Story by Tammy Keith
Sunday, January 21, 2018
“I am unusual in that I move between mediums a lot. I have one I’m usually in love with, but it shifts. Right now, I’m really interested in paper,” she said. “I’m super interested in cotton.”
The Canadian has lived in Arkansas since 2011 and loves her rural life; it’s why she came to Arkansas. She grows 30 to 40 brown Nankeen cotton plants on her eco farm, Wildland Gardens. She also uses the stalks of some of the flowers she grows to make paper. “Daylilies make great paper — not the actual flowers, just the leaves,” she said.
The recipe to make paper includes boiling the grass for hours outside in big pots, which she said reminds her of a witch standing over a cauldron. The mixture is strained and blended. “It becomes like a really gross garden smoothie,” she said, laughing.
The rest of the long process is so time-consuming that even she says, “it’s silly.” But it’s so satisfying.
“I think it’s important because we’re interested in localism now. … How do we connect to a place? It’s incredibly local to make your own paper,” Cowper-Smith said.
“So often now, we feel alienated from our things. We order on Amazon; things are made in China,” she said. “A lot of people are seeking a deeper connection to the materials in their lives and the products in their lives.”
Cowper-Smith said that although she won awards for art in high school, she first took science and math courses in college, planning to become a biologist. “I just didn’t realize art could be a serious thing to study,” she said. “I thought science was more worthwhile, so I didn’t study art. It seemed like a hobby.” However, she met serious artists at the University of Victoria, and she switched her major after a year.
“I belong with artists; I always have,” she said. “I like the way they think.”
In 2013, Cowper-Smith founded an all-female artists group in Arkansas called the Show & Tell Art Collective, now called Culture Shock. Although Cowper-Smith didn’t experience a huge culture shock in Arkansas, most of the nine or 10 women in the group are transplants to Arkansas, thus the name, she said. The women all have master’s degrees in art and are “currently making a body of art,” she said. They hold critiques and exhibit their work.
Cowper-Smith’s work was selected for the 31st annual Small Works on Paper touring exhibition at the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center in Little Rock, where it is on display through Saturday. The free exhibit is sponsored by the Arkansas Arts Council. Her piece selected is a pigment print titled Convention Fire on her handmade paper. “It’s a mix of lilies and cotton,” she said. “I made that paper while I was at Penland. “This work depicts a burnt-out version of the derelict convention center at Meadow Creek in Fox. It was an important meeting place for people concerned with the environment and global climate change in the 1980s-1990s.”
Cowper-Smith said her work is ever-changing. “I’ve always loved drawing,” she said. But pigment paper is getting her attention now. She creates it by taking digital photographs, which she uses to make paintings, “not directly from them, but parts of them, mixed up,” she said. She scans the paintings and uses Photoshop software to blend them together, something she has done for “years and years.” She also makes videos of the work using the “layers” of the Photoshop program, she said. “I make animations, a form of digital stop-motion animation, and prints,” she said. “When I have a show, I will have a projection of the video, and usually it’s the same scene.”
Cowper-Smith enjoys depicting scenes of nature through her pigment prints. Not long after her family moved to Arkansas, a deadly tornado tore through Vilonia and Mayflower. “That was new to me,” she said. “I started thinking about natural disasters. I started thinking a lot about how you can love the beauty of the landscape but also have this fear of it, and how it can almost betray you. It can take your life and destroy your stuff.”
She said Arkansas has been a good place to create art; it’s a constant inspiration.