Ceramics prof in running for $10k art award



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.

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 until 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, 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, Cooper’s former professor and now a colleague of hers 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 maintaining her studio space, so she can focus on producing more work in future. Visit the Gardiner Museum website to vote for your favourite artist.