Canadian artists Sarah Cowan and Connie Michele Morey have spent this last year in a mutual and collaborative journey that has included a joint drumming practice as well as “personal, philosophical and studio exchanges – that have resulted in the unfolding of a resonant body of work.” An inspiring exhibition for the month of January that put a smile on my face every time I walked through our gallery XChanges in Victoria, B.C. No matter how often I was passing by those hundreds of small felt balls of every colour and size pinned against the while gallery wall, I enjoyed seeing their grey shadows move from right to left, feeling light and inspired. ‘Quirky’, ‘magical’ and ‘fun’ come to mind, when looking at Sarah’s and Connie’s pieces of art – elaborate and intricate paper installations, delicate drawings or a little toy sheep, whose head and legs are sticking out of a ball of felt.
Connie and Sarah – What kind of work has your current show ‘Oscillatio’ been focussing on?
Connie and Sarah: Our show consists of installation and sculptural work that makes use of materials and techniques related to contemporary craft (paper, felt, thread, fabric, wood). The work centers on the theme Oscillatio.
Where does the ‘Oscillatio’ come from?
Connie and Sarah: It originates from the notion of Oscillation – a back and forth movement. It is the reverberation that the heart makes while beating, the back and forth movement of the tides, the vibration of a viola string or the sway of the movement of walking and dancing.
When things oscillate they move around a center. Does that have any relevance in your work?
Connie and Sarah: Indeed. Our work has developed out of an oscillation between ourselves, and our practices as artists. Ove the last 14 months, Sarah and I have engaged in a back and forth movement of sharing our practice and live experience.
As a viewer, what qualities do you think make for an interesting piece of art? What piques your interest personally?
Sarah: This is a hard question to answer. I don’t have a specific genre that I like exclusively. I am most intrigued with any work that makes me want to look at it more. Work that pulls me in and makes me ask questions, not so much about the process but more about what the artist is asking themselves and what it asks of me. I like work that makes me feel slightly uncomfortable, when I feel compelled to turn away but at the same time intensely drawn to it. And then, there is just beauty.
Connie: I feel inspired when I look at a work of art that is both visceral and critically engaged, a work that invites you to look at the world from new perspectives. I appreciate work that engages an aesthetic experience in the viewer.
What do you mean by aesthetic experience – the opposite of an anaesthetic, which functions to numb your senses?
Connie (laughing): Yes, something that wakes up your senses and makes you feel alive. To produce a work of art that can wake up the body, soul and mind simultaneously takes great insight and trust in the creative process. Works that induce inspiration for making, thinking and moving are gifts to the world.
Do you sometimes look at particularly inspiring work of art and have a strong visceral response?
Connie: Absolutely – I literally want to jump, dance, speak, write or make in response to it. Annette Messager, Louise Bourgeois and Ann Hamilton are artists whose work has this kind of effect on me. Hiraki Sawa’s recent exhibition at AGGV also elicited a visceral and joyful response in me. I found it inspiring, full stop. Work that challenges me to think on a deep intuitive level and also elicits a visceral response is a catalyst for creative engagement with the world; art that offers that kind of experience is a gift.
Being an artist can sometimes be really frustrating. What are the obstacles you’ve run into and how do you go about navigating around them?
Sarah: The biggest obstacle I contend with is myself. I doubt myself all the time. You see, I don’t really think I am a very good artist so I need to keep working at it. I now know that it is what I need to do. Whether I am good or not doesn’t really come into it (but it’s lovely when things do work out!). A day or two away from the studio is very disconcerting for me now.
Connie: Being an artist is a gift, an absolute pleasure. I know that there are limitations that make it challenging for people in general to make art; e.g. financial constraints that put limitations on the artist’s time, or instances when people struggle with developing ideas or trusting themselves as artists. However, I honestly don’t think of these things as limitations – they are important parts of the process of engaging with the world through making and they inform art practice in essential ways.
Sarah: I agree – they provide openings for us to know ourselves better as artists.
Connie: Sure, I would love more time to make art, but it is ok that I have to struggle for that time. As for the process of developing ideas and engaging with the process of making… truthfully, I have great trust in the process of making. It is a space where I can let things unfold on a deep intuitive level with joy and relatively little effort. The process of making art, like writing, is a process where I feel completely at home with myself.
When you go into ‘work mode’, do you have a particular agenda or something in mind that you are hoping for?
Connie: I think in a way I am always in ‘work mode’… even when I am teaching or driving a car, reading to my daughter, dancing or preparing breakfast I am in the process of making. I see the boundaries between different areas of my life as very fluid and open. Art is a way of engaging with the world for me. Art works are markers of that continuous process.
Sarah: When I go into ‘work mode’ it’s usually materially based. I have an idea about creating or exploring with a material to see what I can come up with. Or, I see another artist’s work and it inspires me to try or play. I am never without my sketchbook and use it constantly to explore or just play. My legacy to my son will be my sketchbooks!!!
Both of you have an interest in working with felt, paper and mixed media. Where did you get the idea for a collaborative exhibition?
Sarah: Connie called me one day in 2013 and asked if I would be interested in putting in a proposal to Xchanges. We have a similar sympathy and sensibility in our art practice as well as our personal philosophy toward life. I admire so much Connie’s approach to her work; her dedication and commitment as well as her all out passion and creativity!
Connie: We’ve often met in each other’s studios and talked about the points of intersection between our work and the ways that each of our practices has impacted each other. Although articulated through different means, our work shares certain commonalities in its intricacy, repetition, and focus on care-full processes that are in some ways obsessive. I’ve been inspired by Sarah’s work since an exhibition she had in 2012 at Xchanges. We were delighted when the jury accepted our application and we started drumming together and meeting on a monthly basis to share ideas, work and life experience.
Connie, what have been your two favourite shows that you have done and why?
Connie: I don’t know if I can speak of whole shows that are my favourite… this is a difficult question for me. Making art is significantly about the process for me. Sharing the work through an exhibition is important too, but more because it is an opportunity to exchange – and in this sense is really a process in itself. The finished work is less important than the processes of making it, sharing it and shifting perspectives through that sharing.
It sounds like collaborating is integral to your process?
Connie: Absolutely, and more so as time goes on. I’ve been fortunate to collaborate with Sarah and with other artists, writers, scientists, and philosophers to expand my thinking through making. I don’t think of exhibitions as finished works, so this question is hard for me to answer.
Sarah, what have been your two favourite shows that you have done and why?
My favourite show was my graduation exhibition at the Vancouver Island School of Art in 2011. I converted one of the closets into a drawing using pen & ink, charcoal, wire, paint, thread, paper, photo-transfers, pins and other mixed media. The other show was at Xchanges where I took the idea of the closet, the contained space, the safe space, and built a free-standing closet drawing on the walls and ceiling. Both of these exhibitions were based on my long history of living with an eating disorder and trying to find my own space in the world.
Any upcoming events?
Connie: I think Oscillatio is the beginning of future collaborations.
Sarah: Indeed. We will be showing together in another group exhibition in May, and have plans to collaborate for another show in November 2015.
Connie and Sarah, thank you very much for sharing your thoughts with my readers.
Sarah Cowan plays with the concept of connection/disconnection between her internal self and her relationship with the external world. The materials she uses are pen and ink drawings, text and thread, oil paint, paper cut work and now needle felted sculpture. She graduated from the Vancouver Island School of Art in 2011 with a Diploma in Fine Arts and continues her art practice in association with Gallery 1580 as resident curator.
Connie M. Morey is an artist, writer, teacher and practice-based researcher whose work is ecologically situated. Her current studio practice includes the permeable genres of installation, sculpture, contemporary craft, performance, ceramics, drawing, painting, artist’s books and critical-creative writing. She received her BFA (Visual Arts) from the University of Lethbridge in 1995, an M.Ed. (Art Education) in 2007 and is currently a PhD Candidate at the University of Victoria.