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Jo Cope

Jo Cope

CONCEPTUAL MAGAZINE: Jo! We are very thrilled and excited to be interviewing you. Our conversation with you is the first of its kind. We have interviewed designers before but none whose work is anything quite like yours! It’s so unique yet has such a large association with the body and human form.

On your website, you are described as “a conceptual fashion designer working at the intersection of fine art, fashion and craft.” We believe there couldn’t be a more accurate description!

Now, we cannot wait to delve into the heart of it all but let’s start at the beginning! Tell us your background!

JO COPE: 44 years on the earth! UK based artist living at the centre point of the country.

CM: How did you get started in the arts? What’s the story behind that? And what made you fall in love with design and further, with conceptual fashion?

JC: Apparently, from age two, I was only happy if I was building or making things... raiding waste paper bins, which is still one of my favorite materials! Like many free thinkers, school didn’t really work for me, so I left at 16 and found the first creative job I could... which was as a graphic design junior during the early nineties. A recession meant I, very sadly, got made redundant. One of the few industries that was starting to boom at that time was beauty. I went to train as a beauty therapist because I liked working with my hands and enjoyed learning about people. Later, I became a manageress of a clinic.

The key connection is the relationship with the body and human psychology! A few years ago, I was making a piece of work which required me to massage a wooden body for hours/days to wet sculpt felt…it took me back! Everything in life is connected, even if in some ways worlds apart. After eight or so happy years, a work related injury put my wrists out of action for two years, which was hell! I had to reassess what was truly important to me; it was time to get serious about my deepest passions and what I was going to do now and invest in for the rest of my life. The first route to this was an art foundation course in 2002, where I started to examine clothing as a sculptural installation of the body. Alongside art, fashion was something I had always had a natural affinity with; I was taking trips to London as a young teen craving the opportunity to find new and unique things in the underground clothing scene. The definition of my work, over 10 years ago, as Conceptual Fashion Design happened naturally and was to create a means of distinction from the commercially driven work that was surrounding me and that I felt no meaningful connection to. Concept building, research and symbolism became a method to start projecting my own version of what I thought fashion could be.

CM: Talk to us about DAP!

JC: The Founding members of DAP lab (design and performance) originated at Nottingham Trent University in 2003 as an extra curricula collaboration with a fashion student; myself, a fashion lecturer; Michele Danjoux (now creating sonic performance wearables) and a professor of performance art, Johannes Burringer (now the creative director of Alien Nation).

In the first year of my fashion BA, the garments I was creating utilized different materials and alternative facilities which didn’t fit in with the commercial constraints of the course, so DAP became an important escape. The first weeks involved taking my transformable ‘dress’ to a performance space where a dancer would engage with it while being filmed or projected. As the lab built, sometimes a garment would be accompanied by a sound performance on a strange instrument or an engineer would come along to discuss biomechanics. There were virtual collaborations called ‘telematic performances’, where two dresses and performers would interact live, bringing different countries together in real time on a large screen. This was a really exciting time and everyone tried to be as free and open minded as possible.

CM: You experiment with film. Tell us about that.

JC: Because the work can have an existence beyond the static, a moving image is sometimes what I can see in my minds eye. From the beginning, the work has had multiple lives and ways of existing. For example, my first conceptual accessory: ‘Self Extension Bag’ was a consumable conceptual product, a metaphorical exhibition object, a film piece, a photographic triptych image and a large scale sculptural installation. It is something I started to experiment with at the beginning of my work and I would love to come back to develop this further and do my ideas justice in another artist medium.

CM: What are you inspired by when creating a piece?

JC: I’m inspired by life related subjects. The first concept I worked on to materialize an accessory was The Holy Trinity; the intangible and non fiscal with the very physical product and fiscal notion of fashion. The relationship was to my religious background and my life as a pastor’s daughter.

I am also inspired by discussions that happen around me that relate to life such as relationships. The highs and lows of internet dating being hot topic whist at university. Twisted Stiletto was in some part a response. There are also much deeper references to very personal emotional experiences that inspire the work manifested subconsciously and consciously.

One way that I start is by closing my eyes in a relaxed state, like a really long bath. I imagine the part of the body I want to focus on and a symbolic mental image starts to evolve as a product of things I have absorbed.

CM: A large focus of your work seems to be geared towards accessories and shoes. Why is that?

JC: I am interested in the accessory as an abstract object, which can be both connected to and disconnected from the human form.

Fashion to me is about the whole body, so I have never considered it to be just about the garment; I jump between body, head, feet and bag as an extension of the arm. I, firstly, became interested in creating conceptual bags because at that time, I hadn’t seen the object analyzed more deeply.

I wanted to present notions of the bag in ways that would make people look beyond visual preconceptions of its standardized trend driven template. The first piece I created, after graduation, was self funded and called ‘Clearly A Bag’. It was made up of 250 square Perspex’s bags, which formed a large scale sculptural construction that was far removed from its usual aesthetic. It asked many questions. Firstly: what is a bag? I was representing the bags' core components in the most minimal sense, using the objects relationship to the body to create its mathematics. I was also talking about hierarchal systems in art and within fashion; the accessories' domineering presence within a fashion environment, no longer the accompanying object but the main event.

On my first commissioned pair of conceptual shoes, I had no formal training, so I found an unconventional way of working around the feet... milling imbedded footprints from solid blocks of soling leather. Traditional shoes require very specific skills and years of practice/training. I was lucky enough, during the recent Masters, to work alongside people with over 30 years in the industry and I am continuing to develop methods to combine traditional skills with my own construction methodologies.

CM: What is your creative process and workflow like? What about your workspace?

JC: I have the top floor of an old Victorian bakery; it looks very authentic as a art studio space. There are a few leaks and many layers of clothing are required in the winter but it’s an amazing size and allows me to work in a very free way across a number of things at any one time. Like many artists, I work with universities passing on my passion as a lecturer. The ideal would be to spend every day in the studio, which some weeks does happen, However, often this has to be divided with other practical aspects such as paper work, planning, applications and promotion etc.

Leading up to a deadline, I will work whatever hours are required. Sometimes that means virtually sleeping in the studio or going home for 3 hours; that’s the most exciting time.

CM: What materials do you use? How do you source them?

JC: Probably best described as core design materials; card, felt, wool, wood, acrylic, more recently focusing on leather and wood. I am lucky to be on the door step of Northamptonshire, which is famous for its 900 year history in boot and shoe making and still has tanneries and a leather technology school. This is a great place to source materials from passionate knowledgeable suppliers. I source some of the items such as wooden shoe lasts as vintage and rework them and use recycling wood where possible. Fellow creatives are the best reliable recourse for sourcing, and passing on experience of contacts.

CM:  It seems you use a limited palette of colors for your work. Is it because of the materials you use or are those simply the colors you want to use?

JC: When imagining a piece of work in my mind, a color naturally appears. I then go back to consider what the psychology might be and what the subconscious message is and analyze it further; for example, in the most recent work, it has chosen to be all red, which plays on both positive and negative paradoxes attached to the color.

Initially, I started by only using primary colors and since have used some secondary; it relates in someway to the purity of abstract minimalism that exists in the work. I used to feel that mixed colors were a symbol of pollution or diverting too far from the point. Ultimately, I trust my minds eye.

CM: Tell us about commissions you have received, exhibitions, and workshops you offer! Have your traveled a lot due to your work?

JC: In the last number of years, I have been focusing more on the relationships with galleries in the surrounding areas where I live. This year is an important year for me... working internationally,/I will be touring in Maastricht at the FashionClash festival, London at The Design Festival, Budapest and Detroit as curated exhibitions with The Vitual Shoe Museum. I am also talking with people interested in representing the work in Toronto in the near future and many other possibilities are appearing on the horizon.

Workshops in the past have been with schools, colleges, art galleries with teenagers and adults. Often, the workshops take place alongside the presentation of an exhibit. I started conceptual workshops because I wanted people to feel less alienated by conceptual work, I want to teach and encourage conceptual thinking in others. This month, I will be working with a select group of young people that show creative promise on a program called ‘Young, Gifted and Talented’. In this workshop, we will explore fashion in a non conventional sense to increase their confidence and expand on their perceptions of clothing as communicative sculpture.

 CM: Can you talk to us about your master degree and more specifically, about your thesis?

JC: The Masters was in Fashion Artefacts, which is a ground breaking course that was started by artist and milliner Dai Rees, a collaborator of Alexander McQueen. It’s provocative and forward thinking nature has created a diverse alumni where objects of extremely high level craft skills have been created. It has had a big influence on the more open perception of fashion with the industry. My reasons to take 15 months out to do a masters was to spend time developing new craft skills and making methodologies, which would give me more future freedom in realizing my ideas.

The course started 10 years ago, unknown to me at the time. It was at the same time I started to develop my own conceptual fashion practice, which meant there was a natural synergy.

The title of the project (thesis) was ‘The Language of Feet in The Walk of Life’. 

The objective was to create foot and shoe related works, which sat directly between the intersection of fashion and art and which challenged them both in some way. I wanted to transcend the shoe's literal function so that it could exist as an autonomous object, visually communicating something more deeply of its self as if it was human.

Starting by considering how the shoe could become its own action, the research covered walking gait analysis and body language psychology. The wider project talked about research which covered aspects of what it is to be human and the many relationships with the self.

CM: What did you find most challenging about the program? What was your favorite part?

JC: The extensive processes and making methods, which I chose to take on were hugely challenging and took months of physical labor and problem solving but were absolutely my favorite part also. Hands on making and being able to see through my visions in three dimensions; for that I will get up as early in the morning as it takes and go to sleep as late as is required.

CM: What’s the most challenging part about creating your work and of course, the easiest?

JC: The easiest for me is ideas. I always have more ideas than I have time or recourses to make. I keep files of drawings and sometimes go back to revisit them if they wont leave my mind.

The most challenging is budget and in the past, skills limitations, to be at the helm of the entire making process is not always possible. Outsourcing can be costly but rewarding in other ways. Fifteen months of learning new crafts skills has given me more power over my complete making process. Waiting and applying for funding opportunities can be a long process and hold no guarantees.

CM: What type of artist, overall, do you consider yourself and why? There are many artists who don’t want to use a label so, perhaps, it’s not necessarily a label. 

JC: Labels are only really there for other people to find and understand what you do, in that way it is important that we try to define ourselves, but it’s very difficult, I span many areas and don’t like parameters. I try to think of it now as key elements that make up the definition: product, process and placement/purpose. The origin of the work is fashion, the method is driven by conceptual thinking and the process by craft, the final placement; the gallery or concept store as installation or performance.

I’ve worn many hats to make the work make sense in different environments; I’ve exhibited at top design and craft shows, where the work is presented with the show's bias. I have also sold a range of products in galleries and design stores with the idea that it gives the public a means of buying in to what you do aesthetically and as more simplified concept. Working with curators and galleries is my main focus now. The best definition is as fashion as my vessel and art as my heart.

CM: Let’s talk about some of your pieces. Perhaps, you can explain or summarize the concept behind them?! For example: “Legs Open, Eyes Shut”, “Love Triangle”, & “Leg Work”.

JC: In “Legs Open Eyes Shut” and “Love Triangle” I have used different labels for rearranged elements of the same piece because I think it is very interesting and relevant in this work to explore the different meanings that can be projected when the work is abstracted and takes on different compositions. Both pieces use the feet to represent love and sex related relationships but talks more about potential deflections and abandonment’s of the self. “Leg Work” is part of a piece I created for the Northampton Boot and Shoe Museum, I was commissioned to make a larger piece called ‘Sold’ to pay homage to all of the people that had given there lives, blood, sweat and tears to the industry of which my own family were part. When it was exhibited, an old man reportedly wept as he read about the piece and I was honored to have been involved in a project that could have a deeper human connection. The leg cuffs abstracted from the original piece are now renamed to narrate new ideas in the current work. There is a lot I could tell you further about the work but it is purposely both suggestive and ambiguous also, I think viewers should also be their own narrators.

CM: What’s your most favorite piece that you have ever created and why? What are you most proud of?

JC: To answer the question backwards, the piece other people have seemed to appreciate the most in the past is ‘Aerodynamic Dress’ made for Silverstone, exhibited during the F1 championship. This is a head to toe piece made from leather, carbon fibre, rubber and Kevlar which was 6 months labour to create. People enjoy the skill and engineering. I am also proud of this, however, I also favor pieces that I have created that could be over looked or undervalued that are extremely minimal on the surface but have employed much mathematical and conceptual thinking. I enjoy it when people can connect with objects that are seemingly simple while being able to engage in their layers of hidden depth.

The piece I am most proud of from my current work is ‘Love Triangle’ I saw it in my mind, I drew it on paper and didn’t stop until it was made exactly as envisioned; that was a great feeling as at times, it seemed an impossible feat.

CM: What is the piece that you dislike the most and why?

JC: I don’t dislike anything but there are things I would go back to do differently in the making process, now I have learnt more skills. Coming out of a fashion course with a dislike for conventional materials and methods, I have had to be self taught to forge my own unique direction, and in this you learn by mistakes sometimes. Every piece of work holds something important to me and is part of my journey as an artist. I always feel the best work is still to come with every new piece I create.

CM: What else would you like our viewers to learn about you or the work you create?

JC: Although the work is purposely abstract, I would love the viewer to feel an affinity with any shared experience that might exist. The concept of life for me is of a big continuous repetitive cycle, time and people change but many of the fundamental experiences can be very similar. I am trying to relate to my experience of these shared aspects of being human through fashion by being as progressive and future facing as possible.

I was recently diagnosed with dyslexia, which didn’t come as a great shock but I now understand it in a very positive light. Many creatives have what is called a disability of this kind and for me, it creates frustrations in ordering thoughts during verbal communication. However, the way my brain uniquely processes all of the information from the world around me is very key to the success of the work, so I am very happy to not be fully ‘normal’ 

CM: What advice would you like to offer artists that are just starting out in their journey and are not sure what path to take or what to focus on?

JC: True art is about originality. If you believe you have a unique standpoint, don’t worry about what anyone else is doing around you, trust your instincts, have the confidence to forge your own path. Make contact with people who you think might be right for your work. I started by asking galleries if I could give them a short presentation about my work. I got my first installation in a gallery because an artist let them down. They said, "can you be ready to install in a few weeks time?"... I said, "absolutely"! I consider myself a young artist in terms of experience and it is an ongoing process of learning and developing opportunities. What drives me is the restlessness I feel when I’m not creating the work that is inside of me.





Todd Anthony Tyler

Todd Anthony Tyler