‘Creating art is my safe haven. It’s a strange feeling of being lost and found simultaneously. I don’t think about too much in those moments, but I do know I feel most like myself, and for me, that is no different than bowing my head in reverence or stretching my arms out in surrender.’ –J C COWANS
There is a reason people are drawn to art. Honest, passionately created work resonates with us because the deepest and truest part of ourselves is able to see and recognize that same essence in the art. It is what you feel when you hear a piece of music that unexpectedly moves you to tears, but you can’t put your finger on why that is. As London based artist J C Cowans puts it, real recognizes real. When we experience this, its like coming home. Herein lies one of the greatest gifts of art: it has an uncanny ability to draw us into a place of quiet stillness, but at the same time it has the power to move us on an emotional, even spiritual level. This feeling is available to all of us, whether we are the performer offering a piece of ourselves on stage or the audience member quietly observing from a distance.
by Angelina Perino
Angelina Perino: Where are you from?
J C Cowans: I’m from southeast London, UK. My family is from Jamaica and Antigua, but I’ve lived here in London all my life.
AP: How old are you?
JC: 24. I’m a September baby, so soon I’ll have walked the earth for a quarter of a century!
AP: Do you feel you were called to create?
JC: After school, I didn’t have that pull towards a specific career path, as some people do. I knew I was interested in design and my dad had encouraged me in architecture ever since I was little — I remember sitting on his knee whilst he was creating floor plans and wall elevations at his drawing board — so I studied a foundation course in 3D Design and then went onto BA Hons Interior Design Environment Architectures. I dropped out in the first year! The last time I had painted was in school, but four years later I decided to pick up my paint brushes again — in 2016.
I think we are all creators in some way, but I know for sure I am called to create art, in its various forms. There’s a level of satisfaction, a feeling of deep contentment.
AP: What do you think is the purpose of art? Why do we need it now more than ever?
JC: I think art is one of the purest forms of expression. It can be super personal and relatable at the same time. I do think, however, because of our human nature and our tendency to see things through our own eyes first before we put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, we can interpret a piece in a way that was not intended by the artist.
For me, it’s a bit of a love/hate relationship; I want people to have their own opinion of my work, their own understanding of it, but at the same time I don’t want its true message to be misinterpreted. I have a habit of presenting my work with prose, which poetically sums up the purpose of the piece. I always want to make sure the meaning behind the art is clear. I think that’s what we need in this day and age, where our social and political climate can seem overbearing at times — art [that] is honest, whatever subject it is depicting.
AP: What would you say, then, to a younger artist– of any background and medium — trying to live a creatively led life in a world dominated by political and egotistical structure?
JC: It may sound cliché, but always be your most authentic self. Allow yourself room to grow. Remember you will never have it all figured out and that’s perfectly okay because none of us do. Surround yourself with like-minded people. Do not underestimate the importance of self-care. Create with you in mind first, before you create for anyone else.
AP: I love what you say about not having it all figured out. I don’t think we’re meant to. There’s a lot of freedom that comes when you learn to be at peace with the not knowing — learning to be okay with simply saying I don’t know.
AP: Where would you say you draw your inspiration from?
JC: Experience, a lot of the time. The notes app on my phone is heaving. I have something that I want to say and then I find a muse for that message. In a body of work titled Sister Series, I am documenting the story of sisterhood — how the connections between women strengthen and uplift. I remember one of my male friends saying he was so fascinated by the way women encourage and support each other, especially on social media. It opened up my eyes to the fact I am blessed to be surrounded by all these amazing women who do that for me, and I for them.
AP: Absolutely. How do you move past periods of creative block?
JC: I have a series of notes to self which I share on my Instagram account from time to time. One of them says “Displace yourself, every once in a while, make yourself uncomfortable. You’ll be surprised what happens when you do.” I really benefit from traveling. One of my most memorable trips was a short weekend break to Paris. My friend and I stayed at the most beautiful Airbnb and balanced work with exploration of one of my favorite cities. It was there where the concept for Common Thread was born.
I think spending time away from people is also just as important. There’s something about just allowing myself space to breathe which helps to clear my mind, along with those creative blocks. This year I took myself on my first solo trip, nothing crazy like backpacking in Peru (which is on my list!), but a trip to Copenhagen in February which completely centered me again.
AP: What does it mean to you to be authentic and honest in your work?
JC: In the lead up to my first exhibition, I remember telling my friend that “Sharing your work is like having an honest conversation with yourself in front of strangers.” Being authentic in your work can be daunting at times because you’re welcoming the critique of others, but I believe people connect with the truth. Real recognizes real. There is a poem in Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur which I remind myself of every so often:
is not about how many people like your work
is about if your heart likes your work
if your soul likes your work
it’s about how honest you are with yourself
AP: That is so beautiful. Creation comes from the most vulnerable part of ourselves, and I think its human tendency to want to keep that part of yourself hidden. It can be terrifying to really show yourself to someone, let alone an audience of people. But it truly doesn’t matter what anyone thinks.
AP: What would you say has been your greatest struggle?
JC: Saying no to people. I love supporting others, whether this is creatively or emotionally. It’s not in my nature to deny someone something they need if I have it, and I used to feel so bad if I couldn’t be to others what I myself needed. I have learned however that being a good friend does not mean being constantly accessible. Living in age where we are always online, always available, can be draining. Sometimes I find myself saying ‘yes’ when really what I ought to be saying is ‘no, not this time.’ It’s a learning curve, and I’m still working on it.
AP: I really can relate to that. I’m learning to focus on making time for myself first — once your own cup is full, what flows out of it can be for others.
There’s a quote I love by Rainn Wilson that says “There’s not any difference between lifting up a paintbrush and touching it to a canvas and bowing your head in a church.” I’m curious how that resonates with you — is that something you feel?
JC: That has got to be one of the most resonating quotes ever. When I sit down to paint, I go through what you may call a ritual; setting up the space, fixing the paper, wetting my brushes, mixing the color, etc. Creating art is my safe haven. It’s a strange feeling of being lost and found simultaneously. I don’t think about too much in those moments but I do know I feel most like myself, and for me, that is no different [than] bowing my head in reverence or stretching my arms out in surrender.
AP: I love that. I always say that art is the one thing that allows you to be moved and be stilled at the same time — there is nothing like it. How would you describe what it feels like to be in the flow with your work?
JC: Another one of my notes to self describes this:
Equilibrium; how it feels to be completely grounded and defy gravity at the same time.
AP: What scares you?
JC: Dissatisfaction. A lot of people seem to think there is a general consensus for happiness, when in actual fact only the individual themselves can measure their satisfaction. For me, happiness isn’t an exaggerated, hyper-state of joy, but rather a peaceful, continuous contentment. And the things that contribute to that are ever-changing, as am I. It scares me to limit myself to just one thing.
AP: What would you say to your younger self, given the chance?
JC: Keep giving. Keep giving of yourself, keep caring and keep loving in the most honest way that you know how.