The work of Nanami Cowdroy, with its depth, precision and salubrious themes, grabbed our attention some time ago. In terms of utilisation of her preferred mediums, there is no doubt that this Sydney artist has mastered the application of her style. So, when we heard the news that she, along with the muchly talented Beastman, were releasing a customised design for Smirnoff (in conjunction with the launch of their Start Pure Gallery), we just knew we had to talk to her.
As a tonally orientated artist working predominantly in greyscale, there is an evocation of simplicity wrapped amongst Nanami’s multifaceted musings. With generous utilisation of washes, gradients and illustrative inkings, the pure delight of her work, much like her passion for the art of origami cranes, is enhanced through unfolded, texturalised layers.
Drawn in by her bold, overt images, we find ourselves consistently zooming in on sections of proportionate interest, revelling in hidden, near subsumed patterns and icons. As is often the case with pieces produced by an artist who draws upon memories and influences of personal and familial history (yet which projects the modernity of our urban environs), you are left with a dichotomous conundrum between a world both old and new. This is the facet of her work that most excites us, and, coupled with concise line work and the aforementioned texturalisation, it is difficult to not feel the exuded beauty of her work.
All in all, this fantastic interview with Nanami really made us sit up and pay attention. Her detailed explanations and her conscious effort to put forward some of the more intimate ideas and motivations behind her artwork left us wanting even more. We think you’ll be just as enamoured by her work, and her words, as we are … enjoy!
You were brought up by a family of artists, and had your world view shaped by creative influences from an early age. Tell us a bit about how the members of your family helped to mould your world view, and what you have taken from your upbringing to present within your art?
I consider myself lucky that I come from a creative and artistic family, both on my father and mother’s side (even if we are a bunch of headcases at times!). So art has not just been something that I’ve been drawn to (pun intended) – but it is naturally a part of who I am and where I come from.
On my father’s European (French & Scottish) side, the artistic blood runs pretty deep … There are political cartoonists, graphic designers, writers and many fine-art artists … Dad fondly used to call it the ‘Cowdroy Bug’. On my mother’s (Japanese) side, my mother is an Ikebana teacher, my cousin’s a photographer, my uncle a (documentary) film director, and my auntie a ‘Kitsukeshi’ (traditional way of Kimono dressing).
The thing I realise the most, was the natural blend of the objects, art and photographs from both cultures which my parents collected and displayed randomly around their house.
There was Australian oil paintings of bush landscapes placed alongside Japanese painted folded screens (‘Byobu’) of cherry blossoms and willow trees. Japanese porcelain dolls dressed in silk kimonos as well as decorated traditional fans, displayed next to hand-made clay and carved wooden bowls from [for example] the Blue Mountains.
Wood block prints and scrolls of sumi-e paintings of [for example] bamboo, hung next to ink sketches of Sydney suburbia. As well as many various photographs of Japanese shrines and scenes of Mount Fuji framed on the walls beside photos of white yachts sailing on Sydney Harbour, etc.
All in all, like osmosis – growing up surrounded by such contrasting cultures, definitely filtered into my natural visual appreciation and understanding of art and the different aspects of my heritage.
How important, to you, does memory play within your work – what abut the vagaries of memory and their elusiveness and mutability, is this also reflected? How important is this visual documentation of reminiscing over the past?
Memory does play a fairly influential role with some of the themes and subjects that I choose to reflect within my artwork. I am one of those people who (as many of my friends would love say) have a ‘freakish’ memory that can easily challenge an elephant! As well as having a keen photographic/visual memory, I often remember my dreams quite vividly – which is why I always have trouble sleeping after seeing horror films – I guess I’m definitely one that tends not to see the forest for the trees, and even then – it’s the details on the bark!
An example of a subject which I love to depict in my work is origami Tsuru (paper cranes). Although its a fairly common symbol in Japan, a symbol/icon of peace and longevity. To me it also holds extra special meaning … as it is something I closely associate with the dear memories of both my father and grandmother, both of whom passed away not so long ago.
I was five when my Japanese grandmother (obaachan) taught me how to fold them – and true to Nana form – I remember it quite clearly. Both of us sitting at the coffee table and the woman having the patience of a Saint, as I became so frustrated at not being able to make the same neatly folded corners as her origami piece, and therefore throwing little bratty hissy fits (being the nutty perfectionist even back then!) because of my not-so-accurate hand and eye coordination.
It’s one of the earliest memories I recall where I had a great sense of achievement. But after many times (and ample amounts of crumpled recycled paper) I finally made one that resembled her beautiful, elegant crane – and not a paper ball with a disjointed beak!
The other significant and special memory they hold for me was when I subconsciously began folding them later in life, after my father passed away, and laying them around his resting place. It was just something I began doing. I guess it was my way of meditating to some degree and helping me deal with his loss … In many ways (although I didn’t realise it then), it definitely gave me a sense of peace, purpose and joy – because I would think of him whilst folding them quietly and privately.
I still love folding them, and placing them around my studio. I must admit, and at risk of sounding fairly sentimental, I dearly love to try and include them in my image making when I can. I guess it’s my little way of keeping their memory alive and well, and to wish them peace and love. Their memories mean a lot to me, and their encouragement towards my love and passion for art is something I treasure and will always be grateful for.
You use a liberal dose of ink splashes and washes throughout your work, and its a wonderful fusion between the traditional and the new. Besides the traditional influences of Japanese art and sumi-e styles, what elements of modern society do you most draw from and investigate in your work?
Growing up close to the old gritty Kings Cross (before its more recent gentrification), and currently living in Darlinghurst – lets face it, not a single day goes by where I don’t see a new piece of graffiti or an urban type of ‘installation’ around my street.
Of course by that I mean multiple dangling of tied sneakers hanging off the power lines; ripped and defaced posters and signs; council collection day with old green-screen computers, VCRS, broken plugs and tangled cables cluttering the footpaths. Endless littering, fruit bats pooping over parked cars and pigeons fighting over torn garbage bags of stale bread left out the back of cafes in alleyways in the late arvo … AND not to mention the grey, congested roads and noisy streets, densely populated business blocks and apartments, pocketed by some small hidden leafy oasis … Well, I guess I dig it all! (Most anyway.)
It’s my local surroundings and – whether directly or not, intentionally or otherwise – it all plays a part and I would never want to be away from it from too long (even though I am a self-confessed clean freak! And yes, in hand – it probably does feed into my Japanese-esque, germ-o-phobe compulsion to tidy up regularly) … but it’s the unique character of this cluttered part of Sydney, with all of its offbeat charm and crazy chaos that constantly changes, that inspires and continuously feeds my creative curiosity! (Gosh, how’s that for alliteration?! ;)
We notice that there is a certain element of chaos in your pieces, populous spaces crammed with icons and items, images and information – do you ever feel like you hit a point of overload within these forms of paintings and have to pull back, or do you like to visually overwhelm the viewer so that it takes them time to work it all out?
Perhaps I have a form of visual OCD (if there’s such a thing?) … It’s definitely not my intention to ‘visually overwhelm’ the viewer, but instead I would love to try and trigger their curiosity – draw them in to try and look a little closer into the imagery. To go beyond the immediate surface aesthetic, and hopefully incite a sense of ‘discovery’ within the viewer – by finding elements hidden amongst the density.
For me personally, I have always loved and been enthralled by the amazingly, visually enticing works of modern artists (particularly Surrealists) such as MC Escher, Rene Magritte, Salvador Dali (to name only a few). I find their dream-like, nonsensical imagery so exciting! Their clever trickery through their images – like MC Escher’s playing on perception and impossible perspective, which is sometimes so subtle in depiction, is something I definitely delight in and can look at for hours!
So I guess with that in mind, plus my natural tendency (ok… compulsion!) to want to try and put down everything before I forget them, together I think is what both inspires and motivates my work and artistic process.
I do sometimes reach a point of overload (and I have the calluses on my fingers to prove it!), but usually that happens when I reach the edge of the paper I’m working on … and sometimes if I can’t get enough of an idea and am in a creative zone – edge, or no edge – I will stick another piece of paper behind and keep on going. As it’s a naturally, creative process – it often takes on a life of its own.
That said, like Ikebana and the quintessential Japanese philosophy of art which I grew up observing my mother doing - negative space is as equally important as the filled space … allowing focus, and ‘visual’ breathing space so a piece can truly be appreciated (sans an eye overload!)
We read somewhere about your "all or nothing" approach. Some artists will pre-plan and lay out their work, others follow your format, no plan, just thought and ink to paper (I do this myself) – what are some of the major, surprising successes you have had with pieces by doing this, as well as some of the inevitable stuff ups?
All or nothing is true to my hard-core Capricorn form … But leaky pens, ink stained finger tips, and clogged spray cans have always provided moments of unexpected, joyful surprise as well as equally unruly tourettes! Especially because my pieces usually take months to do, off and on … but, hey! I guess it’s the universe’s reminder that one can’t control everything – right?!
In terms of mediums, however, we did see it mentioned that not only do you use pen, ink and spray paint, but that you also often incorporate small digital elements into the work – what form does this take, and what digital techniques do you use, if even not very often, to enhance the pieces?
The primary foundation and basis to all my work is my hand drawn illustration and painting. In the past, I would sometimes like to add in a background grey gradient behind the scanned artwork … But nowadays, I don’t like using any digital elements. I’ve definitely moved away from it. For me, at the end of the day, I find that the pen is mightier than the mouse. ;)
You’ve also worked on a few pieces of jewellery design, specifically your goldfish and crane designs – how did this come about, how have they been received,and what are your plans for more jewellery in the future?
I love and collect quirky jewellery pieces, and also love accessories (am such a girl! haha) … So I figured, if others can do it, and make such lovely things, then I just wanted to have a go making some of my own. So I wanted to focus on two of my favourite subjects, Kingyo (black moors) and Origami Tsuru (paper cranes) as brooches and pendants. I put it together myself and it takes time, but I really enjoy it – as I’ve always loved crafts also! What can I say – I like to get my hands dirty. :)
I’ve received a really lovely response from people – some who have emailed me their photos wearing my pieces which is so awesome to see! It really makes me happy that some people take the time, and care enough to want to show them to me … it’s really nice.
For the future, sadly I don’t have as much time as I would like to make them nowadays, and it looks like I may have to stem them out soon (esp. the pendants) … but of course you never know?! But I’m currently focussing my attention on my other (domestic) design passion – home wares, [for example] arty cushions, plates etc. which I aim to put on my new website very soon!
Tell us a bit about your involvement with the Smirnoff crew, and how it is that you were commissioned to do a limited released bottle design for them? Also, how did you go about putting together a design for the piece itself?
Smirnoff had seen my artwork and fortunately approached me with their concept – ‘Start Pure’. I was immediately interested in their concept, and I thought it was really exciting! Intuitively, the idea of ‘Start Pure’ suggested to me the notion of endless possibilities and essentially, the freedom of expression! Something I believe is at the heart of all creatives.
I felt that I could relate to ‘Start Pure’ in many respects, because as an artist – there’s nothing more enticing and irresistible than starting with a blank canvas! For me, a blank piece of paper is ultimately the essential foundation to all my work. The primary medium which allows me to express my creativity and imagination.
Further to the concept, when Smirnoff discussed with me the unique twisting and turning of their proposed pack design – this automatically triggered my idea of an Octopus and its curling arms, wrapping around the package … kinda like embracing the bottle within.
Being a fan of the curious, watery mollusc and having already begun sketching an inky series on the invertebrates – I felt it was an ideal medium to extend and translate both subjects … Twisting and fluid forms appealed to me, and thankfully to Smirnoff also. ;)
To top it off, having also begun researching and having seen photos of various Octopi making homes out of bottles on the ocean floor – I felt it lent itself really well to the Smirnoff bottle – and I was really keen to reflect these Octopus characters in my inky, abstract artistic style.
All in all, it was an incredibly fun project and I just hope people will dig it as much I as I enjoyed creating it.
You’ve done several shows over your time as an artist, can you elaborate on what some of the highlights of exhibiting your work have been? You’ve also featured in a number of international shows and had a solo show in Hong Kong – how did you first feel when your work was receiving notice from fans overseas, and what advice would you give to artists who want to break out into a global arena?
Exhibiting my works is both super exciting, as well as (to be honest) – pretty nerve racking at the same time!
To give a little bit of background, as with most of my artwork – it can take me several weeks/months to complete off and on, and I normally have multiple artworks going on at once. As I never strictly plan out my works, it’s more of an intuitive creative process, my pieces can become somewhat of my own personal mind map of sorts. They’re almost like a visual documentation of how I may have been feeling and thinking over time. An example is when some areas within the image, have been noticeably reworked and some patches of the canvas/page have been thinned out because of this.
So truthfully, as the process of making artwork is very personal and intimate – it can be quite intimidating for me personally to go from the privacy of my own studio, to the open and exposed walls of a gallery for people to see. It does feel like an extension, and part of myself is on display … and being the nutty Capricorn that I am, it can make me feel a little vulnerable.
Having said that, it’s such an amazing and truly wonderful feeling and experience for me to hear when people actually dig my work, and express their appreciation of it. It is something really special, and it honestly means so much to me. Because art at the end-of-the-day IS something personal, it comes from the heart and without doubt – a definite highlight for sure, no matter if it’s in Australia or overseas!
Advice for aspiring artists … honestly, there’s no real template or formula for this. Being an artist is definitely not exactly the most ‘secure’ of professions (so-to-speak), and it’s something that transcends countries and cultures.
All I know is, a creative/artistic path is one that goes beyond logic and reason and ultimately takes a lot of passion, dedication, enthusiasm as well as an open mind! The ability to trust in your natural ability and talent (as that’s something that cannot be taught) is essential, and to try not get complacent … as it’s important to continually challenge yourself and push your artistic skills in order to develop your own mark/style … and finally, don’t be afraid to show it off where ever you can. :)
What are your plans for the rest of the year, and what special projects would you like to accomplish in the future, given time?
My number one desire/ aim/goal above everything else this year, is to finally have my first art solo shows – both here and in the USA! I am SO thrilled about being offered to have my first show in Los Angeles mid/end of this year. :) Lots of intensive scribbling ahead – I cannot wait!! My pen is poised, ready to go!
Also at LONG last! I aim to launch my brand new art website next week with my new works! It’s taken FOREVER to do – it’s sent my inner Capricorn around the bend a little … but thankfully am 99% ready! So I do hope you keep an inky eye out for it. ;)
I’m also working on a new piece which I’m hoping to launch very soon – one year after the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan. It’s my sincere intention to register and give a % of my limited edition print sales to Oxfam-Japan. Anyone interested, I do hope you’ll keep an eye out for news of it on my new website to be launched VERY soon. (LINK:)
Last, but definitely not least! My main wish for the future is to be able to continue doing what I LOVE to do – make art. So I sincerely do hope that people will continue to enjoy my work. It honestly means so much and is incredibly encouraging as it allows me to continue creating and following my artistic dream!
Check out Nanamis website, as well as her facebook page for yet more info on the artist. Also, check out the Smiffnoff Start Pure event and Beastman’s website for info on his contribution to the Smirnoff project and the whole shebang!