Interview with Joe Coffey
A few weeks ago I was at the Mauritshuis museum to visit the George Stubbs exhibit, featuring what some say, the best equine portrait of all times, Whistlejacket. Afterwards I passed through the museum gift shop, where between all the Whistlejacket memorabilia, I spotted The Book of the Horse, Horses in Art, by Angus Hyland and Caroline Roberts. A few paintings by Joe Coffey are featured in this book, all the more reason to buy it!
On my way home I send Joe a message with a photo of the book on display at the museum. ‘Look what I just bought!’ and he replied ‘Cool!’.
After a bit of chit chat, I thought this was the perfect time to finally ask Joe to agree to do an interview with me for Paard Verzameld. Something that had been on my wish list for years, but never had to guts to ask. Joe, maybe obliged because I sent him the photo, said yes…!
Joe has been one of my favorite artists for years. I absolutely adore his calm, almost serene scenes of horses, eyes closed, in the warm wind. Heads low, a sign of complete calmness. Add to that a contemporary colour palette with vivid colour splashes, to make the grey and brown coats of the horses stand out even more. Joe’s perspective and cutouts are unique, giving each painting a very distinctive, modern and recognizable style.
At what age did you become interested in art?
I think the earliest memories I have are of fashioning shapes of animals out of the pastry dough my mom was making for pies. She passed away when I was 5 so this was quite early , maybe I was 3 or 4 years old? I remember vividly eating them after she baked them along with her pies, often covered in jam. I also remember I drew a lot as a young child — I was more comfortable with a lead pencil than crayons -one could really get into the details and as well I am somewhat colour blind and while I didn't realize it at the time , I was clearly more comfortable working with graphite and charcoal. Obviously, I got over it, I paint what I see.
I think what happened though is that once reaching high school I was more interested in pursuing theatre and acting, although still explored art in classes. I remember feeling that it wasn’t a viable way to make a living (not that acting was a much better prospect- both were not exactly encouraged by school guidance counsellors). So it wasn’t until I was in my mid-twenties that I picked up my pencils again (and eventually brushes) and really started to apply myself.
You paint other subjects besides horses , is there something different you bring to each subject ? If so, how do horses as subject matter shape your creative process?
That is an interesting question! I would say that generally speaking my horse paintings have an introspective feel? Perhaps meditative even. The actual process and my headspace that I am in while painting, feels very much like that as well.
My other subjects, including ones with human subjects, have a more cerebral bent to them perhaps. I see all my work as a form of tableau — these actors frozen in a situation — but whereas my other animal subjects (including human) might tell an unspoken story, I think my horse paintings invite one in to an inner world we all have inside of us.
I think it can end up being just as much a reflection of the person viewing the painting as it is something I have strove to portray. I will say for myself I am endlessly fascinated with this dichotomy that goes on in my head as I paint all my subjects — I would also say that it is all quite general what I have said- I think both the cerebral and visceral is there in all the work it is just a difference of ratio.
How did you develop yourself over the years?
I am self taught. Every artist is different as far as their thoughts on going to school or not and their growth as an artist. — I develop more when I am stumbling around on my own discovering my own technique it seems yet I can see the benefit one can have when one takes training — I just had to go with what felt best for me.
As I mentioned above I started out just drawing with graphite and I had a number of art shows with just drawings. Eventually I suppose, I got a tad bored. A normal thing with artists when sticking to one thing too long and started applying washes with orange shellac and oil over the drawings-that led to dry mounting this drawing on to a board and painting and varnishing over it -the end result was that it looked very much like a painting.
Naturally this led to forgoing the drawing on paper all together to drawing directly on the canvas and learning to work with oil paint. I will say that the years of working in graphite and all the tones and layers one can build up and even remove with that dry medium was the perfect training for becoming an oil painter.
What is your favorite memory involving horses?
When I was in my mid teens I took a summer job at a stable. It was a hunter/jumper outfit. My job was to muck out and turn out horses. There was one particular horse there who was absolutely stunning — big, athletic chromey chestnut. He should have been off to shows and doing well but alas he didn’t have the mind for it — any pressure and he just got too stressed and high strung. He was a retired racehorse who had been bought as a jumper prospect and alas that didn’t pan out. Rather than selling him on though he became a longtime resident of the barn. He tended not to get ridden much; he also was a bit defensive by nature until he trusted you. I think I was intrigued by the challenge of this. I’d often eat my lunch sitting by his stall — I can remember sharing my oranges with him. He loved them!
Over time I think we developed a bond of sorts. Eventually I got to ride him.
I knew so little really about riding and I think that is why we hit it off — I didn't ask much of him at all really and as a result he settled down and relaxed with me. I have no illusions he was basically in control but he indulged me hahaha. Eventually I even rode him in a few schooling shows and a children’s hunter class-the small jumps he was fine with. Never won a ribbon but it really was such a great experience. While I do have other fond memories around horses those few years that I spent with him are definitely the happiest as far as my own personal horse memories.
What are your sources of inspiration, people you look up to/admire?
My inspiration can come from such a wide variety of sources — I seek out whatever puts me in the right headspace and emotional state while I am painting. I think so much of my work is a form of theatrical tableau and my subjects are my actors -it can feel almost like method acting and the things that inspire can seem so far removed from the actual painting-certain music can send me soaring creatively. I love history and the men and women I have read about can be muses -which might sound strange when my subject is a horse or a dog. There are so many rather disparate things that inspire too many to mention. The end result though is that the work process is highly engaging — mostly enjoyable and yes sometimes hair pulling out frustrating.
As for who inspires me while there are a number of artists I greatly admire, funny enough it is writers, and their lives that I seem to gravitate towards reading and learning about. One example is Virginia Woolf — I have read her diaries 5 times through now no exageration lol. Not just her reflections as a novel progressed with all its up and downs but also, and perhaps more importantly the discipline she brought to her writing-keeping to a basic daily routine. Making working in the mornings sacrosanct (sacred), then going for an afternoon walk to clear the head. Something I do now as well.
I think what Virginia Woolf discovered (and lots of creatives who have developed a discipline of getting up everyday and getting down to work discover) eventually it becomes second nature. And even on the days you are not feeling it and it might feel hard to get started, inevitably a brush stroke or a line written down gets to peak your interest. The next thing you know you are soaring above the clouds.
It always seems to happen. Everytime. — Joe Coffey
In your words, which is the main idea of your work? What do you want to transmit with it?
if I had to put it simply I’d say I want my work to be a mirror. Despite the fact most of my subjects are animals I want people to respond to them on a personal level-a reflection of themselves. Not in an anthropomorphic way though — I very much try and keep the innate dignity of whatever species is my subject. I also tend to remove my subjects from their own natural background-my backgrounds are often simple and even abstract. I think this gives the viewer the critical distance to register within themselves whatever thoughts and feelings come to them as they look at the work rather than making it an obvious thing. Of course in the end I have no control how people respond. I can only hope they do :)
Thank you so much Joe, for taking time for this interview!
For more on Joe Coffey’s work, please visit his website or Instagram here.
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Artwork used with kind permission of the artist, ©2020 Joe Coffey. All rights reserved. Copyright ©2020 by Joyce Ter Horst | Paard Verzameld.