Thursday, 2 October 2014

A Bold Move: Amna Gull

Awareness - breaking free - defying authority - those are the themes emanating from the final Masters thesis by Amna Gull displayed at the National College of Arts, Lahore, in December 2013.

Born and raised in a science-based family, Amna defied the trend by entering the arts.

“I had to go through the same crunch, although I wasn’t good at science, neither did I have any interest in the subject. I was always doodling around the sides of my books and copies.”

Scraping through high school science, helped convince her parents that Amna should be delving in the arts. She started with her Bachelor in Fine Arts at the Lahore College for Women University and it led to a broadening of her artistic palette.

“There I was fascinated not only by the subject but also was inspired by our regular interactions with new upcoming artist and those who were already well-established in the business.”

This series is a part of her Masters in Fine Arts from the National College of Arts (NCA), Lahore.

“At NCA, things were clearer to me, teachers were more co-operative, and we had the liberty to use materials in whatever fashion we desired.”

The regular process of criticism from senior colleagues and the professional/academic jury was constantly shaping her work.

“I was finally getting weaved into the dynamics and the interpretation of art. The phenomenon of self-actualization, and the awareness that your work should speak for itself was a fascinating experience.”

Politically a democracy, the Islamic Republic of Pakistan has religion deeply entrenched in its system. From the strongholds of the religious parties to the on-ground manifestation of religious implements in the form of a strict following of religious traditions, Islam is not just held sacred as a religion, but in most cases as salvation. The tussle between the two figures of authority, religious and non-religious, however, renders the public confused and bending over under the pressures.

Amna’s thesis was based on how lives are influenced by these two authority figures. Her work represents her silent protest against baseless customs, traditions and individual authority in our lives.

“By authority I not only mean political dictation but also the individual figures which hold our lives entirely in their hands,” she says. “They hammer us with their concepts and ideas of life, they impose their dictatorship on our life and in the end we are all but their reflection.”

Sacred Or Not

“The Arabic text and its shadow has been used to show how people misunderstand religion and how we are unable to interpret things because we are bounded and chained in the legality and questioning on religion.”


“The speaker is handmade and shows how a person is bent into smooth contours through the influence of a hammering figure.”

As part of her future plans, Amna plans on going into teaching.

“I want to build awareness about arts in our society. Moreover, I am trying to promote my work in various galleries outside and inside the country.”

Thursday, 25 September 2014

A Tale of Golems and Dybbuks: Jess Riva Cooper

Weeds and spores are growing out of women’s hair, eyes, ears and even mouths, as if a new species is being formed. They seem happy with it—or maybe it’s surprise and shock at being invaded by Mother Nature.

Jess Cooper wants to invite the viewer into her world

This isn’t a scene from a science-fiction movie. These are the works of Sheridan faculty member Jess Riva Cooper who is nominated for the 2014 RBC Emerging Artist People’s Choice Award.

“The inspiration behind a lot of my work is looking at invasive plant species and fungal spores and imagining the idea of nature taking over,” Cooper said.

On display till Oct. 12 at the Gardiner Museum in Toronto Viral Series is a five-foot square installation. Cooper is competing with four other artists from around Canada for the $10,000 award, the results of which will be announced on Oct. 14.

“I think what’s really great when you get to display at a place like this is the ability to play,” the 33-year-old said. “You get to build it on-site, there’s a performance aspect that’s really interesting, you’re taking over this space, and you can’t do that in your studio. This way the viewer is enveloped by the idea and people can walk into the world and suspend disbelief.”

A former Sheridan graduate, Cooper returned to Toronto after five years of studying and completing residencies across America. In January 2014, she started teaching in Sheridan’s Crafts and Design program.

Tony Clennell, a former professor and now a colleague of Cooper’s said, “In the first 10 years of your career, I think it’s hard to have your own signature and have your own voice. But I know Jess’ work, it has a signature. It hasn’t come fast and furiously, because she spent 10 years in ceramics schools developing that voice. Ten years is like a PhD.”

Gordon Thompson, co-ordinator of the Bachelor of Craft and Design program, nominated Cooper for the award. Not having taught her during her diploma at Sheridan, Thompson started following her career after an introduction at the Harbourfront artist residency interviews. “Her multi-pronged way makes her work engaging and approachable.”

For Cooper, the nomination was emotionally overwhelming and invigorating. It gave her a chance to establish herself as a ceramics artist after being away from her hometown for five years.

Her last residency with Kohler, a bathroom fixture design and production company helped expand her creative horizons. Returning to Toronto after five years, she was trying to establish myself as an artist and a maker. This nomination has helped bring to the forefront as a Toronto artist.

She takes inspiration from just about everything she sees. Be it science-fiction, other art, literature, folklore, people around her or travelling. Teaching inspires her as well.

“I think ideally one’s work evolves and changes as you live in the world as an artist and grow,” she said. “That love of playing and being open to being inspired by anything influences the way that I teach. I try to be an enthusiastic participant in somebody’s discovery and learn and discover along with them.”

Cooper’s creative process is rigorous and to some it may also appear frantic and frenzied.
“I’m only happy multitasking to levels of what other people might consider insanity,” she said with a smile. “I work best if I’m listening to an audio book, and if there are people around me. Then I can really focus on my work.”

After being inspired, she sketches out her ideas. Then she uses clay to create the item and complete it. At the end, she sits back, critiques her work and shares it with friends who will provide constructive criticism.

If she wins, Cooper will use the $10,000 prize money for bigger studio space, so she can focus on producing more work in future.

Monday, 14 July 2014

Explorations of Wonder and Whimsy: Mark Johnson

Mark Johnson  always found it amazing that lines could flow on paper, but it was frustrating that what he saw in his head was so different from what went on paper.     

Colour Bear

This is a favourite of mine. It was a card I made for my Lady Madeline on our second anniversary. It represents us. We are polar opposites, yet we suit each other very well. Before we met, my art tended to be in black and white pencil and ink. She brought colour into my life. Madeline is the bear, and I am the penguin she is giving colour to. Of all the art cards I sell when I set up a tent or have a show in my home, Colour Bear is far and away the most popular.

I always liked to have stories running in my drawings. And my drawings were just like regular drawings, nothing exceptional. It’s been a slow process where I practised and practised and am now able to draw like I draw now.

Forest Depths 

This portrays the ancient forests our ancestors walked in. Those forests are now 300-feet deep under the ocean, and what once was a place of wind and distant vista is a world where fish have replaced the birds and swim where they once flew.

Myth Becomes Dream

These are related works in that they both come from thinking about the drowned lands that sank beneath the waves during the protracted end of the last Ice Age.

He always had an imagination and believed in putting things down the way he was seeing them.     

I was willing to start with something that looked clumsy to begin with, but had the determination to work on it to make it better.

Night Toad

Some of my work is based on unexpected mental images. These images often feel important in some way. Exploring why I feel an image has import acts as the start of a piece. Night Toad is the product of such an image. It is a piece with multiple stories I may share again some day.

Around the same time that his drawings got noticed in high school, his parents observed him watching a play with one eye covered. They took him to the doctor and found out that he was near-sighted in one eye and far-sighted in the other: he had anisometropia. This meant that his vision couldn’t combine images from both eyes to present a singular image with depth.

At that time, when I started wearing my glasses, I was making art using watercolours that would border on bizarre kids’ stuff, animals, and creatures. I thought they all looked kind of cool. I would spend hours sitting down and reading books, similarly, I would spend hours perfecting the art.


I was reflecting one day. You know, thinking about animals, elements, flow, and interaction. And then I thought of the word “reflecting” in its various manifestations. We think; we reflect. We act and react with and upon each other—which is reflecting each other. Water and air both reflect light in different ways. The way creatures of these elements in the environments act in ways that reflect their similarities as well as the differences between them. I take pleasure in words. I also enjoy wrapping form and colour in dynamic and interesting shapes and flows. Hence “Reflections.”

After college, he took off a year to travel out west and loved it, but his yearning for Ontario lured him back to the province.

And when my factory job became draining and dehumanizing, I decided to turn back to art. So while still doing shift work at the factory, I started taking evening classes in art and indulged myself as much as I could.

Sky Dancers

I wanted to take the Tree Dancer concept and try to translate it into paint. I wanted to sweep the sky into the earth, the surface into the depths, and the ephemeral into the eternal. I wanted to play with the paint. Stir in a taste of our Canadian North where the treeline merges into the tundra, and you get “Sky Dancers.”

He only turned to art full-time when he met his second wife and moved to Toronto. With her support and encouragement, he figured out how to devote more time to his art.


Pure fun! This is a playful drawing of a favourite concept of mine: a dragon in downtime and at ease with itself and its place. You may see the pleasure I take in the act of laying line-over-line—pleasure enhanced, because I was using a nice micron pen. The joy found in plump sinuous form. Of course (because I drew it while thinking of Christmas), there is wondering about what it dreams, what thoughts of sugerplums or dragon-equivalents are dancing behind those great closed eyes as the beast awaits Santa’s coming.

Mark draws a lot from free association. And it becomes a sort-of-story. 

Because if I draw two different creatures in a painting, I have to bring them together. So what I do is, I lean on storytelling and create an image that projects a whole backstory that supports it and can also go forward from it.

The Heat of the Day

This is a planned drawing. Taking the Tree Dancer into the veldt. Showing the care that Nature with its complex simplicities invests in every part of a place. Drawing Mother Love, and the importance of taking time when it’s possible to take time.

He finds drawing figures realistically a very hard thing to do. But he gives it his damndest best.    

I work from my own imagination because the camera doesn’t do justice to the scene, and it can produce distortions or take away from the scene as well.

The Weave
Wanting to put a taste of colour into a drawing, with a combination of Forest Depths/Sky Dancers for a starting point, The Weave is about how sea, sky, land, and all that dwell there, weave in and out of each other in a dance that goes back as far as the beginnings of life on this planet. Done while enjoying the play of lead pencil with colour pencil, form with form.

Sometimes the concept for his artwork is an intellectual device. And then there are flashes of images of events happening around him at the time that will capture his imagination. To Mark, womanhood and the female form is an exceptionally potent, flexible, and valuable tool to access. It’s an exceptionally powerful, universal form to look at.

Tree Dancer in Flight
This is one of the first larger scale truly successful Tree Dancers. I was happy with the way the form of the tree and the form of the woman were equal in strength in a rather lovely way. It has apparent depth, which is important for someone who has never properly experienced depth perception. And the likeness of my Lady, which is an element incorporated into many of my Tree Dancers, worked out rather well.

If Mark were to draw what he is actually seeing, it might come across as artistic gibberish, but he wouldn’t do it. 

I don’t want to do it only because it’s considered cool, but what is the meaning in it? What would people find relevant in it? And that would concern me. I see it sometimes when people are playing with their images, and placing one over the other and distorting it, they may be doing it for some other reasons but, for me, that’s the way I actually see things.

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