Interview: The Feminine, Symbol-Filled Pop Surrealism of Dawn Cooke

Bodies. They are at the center of art. First, because artists are using their own to create their artworks. And, of course, the body is one of the most favorite themes in art history. Female bodies, animals bodies, they help artists question their relationship with the physical world, with life, especially in our time, where most of our existence is becoming digital. The body can also be a medium, especially with the rise of tattoo art connecting people in another level. Art is part of our DNA. If you are familiar with the Golden Ratio, you probably know that the same mathematical formula is hiding in our chromosomes, in the shell of a snail, and in the galaxy.

Detroit based artist Dawn Cooke is exploring this meaningful relationship with her paintings. Her work is at the crossroads of many artistic practices (tattoo art and pop surrealism painting) but also many concepts (femininity, metaphysical symbolism) that are intertwining in our contemporary world, just like the many strands of our DNA’s. Dawn Cooke’s art is thus challenging us to look deeper into the images to find ourselves and to connect the dots. She started her journey with the imagination of Dali and the flesh of her clients, but she’s on the road to something more visceral, and with this interview she invites us to her exploration…

Dawn Cooke

How did you get involved with art in general as well as both painting and tattoo art in particular?

My first professional “art” related job was at a local art gallery that had an in-house graphic design team. My job was to photograph and build a database for cataloguing the art inventory. I spent a lot of time alone with some original Salvatore Dali; Marc Chagall works just to name a few. Looking back to that time I believe that’s what started it all with me. It was then that I realized I wanted to create works of my own. But it would be a long time before I would find my own voice in art. I loved that job but I had to move on when I was offered a tattoo apprenticeship. Well let’s be honest, I begged my friend’s boy friend for one! I was so lucky he gave me a chance. But I very quickly realized that the “art world” and “tattoo world” were very different worlds indeed and for the past 20 years, I straddled those two very different worlds. The art I learned to create first was heavily influenced by American traditional historical tattooers such as Percy Waters, Sailor Jerry, and Ed Hardy just to name a few.

After I had been tattooing for 10 years professionally, I took the opportunity to go to art school, which was bittersweet for me. I learned to paint from the late great Detroit artist Gilda Snowden. It was an abstract painting class. I still have that first painting I made in her class because it makes me think of her. That’s when I knew I was meant to be a painter. My love for tattooing never faded and so I began these two very different practices. I always felt that tattooing was a service I provided to others and even though it was my hand it was their body and thus their work. I needed a way to express myself and painting allowed me to be completely free to explore my own ideas.

What are the influences that have shaped your style and how did it evolve during your career?

I think the history of a medium, no matter what that medium is, is an important component to consider. So artists who came before me, who paved the way for the discussion are the greatest influence. That is why the earliest exposure to Dali and Chagall come to mind. Then the complete outsider influence of Percy Waters and Sailor Jerry also play a role for me. The idea that one can be influenced by high art and low brow art simultaneously I think is a relatively newer movement in the contemporary art world. But I’m not sure I can define what it says about classism in our western society, though I believe that it speaks to that concept in some way. I didn’t learn about many women painters in art school comparatively speaking there aren’t as many recorded as there were men. But there were amazing woman painters who I sought out and that became very influential to my work. The same goes for women tattoo artists. Among some of the most influential painters to me, from 18th century western history was Vigée Le Brun who was famous for painting Marie Antoinette. Because of her my painting is influenced by the Rococo era. Then in tattooing, Maud Wagner in the early 20th century was the first recorded woman tattooer in western history but not much of her work can be seen. Less patriarchal societies have had a different history which includes women. But I’m a product of Western culture and that can be seen in my work, along with pop culture references influenced by modern tattoo imagery and social media influences. In this way, I consider myself to be a feminist artist. In that, I am aware that just being a woman can be a disadvantage. Rather than dwell on it, I continue to use my voice.

According to you, how are the different mediums you are working with, painting and tattoo, connected or completing each other?

Tattooing is its own animal altogether. It really doesn’t relate to other mediums. There’s a long tradition that remained underground for so much time. It’s really only the last decade that information and history about tattooing has become accessible and mainstream. That tradition is something I entered into and it became my duty to uphold it to a certain extent. It’s marking the human body. It’s sacred to me and it’s about an intimate moment with another person who wishes to decorate their own body. I am the administer of that for them. I guess part of the process is creating designs and that is my favorite thing. I use a very traditional tattoo influence illustration technique to create flash. For those who don’t know, ‘flash’ is the term for the designs that hang on a tattoo shop wall. They are meant to inspire clients to get tattooed. When an image speaks to you, for example, you might be inspired to get it tattooed. The way this relates to my painting is interesting. The style of my work in both practices is as visually polarizing as the worlds themselves. But the one common thread I see is the use of imagery as symbolism. In tattooing, the images are marks that have a meaning to the wearer, and in paintings the images speak to the viewer who then interprets the meanings. I have a whole language I’ve started to develop through imagery. Certain images mean specific things to me. For example a snail shell represents the universe to me, or god as some people think of it. And these themes I began to also draw in my flash. So my two practices have begun to evolve a relationship of some kind though aesthetically they are so different.

What attracted you in the pop surrealism aesthetics? How do they help you  to translate your message(s), and what is it (are they)?

For a very long time I struggled to define my work. There just didn’t seem to be a category for what I was making. I think I needed to define the work somehow so that I could identify my audience. So that my work could reach people who might appreciate it. Eventually, I realized that it really fit into the pop surrealist aesthetics. The visual aesthetic of my work is an important aspect of the work. The concept of the work is delivered through the aesthetic. I like to create “mind space”. I’m talking about the idea of the absurd or the distortion of reality, like what happens when you dream. As in taking the imagery of the internet, reality and social media world and putting them together in a very different context that maybe speaks to our subconscious mind.

Most of the time, I have no idea why I’m attracted to a concept or image until after I begin to explore that image. Everyone knows how inundated we are in our media with imagery but do we really know how deeply we are affected by it? I think I am just processing this phenomenon through my work to some degree. But in particular I notice that I do explore the concept of feminine beauty more often because that’s the message that I receive. One thing I’ve tried not to do is formulate an over powering opinion because I’ve learned that the work is much more powerful as an exploration. My work discusses femininity, reality, the relationship between human and animal kind and most likely things I haven’t even realized yet!

How do you proceed when painting: what are your techniques, tools, rituals, etc?

I use procreate to make rough mock-ups for reference. Sometimes I make real quick alla prima paintings for instant satisfaction but most of the time I have multiple projects going at once. I paint with oil paint because I love the physical nature of the paint. No other medium matches it. I love the fluidity of it. I like to leave and show the looseness of it in my work but then I will usually paint something in the work that is more refined and realistic. There’s a range of abstraction and realism that I attempt to execute. Oil painting is a challenge that I appreciate because it’s about control and relinquishing control. It’s such a beautiful dance for me. Then I often take a break from it to examine watercolor, which is also very fluid in a different way. There’s something about the movement of those mediums that speak to me and I never lose interest in that.

What are the themes that you would like to develop in the future? What is your ambition as an artist?

I think I’m trying to understand space in my work, both psychological space and actual space. It really ties into the idea of how “connected” we are to the virtual world that we exist in. So I’ve started really incorporating that concept into my process more and more. I’ve also started hiring local models to work with, which is a little different for me since I’m used to working from photo reference. I’m sort of mixing the real world with the virtual world more and more as I go. I really hope to grow my audience as an artist to find others that I can connect with. Selling work to me is about so much more than making money. Even though we live in a monetary system, which makes money necessary. For me selling a work is about making a connection with someone who understands and appreciates the message so much and it resonated with them to the point that they felt they needed to live with it in their real life space. That is pretty unique and special to me. I am focusing on finding venues for my work. Here in Detroit there aren’t many galleries that show the kind of work that I do. So I’m hoping to branch out further to discover different places where my work belongs.

Do you have projects/exhibitions/dreams you’d like to share with our readers?

I’m really finally starting to come into my own. The process for me has been long and complicated. But I wouldn’t change any of it. My hope is to be able to continue to explore concepts of reality, femininity as a social construct as well as nature and share that with as many as possible. My dream is probably similar to a lot of people, as corny as it sounds. I dream of a peaceful world with no suffering.



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