Animal Style: A Conversation with JAW Cooper

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JAW Cooper doesn’t know this, but she often wakes me up. She gets me out of bed. You see, I have very troubled sleep and most mornings my eyes open before the alarm sounds. In those drowsy moments, when my body isn’t quite motivated to propel itself off the mattress yet, I end up staring at this painting of hers, which hangs on my bedroom wall. It’s called Bird on the WireShe painted it in 2008, when she was still a student at Otis, and it was shown at La Luz De Jesus that same year. I love the piece, although it’s far from her best painting (I’ve stared at it enough to know every blemish). But it is full of charm, strength, and a bit of peril. I’m reminded when I look at it how far her art has come in the past five years, how the elegance of her line has progressed, and how much more refined her brushwork has become. The thought of where she might go from here is usually enough to thrust me out of any lingering lethargy and towards the coffeepot.  Time to get to work.

If you don’t know JAW Cooper’s work yet, I don’t know what to do with you. But let me give you a tip, follow her blog. There you will discover fascinating, often inspiring insight to the creative process from one of the best young artists of our day. You will find generous heaps of mind blowing pencil work, and witness her paintings’ evolution. We are lucky to  live in these times. I mean, Mucha never had a blog! Her new show “Laid Bare”, opens April 5th at the aforementioned La Luz De Jesus gallery. The thread of the show revolves around aspects of the vulnerable, and it is arguably the finest work she has shown to date.

I’m utterly enamored with her art, and have been for some time now, never more so than after she invited me to visit her studio (which she shares with a chinchilla named Rupert), to talk about the show, her themes, and her process. I adore art that makes me think, it doesn’t matter what it is, as long as there something for my mind to wrestle with. I came away from Jessica’s studio with an even deeper appreciation of her art, and the artist behind it. I found that many of my conclusions regarding the symbolism, allegorical themes, and subtext had missed the mark. She’s not that easy to pin down. I really want that sort of complexity in art. Challenge me, you know? Confound me. Rattle my cage.

Here’s how the conversation went:

I’d ask how you’ve been, but I know already. You’ve been busy! “Laid Bare” is a pretty big show. Twenty-four pieces? Is it your biggest show to date?

Yeah, so the WWA show was the last, sort of, mini-show that I had, and that was I think fifteen pieces. So, this is a bit of a jump up, at least in quantity.

You’ve been working on the La Luz show for quite a while, right?

Yeah, well, I’ve known about the show for a year so I should have been working on it for a year, but I would say the huge majority of the pieces were done in the last two months. So, the last two months have been, just intensive. Like I took that whole time off my other work, and I almost did a piece every couple days. Toward the end it was, you know, just like really fast, in the zone.

Having called Africa, Ireland, Sweden, most of Europe in fact, home at one point or another, are you multilingual?

No, I’m not. I only speak English, and a few phrases in Swahili, and Swedish. Enough to say that I don’t speak Swedish, you know, various get-by phrases? I do have an itch to move to France, so I’m trying to learn French right now.

Have you been back to Africa since you lived there?

No, not since we lived there. But I would REALLY like to go back there, because I do have memories of it. I was pretty young, but I just want to see if they match up to my memories.

Your parents are both biologists, and you almost became a zoologist, your work is obsessed with nature. Have you ever been to Galapagos?

I have not! But I have a huge list of places I really want to go.

Speaking of lists, I read about the lists you make prior to a painting, that include themes, colors, and motifs. Do you have one on hand you can share with us?

(Without hesitation, she jumps up and grabs a small notebook)

I do! 014


So, I make lists habitually. It was a habit I picked up in college, but it really helps to allow ideas that you’re holding onto in your head to leave, so you can make room for new ideas, but then still be able to refer back to them. So, they’re not lost, you’re not keeping it precious. You’re allowing yourself to objectively see them, against everything else. So, this would be an example, and it’s sort of like stream of consciousness. But it’s just words. A lot of them are emotive words. The meaning of words has a pretty big effect on my decision making, on what I’m putting in or taking out of a painting. So, the titles are really important to me. I’ll use like, thesaurus to get the exact word that I want, and I’ll use that as a decision making tool, and color palette, or what to add, or edit. That’s pretty important to my process.

That’s interesting, shrewd even. Do you end up with multiple lists per painting?

Yeah, yeah, I do, but sometimes a list will be for a series. This was a list for the whole series, but then if I’m working on a single painting; it might have its own list, a short list. It just depends.

Last time I talked to you, we talked about our music playlists for different projects. What were you listening to while working on “Laid Bare”?

For “Laid Bare” I used Pandora a lot. I was listening to a lot of bluegrass radio, and then Missy Elliot radio (laughs). Francoise Hardy, so I get a little bit of French to help me learn it.

I wanted to ask about one of your recurring themes. What is the allure of the albino for you?

I find scientific anomalies, or unusual things, interesting. I think what I really like about albinos is, first of all, they’re just beautiful. The colors are strange, they’re not what you’re used to, and they seem really vulnerable too. There’s just something really vulnerable about how they look. I’ve always been pretty influenced by—I don’t want to say freaks of nature, but when things go wrong, yet it’s interesting?

Just couple of weeks ago, you got up in the middle of the night and started sketching a monkey, and now it’s in the show.

Yeah, yeah, that actually happened! I don’t even really have a memory of it, but I had the sketchbook next to me—because sometimes when I’m falling asleep, I’ll have ideas just for lists. But I woke up the next morning—it was a particularly stressful night. I was worried about the show, and I had trouble falling asleep. I must have been half asleep, and I just scribbled out these monkeys. In the morning, I woke up, and it was open and I found them. I guess I thought I needed a vacation, if I can’t even sleep without working (laughs).


So, this ended up becoming Tyrant in the new show. How did that title come about?

With these, I think the idea I had in my head was this beastly, tyrant-like monkey, a king throwing a fit. That was the impression I got from the loose sketches.

Your mother is an artist as well, right?

Yeah, she does biological illustration, but it’s kind of on the side. Both my mom and my dad are freshwater biologists. Specifically entomology, they study freshwater insects mostly, but they also study freshwater systems.

When I first interrogated you, you mentioned the unfortunate perceptions people have about women who draw women. I wanted to talk about the feminine in your work some more, and I don’t think there’s any way to tread lightly on the subject, but your women, what with the protruding ribs and all, often seem anorexic. Am I misreading this?

I think the way I draw them is—I want them to look animalistic, and the way I draw animals is very much inside out. So, a lot of times they have sort of long, gangly arms, long gangly legs, and I think that is more what I’m going for, a sinewy kind of woman. I want them to look vulnerable, but also powerful. I want them to be muscular. I don’t want them to be thin, or weak. Pure muscle.

That’s what I get for trying to get inside another artists’ head, but your paintings consistently have me searching for double meaning and hidden layers or subtext. Since your work is so feminine, I wonder, in a piece like Malice, if the gender of the tiger is known, or intentionally vague?

I think it’s interesting that you think my work is feminine. The reason I go by JAW Cooper is so no one will really know I’m a woman. Usually, people see my work and assume I’m a man. What I try to go for is gender neutral. I actually try not to be too feminine. Most of the subjects are definitely female, and I think there’s a strong feminine influence in all the work, but I also try to have some kind of gender neutrality.

Nearly all your human characters are women though.

Yeah, I think 99.9%! (laughs)

So, I think that’s a big part of it for me, but also there’s just this flow, this elegance and grace to your paintings that I don’t typically see from male artists.

Yeah, this is getting into–well, how I see, when I look at someone’s work and think, ‘they’re definitely a girl, or definitely a guy’, usually if it’s a girl, the work to me seems too sweet, too cutesy. For the men, it can seem too strong, or blunt, but there’s kind of a cool strength to it. So, what I try to go for is a balance between the two. Because I don’t want my work to be superficial or cutesy, but I also don’t want it to be blunt and detached. I mean, sometimes you look at someone’s work and it’s just robots—there’s no beauty or subtlety. I think my natural inclination, because I love animals so much, and I like to draw women, is the female. What I really have to push is the masculine. That’s the part that I really like, but I have to be conscious of that, to inject that in. So, that’s a lot of the violence or sex that I usually put into the work. I want it to be a little rough, a little disturbing.

Okay, so Malice isn’t necessarily a battle of the sexes?

Not necessarily, but I definitely see that in my work. A lot of the conflict is a gender-related conflict.

I don’t know if you ever get flak for this but a recurring theme in your work involves inter-species nursing.

 Oh yeah! (laughs) I wouldn’t say I get flak for it. I think people are just amused. It’s so silly. Um, how did it start? I think the first piece I did was a sketch of a girl suckling from a deer. Then I did a painting of a girl suckling a cat. Both of those were for the MondoPOP show in Rome. I think I just thought it was funny, strange. I liked the weird —it’s a little sexual, even though nursing isn’t, in itself, inherently sexual. You can’t get away from that.

Okay, because I’ve been pondering whether that’s allegorical, or is it a representation of Mother Nature?

I think with a lot of the more disturbing, sexual or violent stuff going on, a lot of it is–how much of nature is in a person. So, a lot of it is getting back to the animal side of you. Usually the animals, they don’t actually exist. They represent a side of the person drawn. Even the person, they are often naked, or dressed kind of weirdly, because I don’t want them to be real people. They’re more like a symbol for something else. So, a lot of times the animals that are in the work, they don’t exist. In my head, they don’t exist in the same space. They’re not actually there. They are her motivations, her subconscious. They are her animal side.

Alright, well that leads me nicely to my next question. There’s a terrific piece in the new show called Sanctuary, which depicts a fawn nursing from the breast of a masked woman who is staring down the open mouth of what appears to be a severed stag’s head. Just how much symbolism are you packing in there?

(laughs) How did that happen? It started with the fawn suckling, and I thought that was funny. Sometimes the meaning comes before. Sometimes I plan it. But that one, I just felt like this one really needs another element, and I want it to be the head of a stag. But I can’t fit a whole stag in there, so it’s got to be a severed head, and I like where that’s going. I like how that looks, and how creepy that is–that she’s slaughtered the father, severed its head, she’s suckling the baby.  I didn’t intend, when I started that piece, to have that element, but I like how creepy that is.

In the foreground of that painting, there are three little piles of stones. Are those stacks of gold?

They’re just stacked rocks, and I made them gold to draw attention. A lot of the pieces in this show, were really personal. I took like a month-long camping trip, maybe six months ago, and it really impacted me. It was a big adventure. So, a lot of the backgrounds in these pieces, or a lot of the elements, like the stacked rocks —that cave that they’re in, is a cave that I’ve been in. There’s a cave in Big Sur that looks like that, you have to climb up a waterfall, and then people have stacked rocks in there. So, it means something to me.

The fact that there are three stacks, a trinity, is that significant?

I mean, odd numbers are good. Yeah.

No. They’re really not! I have this odd number phobia. Long story, never mind. Anyway, what’s the biggest misconception people have about you, owing to your art?

The obvious one would be gender. They’ll think I’m a guy, generally, but I cultivate that confusion. If there’s another misconception, I don’t know what it is.

It seems like your work is getting progressively darker thematically (nice touch with the shadow of the crow on the boar’s snout in Monster by the way), but even when painting entrails, you render them as things of beauty. Are you conscious of that as your executing it? I mean, are you trying to make the darker elements as beautiful as possible?

Yeah, I think so. I think that’s part of that search to keep it gender-neutral. I know that my work has been getting darker. That’s directly related to my not relying on my gallery work for an income. When I first graduated, it was most of my income, so I had to make work that would sell. I would hold myself back. Now that I’ve found a way to actually make money to live comfortably, I can do this — I’ve been freed up to take it where I want it to go, which is really nice.

The side work you’re doing has allowed you to keep you’re gallery prices fairly affordable too.

Absolutely, yeah, I think the work has benefited too, just comparing to when I first got out of school. So, relying on a sale, it detracted from the work, because I was holding back. It was less authentic, in terms of what I really wanted to do. What I actually found is when you push it to a certain point, the number of people who are going to like that piece narrows — but you only really need one person to love it.

I would love to see your art animated, and given the big screen treatment. If Disney approached you for a project, would you do it?

It would depend on the project, and the pay. What’s really important to me these days is to work with really nice people, in nice environments. I’ve heard that environment is particularly cut-throat, competitive and nasty. I just don’t need it because my cost of living is so low. The things I like to do are, like, hiking, totally cheap. I don’t need to be stressed out around people who aren’t pleasant.

I imagine working in the chaos of downtown Los Angeles is not exactly the most inspirational setting for an artist so ensconced with flora and fauna, or is it? Does it serve as a catalyst?

I actually really love living downtown. When I moved here four years ago, it was pretty dangerous, and I liked that. You know, you kind of have to earn your place here. You have to get street smart pretty quick, and learn how to negotiate with a variety of people, some of whom may be unstable. It’s generally dirty and smelly downtown, and loud, but I like that. I like that it’s bustling. I like the noise from the street. I’m not sensitive to it. I feel cozy up in my little nest, with all this stuff going on. It’s very entertaining.

As busy are you are, do you ever take the time to walk through an old grove forest , or at least a botanical garden?

Definitely, I used to only do that occasionally, but then I realized it’s so important to my mental happiness. So, now I do it at least once a week. I like the ‘choose your own adventure’ hikes, where you just go off trail, and rock scrambling.

What is your guiltiest pleasure?

Hmmm, well, Missy Elliot radio. That’s one.

No, no, that doesn’t count. Missy’s cool.

No? Okay, so I don’t cook, right? I just don’t enjoy it at all. So, I guess, English muffins — with unsalted peanut butter, that’s really important! No salt.

Are you a vegetarian?

I’m not strictly anything, but I have strong vegan tendencies. That is to say that I think habits are more important than hard and fast rules. I will occasionally eat meat if someone has already prepared it for me or on special occasions but 99% of my diet is raw fruits and veggies and English muffins with unsalted peanut butter. (laughs)

I thought your place would be crawling with animals. Aside from Rupert, do you have any other pets?

No, well I had a cat, but it lives with my parents. So, it’s really their cat at this point.

Do you anthropomorphize Rupert?

Oh definitely! He’s my little man.

How well do you remember your past work?

I remember most of it. I don’t like it. I wish it wasn’t online for everyone to see.

Do you have any recollection of Clothes to Cover All Manner of Sin?

Yeah! I do remember that one, yeah. That was like the girl in a sheep costume, then a girl in a wolf costume holding hands.

Well, now see, there’s that gender neutrality again. I assumed the wolf was a boy. It’s in my living room. I look at it every day.

Ah! You were the one who bought it? That’s awesome!

“Laid Bare” hasn’t even opened yet, but at least six of the pieces have already sold, right?

Yeah. I feel really lucky that so many people, not only bought pieces early, most of those were sold before the piece was painted, when it was in the drawing stage. So, I feel really thankful that people have that trust in my execution.

Thanks for talking to me and good luck with the show. It seems destined to be full of red dots.

Oh sure! Thanks.

“”Laid Bare” opens April 5th and runs through April 28th, 2013

La Luz de Jesus
4633 Hollywood Blvd
Monday-Wednesday 11am-7pm; Thursday-Saturday 11am-9pm; Sunday noon-6pm

tyrant sketch

Tyrant sketch





phoenix sketch

Phoenix sketch







rattle sketch

Rattle sketch



howl sketch 2

Howl sketch




rise sketch

Rise sketch





indelible sketch

Indelible sketch





Bear Rug

Standing on her very own two headed beast rug.


list book

Jessica busting out the lists.


JAW list

Words matter.




A few of her favorite things.




The JAW Cooper rock collection.


sketch for Brood

sketch for Brood


sketch for Guarded

sketch for Guarded

sketch for Pomp

sketch for Pomp




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