Eileen Cooper, first female Keeper of RA

2018 has started for me with an inspiring exhibition at Diss Corn Hall in Norfolk. Last year I went to a Print in Action day with my family which was being run by a printmaking friend, Annette Rolston, at her workshops in Diss, Designermakers21. It was fantastic with a mixed exhibition of master printmakers in the Corn Hall opposite, Henry Moore, David Hockney etc. and then demonstrations by professional local printmakers using a variety of approaches: linoprint, drypoint, stencil, woodblock. We were able to ‘have a go’ and all felt the satisfaction that printmaking gives, it is such a contemplative creative process, for me it feels much calmer and more considered than drawing and painting. Having produced some interesting pieces we had to rush back home to receive delivery of a life-size rhinoceros sculpture made from scrap metal for the Waveney Valley Sculpture Trail 2017… another story!

When Annette called me a few months ago to ask if I would take part in this years ‘Print in Action’ day my immediate response was yes… for me it ticked all the boxes of including good professional artists, displaying work to a high standard and being inclusive and accessible to the public. I will be demonstrating my keyblock linoprints, which are then hand coloured with watercolour, on Saturday 10th February at the Corn Hall. As an added bonus Annette called a couple of weeks ago to invite me to put works into a mixed exhibition of prints alongside a solo exhibition of prints and sculpture by Eileen Cooper RA in the main gallery at the Corn Hall. I jumped at the chance and so found myself at the PV a couple of nights ago, I didn’t realise there was a film and conversation with Eileen as part of the PV. The film was so inspiring, it featured footage of the artist in her studio, showing how she overcame particular technical challenges such as registering linoprints of life-size figures as well as watching her paintings in progress. I was struck by the amount of working and reworking her paintings took. Entire parts of the painting would be painted out and repainted to put figures into different poses, all to ensure that the lines were just right and that the overall composition was the best it could be. She also talked about her creation of a series of sculptures, with the help of studio technicians Eileen was able to create paper cut out sculptures in bronze. There are some on show at the Corn Hall and it was interesting to see all the decisions involved to create the patina and colour that she required.

On practical terms the evening was fantastic for me as a painter, printmaker but something else has been running through my mind in a much clearer way than it ever has before. Eileen is the first female Keeper (boss) of the Royal Academy in it’s 250 year history. She has held the post for 6 years and having just retired from the position has, thankfully, handed it on to another powerful woman artist, Paula Rego. A question was asked about who Eileen’s female role models were at art school in the 1970s and she said that there just weren’t any, the art world then was so steeped in patriarchy and women had only just been allowed to enter the Life Drawing rooms let alone establish a tradition of female artists. I was born in 1974 in a rural Norfolk village and didn’t know any painters as I was growing up, my art education at high school was poor to non-existent and I sometimes wonder how I came to be a painter at all!* I have always had a sense of the art world being a male domain and even recently looking through the art monograph books at Foyles the balance seems to be about 80/20 representing men. When I was at Falmouth Art College I wrote a dissertation on the lack of women artists at the National Gallery and the representation of women in the gallery through the male painters eye. I have visited the Venice Biennale for many years and one of the most striking installations for me was the Guerrilla Girls at the entrance to the Italian Pavilion, including their famous ‘Advantages of being a Woman Artist’

Guerilla Girls

I think what I feel is anger and hope. Anger that childcare and housekeeping are still things that my contemporary male artists don’t have to contend with in the same way as female artists but hope that at this year’s biennale there was a large representation of fabulous women artists in their 70’s and 80’s. (I will never forget Sheila Hicks’s epic textile installation in the Arsenale.) Hope that I can follow their hard won paths. Essentially I no longer feel that the male dominated Norwich School of Painters – Arnesby Brown, Crome, Cotman, Seago – really is my inheritance, despite the fact we walk, draw and paint in the same landscape. I really am ploughing my own furrow and following my creative drive single mindedly. I am excited to see where it takes me…

*I am fortunate that both of my parents are creative, they have instilled in me and my sister a relentless work ethic and drive to pursue our creative visions regardless of the day to day practicalities. This sense of endurance and focus is in my core even though life  can pull me away from it. I always return to what I know and love in the studio and make sure I visit the galleries and artists works that inspire me.

Published by Sarah Cannell - Artist

I am an Artist and Curator based in South Norfolk. I organise a number of exhibitions as well as producing paintings and prints for exhibitions in galleries across the UK.

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