Alison Cooley | Free People
FEBRUARY 1, 2016
Inside the Unexpected Studio of Alison Cooley
As told by Free People
On a deceptively sunny, freezing cold January day, my cab pulls up in front of the home of artist Allison Cooley. Bright white and very cute, the kind of Georgetown home/apartment building I might drive by and think how nice it would be to live there. A knock on the door and soon Alison is ushering me upstairs to her second-floor home, which she shares with her husband and young son, and which is just as sunny and inviting as one might imagine. In the front room, which doubles as Cooley’s studio, the early afternoon sun streams through the front windows, its wintery glow bouncing off couch and mirror, painting, and Lego set. This is a multi-functional space at its best, a space where Cooley works, relaxes, reads and spends time with her family (hence, the Lego set). The two sizable pieces on the wall, which are still in the works, are diminutive compared to the large-scale piece Cooley created for our latest catalog, The Artist Issue. The painting/backdrop, which you can see splashed across the first few pages, took up an entire wall. The kind of piece you might spy in a gallery or museum and think “wow, that artist must work in an enormous studio.”
In reality, art is made when and where it wants to be made, regardless of space. As an artist you make it work, and that’s exactly what Cooley has done, melding her artistic life with family life, home with studio. And really, what could be better? Vibrant, saturated paintings reverberate across the walls, pieces on paper splash across shelves and bookcases. Inspiration flowing forth from all angles. Interspersed with her large work and mini-sketches are drawings by Alison’s young son, clearly feeling inspired by the work that surrounds on a daily basis.
You grew up in DC. Do you feel growing up where you did had any influence on your decision to become an artist?
I have vivid childhood memories of Washington’s swampy climate. Asleep in the backseat of our station wagon, I always knew we were close to home when my parents would turn off the AC, roll down the windows, and that spongey, humid air would settle over you. I was always attuned to atmospheres and changing weather patterns. It’s basically what I paint.
What informs your work? Are there particular sources from where you draw inspiration?
I paint edges and transitions. When I lived on an island, my work was informed by the solitude, beauty and severity of the natural world. Now I’ve taken this ambient abstraction into a much more intimate zone — an exploration of daily, mostly anonymous, interactions. So often we are thrown into surprising intimacy with strangers and the encounter is visceral. The scent of a wet coat, the recognition of a song leaking from ear buds, the unexpected look at a shaving cut can momentarily engage us in a stranger’s world. My work acts as a collective portraiture, capturing the shifting fronts and clouds of humans moving through and around each other, leaving elements in their wake.
The vibrant color in your paintings is so incredibly gorgeous – what role does color play in the work you create?
Color is such a trigger for people. Right now I work in a heightened palette combining natural pigments with glossy, incandescent colors. I use a lot of pink in my work. I’ve never heard anyone say, “I hate blue,” but I often hear people say, “I hate pink.” Culturally we have a strong reaction to pink — sometimes we tend to think of those tones as fanciful or fake or pretty. I think of pink as a very powerful and provocative color — the color of lungs, tongues, palms, gums, tissue — alive and vital. I build depth in my work by playing with juxtapositions — flesh tones and neon, stark twisting lines with creamy, shimmering color fields, transparent ink bubbles and chalky graphite scratchings. Lines, etchings and blooms of color express the range of ways we present ourselves to the world. I love the graphic potential of using graffiti mops and calligraphy pens alongside traditional watercolor, colored pencil, and oil paint, in many cases layering them over each other.
Before committing yourself full-time to your art you also worked in PR. When did you decide to focus entirely on painting? Was that a difficult decision to make?
I have been working full-time as an artist for about five years. At that time a lot of things were changing in my life and it seemed like a good time to take the leap. You work out of your home in a small area of your living room.
Do you find it difficult to have the work in the same room that you might be watching a TV show or spending time with your family? How do you separate yourself from the demands of an unfinished painting?
The real answer is I am pretty disciplined about when I work. I’ve never had an issue with separating the mental spaces.
Having lived in some pretty spectacular places – DC, Nantucket, London – how has your work evolved as you’ve moved from place to place?
It has moved from exploring the individual in relation to the natural world to exploring the interconnectedness of human beings. In some ways, I’ve learned that it’s up for grabs whether you’re more isolated or more connected in a city or an island. I like exploring that question in the different settings.
Has your approach to painting shifted as you’ve traveled from one environment to another?
Well, my work space has changed dramatically from place to place. I’ve had everything from a 800 square-foot studio to a 50-square foot studio. When I lived on an island and had a lot of space in my studio, I spent a lot of time there thinking, imagining and then eventually painting. Now that I have a small space, I do a lot of my thinking and imagining in the world, surrounded by other people. When I get to my studio, painting is immediate and energized.
You had under a month to paint the backdrop you created for our Artist Issue – how did you prepare for that?
Everything grew. My brushes got bigger, my palette knives were like frying pans and my trusty ladder was unfolded. I do not fear deadlines so the main challenge was really the size.
How does your approach differ when creating a set piece, like the backdrop, as opposed to a painting?
I felt very free — I left some areas of the canvas raw and used large mops and thick nibs instead of delicate, superfine pens. It was much more physical and in many ways a joyful process.
Do you feel the same emotional connection with that work as you do your other paintings, or does the feeling differ when creating for a brand or other outside project?
I do feel the same connection. Music is a vital part of my process — once I put my headphones on and engage — the rest falls away.
How did you first come to be involved with Tappan Collective?
I met Chelsea at Art Basel Miami. My husband and I loved a Kelsey Shultis painting that Tappan had on view. We started a conversation and things developed from there!
Do you feel it’s important for full-time artists to be part of a larger collective or agency such as Tappan?
For me it is. As the boundaries between the creative worlds dissolve, it’s interesting to see what opportunities bloom in that new space. Tappan is constantly reimagining how to present art and cross-pollinate with other industries on new projects.