Following Toni Cogdell’s June release ‘Spark’ – a collection of 5 beautiful mixed media paintings that emerged “from the ashes of the past year” (you can find all work here) – we asked Toni some questions to gain a deeper insight into her practice, her inspiration for ‘Spark’ and her overall approach to art and painting.
How did you first find art?
It feels as though I didn’t find art so much as it found me; doesn’t every artist say that! I can’t ever remember a moment where I discovered art, it just always was. It just always felt like ‘home’, whether looking at art, making art, reading or thinking about it; its been one of the few places I feel comfortable in my skin and connected to something more solid than the chaos of my mind and awkwardness of my self. I was encouraged by my art teacher at school who really opened my eyes to the power of art and its potential for empowerment (both for creator and viewer). It was never in question that I would continue my art journey beyond education – although you never, ever stop learning.
How would you describe your ‘creative process’? Your studio is at home, how do you separate the two spaces – or do you not?
My studio is in the garden so is physically separate from my living space, but the creative process never stops for me, so I struggle with alternating between the spaces (often getting caught up in housework in between studio sessions!) My studio also doesn’t have WIFI, so I often have to pop into the house to send emails or answer calls, so I’m working on making that feel less disjointed. The dream is for a larger studio, with all amenities so I can spend uninterrupted time in that creative flow, a complete Art-HQ. My day begins around 6am in the studio, with a mug of hot cacao, working before my mind has engaged with the day, before the world has begun to churn and grind.
Your titles always pose interesting questions about your work – at what stage in the process do you learn them?
The titles of my paintings come almost always at the very last stage of the painting, or once I have completed the painting. Every now and then a title will shout loudly in my head at the start or midway through, though I try not to think about it again until the end as I don’t want to illustrate a title, instead I want the piece to be opened out by it, to offer something extra and to allow the painting a freedom to move through different meanings for the person looking at it. I write as well as paint and keep a growing list of words and phrases that pop into my mind, and these will often turn into titles of paintings eventually; it usually makes sense when the time is right. As with my paintings the titles are personal to me but I intend them to work universally, a case of if something is felt strongly by myself then I’m convinced others will experience something similar, through their own lens. I love the idea that an ongoing and endless conversation can happen between an artwork and its viewer.
Is there a connection between your subjects and the words that appear within your paintings? Or do the two elements exist separately, united within the canvas?
The process of using words and text in my paintings I find really exciting. I first started using words in my work in the late 1990s while at art college. As a child writing and reading gave me the same kind of ‘home’ painting did, and I have always naturally felt they belong together in some way, as I do line and colour. I veered away from this style for a while, concentrating more on clean, crisp, realism, but this wasn’t my truth – which is something you can only know when you move away from it!
A few different things are happening with the process of using words in my work, the collaged words are a kind of word-divination in a way. I rip words and passages I’m drawn to from magazines, newspapers and old books and these are collaged onto the canvas at various stages of painting, in positions that ‘feel’ right. They are then painted over and by the end only a few of these collaged words and sentences remain, and somehow they never fail to resonate at the end and tell the story I was feeling.
The hand-scrawled words, some legible some unreadable scribbles, are from my own pieces of writing, segments that align with the energy and emotion of the piece. This visually feels like a representation of our thought streams, our ongoing conversations with ourselves, our memories, the surfacing of our hidden (inner) voices. The whole process is intuitive and I never try to think about what words need to go with the form / subject, it’s just a forward momentum with focus on a certain feeling; as though the figure is being emptied out onto the canvas, their life spilling out in images, colour, line, texture and words.
Who are your subjects – are they people you know, a reference or a memory of a person. And do you paint from a physical reference – photography, digital image or do you ever have someone sit for you?
The subjects of my paintings are all people in my life, although the paintings aren’t meant to ‘be’ them, they just stand as a starting point for a human representation, the architecture of human emotion. We have a long photo shoot, resulting in hundreds of photos which I add to the overflowing studio drawers of images I have built up over the years. The images might get neglected for years then suddenly will start working with a painting. I use the images as reference but not too heavily, I try to let them springboard me somewhere else. I have so much respect and gratitude for the people who model for me, it takes a lot of trust, especially for them allowing me to do what Francis Bacon called ‘injury’ to their likeness! They understand they aren’t portraits of themselves but portraits of human emotion, a more universal portrait.
Which artist(s) inspire you most at the moment?
Basquiat keeps me so fuelled up always. To have that fluency and energy, just wow, he was the truth! I question my process far too much, I get in the way and fight against it, it’s a constant battle, every day. Basquiat had many battles but painting wasn’t one of them, it seemed much closer to breathing for him.
And finally, can you give us some background on your latest series ‘Spark’?
This series has been building in my mind for a while and I think it finally emerged from the ashes of the past year; the strain of the global pandemic, increased noise of the media and the weight of technological influences in our daily lives. I’ve felt for a some time that we’ve reached a kind of saturation point where we’re so used to being fed information continuously – literally ‘fed’ it in our ‘feeds’! And it’s often conflicting or false information, intended to sell us something or in some way attempting to influence how we interact with the world, how we sit in our own lives. We’re forever looking for something outside ourselves, beyond our present moment, and I just wanted to focus my thoughts on going inward to reach our true selves, to remember our own beating hearts drumming out our unique songs. My work always explores our inner lives and stories and how we connect to our natural world but with the Spark series the paintings are very focused on seeing inward and finding that place we all have within us, that ‘spark’ where our voice and truth begins. It’s somewhere we can breathe, just be, and not in a constant reaction state. Thich Nhat Hanh said it perfectly, “the only way out is in” – there’s such beautiful power in that.
You can check out Toni’s full gallery collection here. As always, thanks for reading!