Jim Cowan is retiring after 32 years with OCA
As Programme Leader for the painting dept, I am pleased to be in conversation this month with artist and tutor James Cowan. James has worked for OCA since September 1988 (the year I sat my A Levels) and his experience and, I would suggest in particular, his rich art historical knowledge has been an asset for students over the years. Jim is leaving us in the months ahead so I’m taking the opportunity to have a conversation with him now and hear about his own practice and also listen to his unique insight into the development of OCA.
ED: Jim, you’ve made the decision to teach your current students until they complete and then leave us at OCA, presumably then to focus on your studio practice. I know you had an exhibition recently – what was the theme of that exhibition and where do you see your work going in the months ahead?
JC: Yes, the exhibition you refer to opened in March of 2020 and closed a week later thanks to Covid restrictions. We did however manage to have a Private View and I was pleased to invite and meet a number of my OCA students. The pictures then sat in the Gallery for a year before I managed to retrieve them.
I chose to show paintings and drypoints of New York and St Petersburg and grouped the work in sets of three. I had come up with the idea of the Triptych when working on the Russian paintings. As the long compositional format I devised was going to be an awkward shape, it seemed sensible to cut up the design and present it as three connected pictures. This then allowed me to add to the complexity of each image, which I did either through collage or through rearrangement of incident. It also served to extend the narrative.
One positive aspect of lockdown was that it allowed me reconsider the direction of my work. Exhibitions opportunities continued however but went online. I exhibited with the Discerning Eye exhibition and then sold work through the RI and Pastel Society exhibitions. This involved me sending large works under glass through the post and hoping they would arrive in one piece.
Lockdown was and still is very difficult for musicians, many of whom, unable to have concerts, lost their only source of income. I had already collaborated with a composer friend on music for my art videos and it made sense to commission him to write more.
Working in iMovie, I assembled photographs of the different stages of my painting, while the triptych format allowed a reasonable length of time for the whole to be set to music. Once that was done, the first draft was e-mailed to Glasgow and the Scottish Composer Edward McGuire wrote the music and sent it back in Sibelius Sound as an mp4. After adjustments and reconsiderations, the finished piece would then be premiered on You Tube. An example of this, the Ulitsa Triptych can be seen here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_ZXbqv_GbG4
ED: That was marvellous Jim, I felt transported to a quite particular time in European history, or perhaps into the pages of a Le Carre novel? Is that something you would approve of? The music and the way you moved around the painting through video really evoked a certain Hopperesque slant to my reading of the triptych. It’s great to hear that you were able to maintain productivity despite the restrictions and hold out a hand of friendship and support to a creative colleague. As well as this video, you also sent me a slice of OCA history in the form of a press release for the very first OCA exhibition over thirty years ago. You have been involved with OCA since its very inception and I notice that the first exhibition was run in parallel with Wimbledon School of Art. Wimbledon is now part of UAL where I am currently studying alongside heading up the painting and drawing departments at OCA which feels nicely circular. How did it transpire that the OCA show was run at Wimbledon and what else do you remember most vividly about those days?
JC: I hadn’t thought that the Russian Triptychs could be seen as something out of a le Carré novel but now you mention it, I like the comparison.
St Petersburg is a beautiful Neo-classical and Baroque city and I didn’t want to just paint the stunning architecture, so instead I looked to the lesser-known streets and added reflections in windows to create atmosphere. It also made the work more abstract, which provided a link to the Russian constructivists and early cubists. This seemed appropriate, while still retaining a contemporary feel.
I tend to work in series and alternate between the New York inspired subject matter in which I use varying degrees of realism or abstraction as I think the subject dictates. The carousel paintings are the most realistically painted with the bold carnival colours and slightly sinister subject matter providing the impact. A painting such as ‘Carousel Horses’ here seen in this video could be related to Mark Gertler’s great anti war painting ‘The Merry-Go-Round’, 1910 Tate Gallery. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B-c4e-aJFGQ
The OCA held its first introductory meeting at Wimbledon School of Art in 1987 while I was there doing my teacher training and the first group of students attended that year. As a student I was probably not paid for my efforts in teaching and hanging that first exhibition.
Ian Tregarthen Jenkins, the first Director of the OCA and former principal of Camberwell School of Art organised that first meeting at Wimbledon and the OCA expanded within art colleges from there. Ian Simpson, former Principal at St Martins School of Art was brought in to write the first painting course book and at the end of the year he had to write a further book in order that the students could progress. A drawing course soon followed, as did courses in music, garden design, sculpture, photography, textiles and creative writing.
Student groups at that time kept to an academic timetable and it was some time later that distance learning through postal submissions was introduced. At Wimbledon I ended up with 70 students attending on Thursday evenings and Saturday mornings and subsequently organised summer schools and life drawing classes for them so as to retain their interest and then held a regular end of year show at Wimbledon Public Library.
One of my first students started with the OCA, went on to the Foundation course at Wimbledon, did the degree at Central School of Art and followed it up with her M.A. at The Royal College of Art. Nowadays of course that can all be done with distance learning at the OCA.
At the request of the students, an assessment was arranged for that first year, and this progressed, via the cowshed at the Elmhirst Farmhouse, the first headquarters of the OCA, to the later large scale assessment events that took place at Northern College in Barnsley.
Exhibitions were then held in London at Central St Martins, The OCA’s first headquarters
Royal College of Art and on two occasions at the Bankside Gallery with students bringing their work to London from around the country pleased to be able to show their work in such prestigious venues. The college had soon expanded from that one class at Wimbledon School of art to venues across the country from Lands End to the Outer Hebrides.
ED: That is very interesting to me as head of painting, currently reflecting on the materiality of paint and where and how that is part of the OCA experience. We have grown in scale so much since those days, the logistics of staging London shows for all participants would be
The first OCA graduate exhibition mind boggling but I think as lockdown eases many of us will be looking forward to standing in rooms together with paintings again and thinking anew about the physical presence of artworks. Students are now staging their own real world graduating exhibitions and inviting us to attend which has been enormously beneficial to graduates, often engendering further local opportunities and enabling those real world local networks that are so vital to the new artist. I’d like to thank you so much for your service to OCA, you are really a founder member of the community. As we embark on the next phase of our development, my final question if I may would be what advice would you give me as head of department for painting and drawing at OCA and to the students who are just starting out?
JC: Very few OCA students come directly onto our art courses as complete novices. Some have done art at school and while others have attended some form of adult education class. It means that students are at all sorts of levels of developments when they first join our degree programme. To write an appropriate first level course that accommodates these diverse practitioners is always going to be a problem and the retention of interest in the overall course over a long period of time with distance learning is equally difficult. Couple that with students who are working, child rearing, or have age related illnesses and caring duties and you have an even more complex set of variables. Its not easy, but with well written courses, tutors who are specialist practitioners in their field and with as much student participation in group events as you can manage then the momentum needed for the course can only improve.
It is important with distance learning that students communicate with each other for mutual support.
I always enjoyed the Gallery Visits. They were arranged around artists that I particularly admired and who I thought would appeal to the students. The most successful were for Joan Eardley ‘A sense of Place’ at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern art, and the ‘Two Roberts’ – Colquhoun and MacBryde also at the same gallery. In London we had a good turn out for Ravilious at the Dulwich Picture Gallery and Renato Guttuso at the Estorick Collection .
I would encourage students to draw in their sketchbooks in the gallery which helps focus concentration and gives them a greater understanding about how the picture had been composed and realised.
The advice I would give to students starting out is to engage as best you can with your fellow students, attend the organised events, attend exhibitions, ask direct questions, exchange information and gain in confidence through engaging in art practice. Its is a big and varied subject, don’t try and take it in all at once and realise that with perseverance and with due diligence your assessment results will only get better.
ED: That’s perfect Jim, great advice and it’s been a pleasure talking with you for this blog and working with you over the years.