she dropped out and went to a local art school, not knowing where it would lead. A favourite teacher of hers encouraged her to aim high and she ended up first at Goldsmiths, then the Royal College of Art. “And I just carried on – got a studio, got a bit of teaching, worked in youth clubs. Then suddenly I put artist [as my profession] on my passport one year.”

Her painting process is similarly ad hoc: “It just happens, or it doesn’t happen, or what I’d intended develops into something else because the colour changes, I scratch it off, I introduce another figure.” It’s not that she’s averse to planning and printmaking is inherently more laborious. “But in painting everything is fluid all the time, as long as I want it to be, and I can change things very quickly.”

For Eileen, every story starts with a figure – or a hand, an eye, a nose. She learned to draw the traditional way, by looking, and it wasn’t until she began to draw imaginatively that she found her signature style: strong, angular figures depicted with an expressive line and a sometimes earthy, sometimes dreamlike palette. Since giving up teaching – which she’s done at schools from Central Saint Martin’s to the RA – she’s returned to the model. “Now I’m hovering between working from observation and a sort of magical realism.” She also, handily, has several ex-students who live nearby and are happy to pose for her.

One of those students, Dmitri, together with his girlfriend Lucy and their dog Frida, is the subject of a painting that’s part of a new series on people and their pets. Eileen spotted a photograph of the trio cuddling on a sofa on Instagram and asked if she could use it. The artist’s composition is characteristically cropped, the figures bunched up, an affectionate jumble of limbs. Another work shows a young woman tenderly entwined with two grey-blue cats, their amber eyes alert, their ears pricked. “I’m obsessed with the edge of the rectangle,” says Eileen, of her tendency to wedge characters into corners. “Even if something sits inside it, I inevitably put an elbow or a head up to the edge and squash them in.”

The effect is that you feel close to her characters, who are one toe away from stepping off the canvas into our realm. Eileen’s portraits are both strange and familiar, and the gentle clumsiness of her figures make them human. They’re rooted in reality, albeit a reality that’s packed with imaginative promise.

Eileen captures moments that define our collective experience, and those moments have evolved over time. When she was younger, they revolved around sex; when she became a mother in the mid-80s, they were more maternal. When her children grew up, she created a series called Woman Rebuilding Herself – showing one female figure piecing another back together again. Throughout, she’s returned to the themes of creativity and work – painting herself painting a self-portrait, mirror in hand. “I suppose it’s about making sense of my life, understanding the world through my own activities.”

At this moment in time, Eileen often finds herself painting younger women, whom she calls “alternative selves”. The first work she made during the March lockdown was a melancholy double portrait of her printmaking assistant Julia and her sister Teres, who were isolating together in their tiny London flat away from their family in Italy. The girls are hunched over a table, spring blossom creeping into the frame, taunting them. “I was thinking, how are they coping?”

She now has a daughter-in-law and a grandchild, a factor which has also prompted her to revisit the theme of motherhood – and dig out an old poster of a Masaccio virgin and child. Early Renaissance art has always been an influence, alongside Japanese prints, Native American art, African art, early modernists (Picasso, among others), and women artists such as Frida Kahlo and Alice Neel. “When I think I’m working in the dark, imaginatively, of course there are all these things that I’ve absorbed.”

Eileen, like many women artists and authors, is often asked if her work is autobiographical, a question to which she has a stock answer: “It’s personal but it’s also universal.” She never wants it to be anecdotal or self-indulgently about her; instead, she wants it to be poetic, allegorical, symbolic. And it is. Capturing moments of transition, whether physical or emotional, her art is about rhythm, movement, balance – an unconscious nod, perhaps, to the balancing act that is being a woman and a wife and a mother and an artist.

Interview by Chloë Ashby.

Images by Justin Piperger and Malcolm Southward.

For more information and to see current works on show at the RA, see Eileen Cooper's website.

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