Dr Lisa Cooper

Interviewed by Joanna Nicholas, Curator 

Sydney Living Museums is delighted to welcome The Mint’s first resident artist. In this Q&A, Dr Lisa Cooper provides insights into her extraordinary work with flowers and her hopes for this new creative partnership. 

Lisa Cooper is a Sydney-based artist and florist with a Doctorate of Philosophy in Fine Art from the College of Fine Arts, UNSW. Her work encompasses floral installations and hand-delivered flower gestures, as well as sculpture and videos. 

In all of Lisa’s work there’s a celebration of ‘composition in nature’ coupled with bold and often dramatic themes. Her stunning work has adorned the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney Theatre Company and Tiffany & Co, and her commissions include unique works for the National Gallery of Australia, the Prime Minister’s Office, The Australian Ballet, Omega and Deutsche Bank. 

As an artist who works almost exclusively with natural products – flowers and plants – how does this impact your practice? 
My process has a degree of intention, form and structure, but the core of my practice is instinctive, and my medium – the flowers – profoundly untamed. 

My work with the flowers is above all intuitive; the intuited act is difficult to articulate and map … this adds spontaneity into my work. It adds excitement. It can be crippling, but that’s art. 

Tell us about your aesthetic. 

My aesthetic has been described as being ‘protestant’ and ‘catholic’. Both I would agree to – they describe a contradictory approach and express both an austere, plain, clarified, utilitarian, scrubbed, entirely non-decorative and purpose-driven approach to aesthetics and simultaneously a decadent, elaborate, gilded, polished, unrestrained, grandiose one. 

These contrasting sensibilities are evident in the way that I live, the work that I make and the aesthetics that I’m drawn to – I’m captivated in equal measure by saints and criminals. 

How did you start working with flowers? 

My work with flowers started with them as a component in multimedia artworks I was producing. They were pictorial and conceptual elements. Through this initial use they came alive to me as powerful signifiers and potent imagers. 

During my postgraduate study I worked at a flower shop, where I picked up the trade of floristry. I have a deep affection and respect for trades and their systematic passing of practical and theoretical knowledge from master to apprentice, who, in turn, becomes journeyman before, ultimately, becoming the master themselves. 

In the end it was a total movement of the soul. I was utterly drawn to and intoxicated by flowers. 

How did the relationship with SLM come about? 

With my background in art and academia and my preoccupation with research-based inquiry and practice, I feel that my relationship with SLM has been in my destiny forever. My studio work is wholly motivated by the production of new work through theoretical and material immersion. Initial conversations with SLM’s Executive Director, Adam Lindsay, were spent rapt in the potential for new work that might emerge from both scholastic and sensorial immersion in the vast histories, buildings, landscapes and collections of SLM. We then galvanised my residence and ambassadorship, and I’m thrilled. 

SLM is a unique organisation, responsible for houses, museums, collections, gardens and even a beach. What are you most looking forward to exploring, interpreting or learning? 

There’s literally too much to mention! I love what you do. I’m really keen to explore Elizabeth Bay House, the Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection and Elizabeth Farm. To be honest, the universality of the material I use means that the uniqueness of SLM in itself is inspiring. 

Who and what inspires you? 

Composition in nature influences me greatly … I ‘store’ these compulsively and play upon their memory in my work. 

I’m also bound to be inspired by my ancestors and genealogy, which have afforded me a poetical approach – for me the divine and mundane mingle. 

I think the most valuable muse we possess, though, is the completely unique way that we absorb our existence, and so the individual emerges from this as singularly inspiring. 

The work of other artists also inspires me. [Sculptor] Anish Kapoor’s work, the manner in which he monumentalises material, is seminal in contemporary art practice. [Video artist] Bill Viola’s treatment of religious imagery and the experience of living (and dying) creates stunning cinematic compositions. [Multimedia artist] Matthew Barney’s large-scale, textural works are preternatural, and hugging the ends of a continuum the way he does is extraordinary.
 

Woman with red floral artwork with other works behind.

Dr Lisa Cooper in her studio at The Mint. Photo © Toby Burrows for Sydney Living Museums

Floral art arrangement.

Dr Cooper’s composition.

Photo © Dr Lisa Cooper; Photo © Toby Burrows

Floral art arrangement.

Dr Cooper’s composition.

Photo © Dr Lisa Cooper; Photo © Toby Burrows