Sofe Cote, Self Portrait
I’m a big fan of Sofe Cote’s work and thoughts on Art-work; and we regularly talk about art (when we do talk at all). This interview was a way to get both of those on display. Unfortunately the exhibit where her two pieces were displayed has ended, but I found the conversation worthwhile enough to still post it—to show what kind of artistic talent we have here at St. John’s.
So how did you get started in Visual Art?
When I was young my mom thought that art was a big part of what people should learn, or what is a good skill to have—that it’s an important way to express oneself. So I was basically drawing forever; and we did a lot of those really sweet pieces where you wet watercolor paper and then you can just can go to town, and no matter what you do it just comes out beautiful. So I did a lot of that as a child. Then later on I did some summer art programs for myself. I wasn’t really into it to the extent that I wanted to go to school for it or pursue it as a career but its always been something that I love very dearly.
So it’s more of a passion for you
Yeah; I don’t really think about commodifying any of my passions or any of the things that I pursue—that’s just not something that really occurs to me.
I guess I’m thinking that some people can start out in art—like where I was going to school painting was emphasized as an important part of education—but there was a point where I just realized that that wasn’t for me. So how did it happen that you started doing it regularly? Did you just start so young that it became second nature to you?
Well I think that that would be placing it in the realm of something that I just do for the sake of doing it. But that’s not how I view it. I think it is something that’s still valuable to me as a method of creating things, or expressing what or how I’m feeling, or making concrete a period of my life through visual representation. I was really bad at writing when I was a kid so I would just draw—it was a lot easier for me—and even now when I journal half of it is drawing, because I find visual representations of things easier to portray than written or spoken.
So you have these two pieces in the gallery—and it’s hard for me even to understand visual arts (I’m much more of a literature person). So the thing I noticed about them (and I’m sorry I’m going to talk to an artist about their art in this way, it feels wrong)—
No, go crazy
Alright—well it feels like the pieces are very sparse in this way—you know it’s just a figure with very nice colors on this white paper—but what is the process of going from the personal to creating that object with that form?
Are you asking what my process is for those particular pieces?
I guess. I think I’m trying to ask more about your experience. What is it like to visualize a personal experience?
Well those are both self-portraits. And for those I felt–I guess lonely, isolated, to an unhealthy extent when I was making them. And I felt something like a lone figure in a corner of a page, with the white not simply as empty space but something that’s overwhelmingly empty, overbearingly empty—it felt to me like it was in some way capturing how I felt. As for the colors; I’ve always been really interested in colors, and for those I was experimenting a lot with emphasizing the natural shades and colors of shadow and highlight that are, I guess, not usually noticed, but trying to bring out that contrast. I kind of locked myself in my bedroom to make those, which I guess is also funny in terms of isolation.
It’s interesting because it sounds like you have a lot more emphasis on seeing that art as a kind of experience to be had. So the white isn’t really representational but you’re supposed to see the figure in isolation on the page.
Well I think the white— it’s at least important to me to understand that the empty space can still be a fundamental part of something. Or how a lack of something is still a something I guess. So having an empty white space not only draws you down to where the figure is but also conveys a lack. I think that was intentional. So I think something like white space can be very powerful in art.
Well there’s this idea— Do you know the poet Wallace Stevens?
Well there’s this idea in one of his poems, Notes Towards a Supreme Fiction, where he describes any poem as being a fictional world into itself, separate from any other poem the poet has written, completely contained within itself. (And I guess I just keep wanting to talk about effects). So I could ask: when you see these things do you have to sit there and think about it or does it come to you like a dream would?
Well, I guess that in the same way that a story, when you’re writing it, seems to progress even when you don’t have the whole thing laid out, and I feel like a visual piece can be the telling of a story like that. You create as the work goes, and it’s easier to see what the effect might be once you see it in a state of semi-completion. Then you can make decisions and place intention in the, say, lack of background, even if you weren’t going to originally. And I think one thing naturally follows the other when you’re working. I don’t have full plans laid out. And even when I attempt to do something like that it never works for me; so I try to make it unravel in a more natural way.
I guess the only other thing we ever talk about it colors. So what is with the colors; I don’t remember what you say about them, but I remember that there’s a certain effect with colors that you talk about, which is actually why I wanted to interview you today. What is your relationship to colors?
Oh! Color is my best friend. So for the two I had in the gallery, there is a natural law that Goethe talked about in his Theory of Colors, which I’ve been reading recently, and it was something that I had never really thought about very much or very deeply, which was that for whatever color the light is, the shadow will be that complementary color, and that shadows are never gray or black. I guess I was thinking about that and it didn’t seem real for a little while; but the more I tried to play around with it and emphasize that distinction I realized it was very—not only very real, but interesting and could create a powerful effect. Some of the colors of shadows seem very counterintuitive but I think that it’s an interesting observation to make. I don’t feel like people really think about shadows as having colors to the extent that they should. I was even looking at a Matisse where half the woman’s body was green based on the light. And it seemed very natural the way he painted it, but to look at it up close it didn’t feel like a real skin or a real person. Even so, I think it conveyed a more natural effect of complimenting the light.
I didn’t expect you to talk about colors like that, because I remember in the past when we’ve talked you would talk about
How it feels?
Yeah, you have the emotional aspect.
Well I think that that’s also a very important aspect. AS you know I’ve been doing some studies on Orange recently. I thinks it’s really interesting to see how the color makes people feel in isolation (versus the color in context)—and a lot of what I do when I’m searching for the emotions related to a color is try to find them in isolation, because I think that it’s a lot weirder to look at a color by its lonesome. Something like those drawings—the colors there compliment each other in a way that seems natural. But a color is isolation never seems natural. And I think that’s why it can have such a powerful effect on people and the way that they feel about it. In those drawings I tried to create a lot of depth with the darker colors— which pulls the eye towards a specific part of the page. I think it’s a lot harder to place emotional emphasis on colors when they’re in conjunction.
Yeah, I know certain artists—like Munch—had whole systems for colors where each related to a concept. I think I get caught up in that because it feels unnatural, but not in the way you’d say a piece of art is unnatural. Rather that it doesn’t have an eye towards effect, even if it works sometimes.
I’m reading this really good book right now called Color and the Soul. It talks about various effects colors have, and how they relate to various emotions. I think the author referenced Munch in that. But I guess I don’t really feel like I have a full enough grasp to say “I’ve placed these colors in this relation to get this effect.” Partially because the effect that any piece of work has on a viewer, especially in terms of color, is personal because people have such personal relationships with colors. Like a very red background could have vastly different effects or emotions for different people. So I don’t think it’s fair to say that I placed the colors with a view to make people feel some kind of way.
Is there a way though that you could draw out those emotions through the effects of different colors in conjunction? I mean, the white background is a good example because it is literally isolates the colors in the absence of color. So there might be a kind of artistry which can draw out emotions through this kind of joining and relating.
Yeah through the joining. I mean, you can create very dissonant effects through colors I think. I also think tonality and intensity of colors, not necessarily correlating specific colors to specific emotions, but how those colors manifest themselves can have a kind of equally powerful effect on people. Like pairing a pastel with something that’s incredibly bright, or something incredibly vivid, can have a certain effect no matter what the color is. So something like tone and value is a fundamental way that we view color.
—Will Harrington (only in part), St. John’s Student