Dr Lisa Cooper: a creative partnership 

The first resident artist at The Mint has displayed her unique aesthetic sensibilities in a range of creative responses at our properties.

Over the past year, Dr Lisa Cooper, an artist and florist with a Doctorate in Philosophy in Fine Art from the University of NSW’s College of Fine Arts, has been visiting, researching and immersing herself in Sydney Living Museums’ properties, their collections and stories. Working almost exclusively with flowers and plants, she’s made a significant impact in the first year of a three-year ambassadorship.

Dynamics of scale

Q: How has relocating your studio to The Mint affected your practice?

A: I moved from a cavernous industrial space in Redfern to a smaller ‘scholastic’ space here in the (old) Rum Hospital (The Mint). The changed scale of my new space, along with myriad restrictions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, has engendered a renewed focus to my practice this year. In the years prior, my work had been dominated by the production of large-scale works, changing the emphasis of my practice, which has always been on the elemental – the flowers [The Flowers is also the title of Dr Cooper’s book]. In my new studio, I’ve stood at my bench and worked dedicatedly and with hyper attention on compositions in silver and black bowls – I feel like I’m sharpening my knife. There’s a dynamic of scale at play between ‘man’ and flower, and when the work ‘blows out’ too often the way it had over the past few years this dynamic is compromised. I’ve loved perfecting my work with dedicated practice with a quantity of flowers my hands can hold.

There’s something to be said for working in this studio rather than a vast industrial space. I’m making myself more available. I meet so many people through the houses – the curators, the horticulturists. As the ‘governess of the garden’, I’m meeting people who know my work and see its beauty. It’s wonderful to come face to face with them.

Church flowers in the kitchen

Q: Watching you install CHURCH FLOWERS at Vaucluse House in October 2020 was inspiring – there was a careful balance of intention and intuition once you crossed the threshold into the service wing – kitchen, dairy, larder, scullery and butler’s pantry – and immersed yourself in the spaces. You were communicating with those flowers ...

A: These physical spaces get under my skin. In my training (as an artist) I studied spatiality; before I worked with flowers, I worked in installation art. The quality and expressivity of space is critical to my work, and yes, it is intuited. People send me architectural drawings or plans in the initial stage of projects but I need to see it, feel it, be in it ... it needs to hit me in the guts.

Translating human emotion

Q: We were delighted that you created compositions for the winners of the Meroogal Women’s Art Prize 2020. Meroogal is a vastly different property from, say, Vaucluse House. What strikes you about the diversity of SLM’s portfolio – its houses, collections, gardens – and its stories and people?

A: I’ve always said that my work is most concerned with the expression of human emotion – translating human emotion – making human emotion visible. I cite the emotion of love. I’m able to deliver the physical embodiment of love – the flowers – between people. Architecture only exists to hold people and their histories, and I think that is the thread that I pick up walking into a house like Meroogal. I’m overwhelmed when standing inside those rooms – they held those women’s lives and all those experiences, the losses and the gains.

Paradise on Earth

Q: Your installation 33 after drawing 12 at the Museum of Sydney – created for the Paradise on Earth exhibition, which explores the life, vision and legacy of architect and artist Marion Mahony Griffin – prompted an overwhelming response from visitors. Can you talk about your inspiration?

A: I see 33 after drawing 12 as a gestural mark after the extraordinary work of Marion Mahony Griffin. The work is composed of two elements – one that speaks to her spirituality and the other her love of the Australian landscape.

What’s next?

Q: You recently started looking at images from the NSW Police Forensic Photography Archive at the Justice & Police Museum. What’s compelling you to explore this collection further?

A: In the case of the Justice & Police Museum there’s a powerful dynamic, because the flowers that are held in these images did bear witness to life and death … To my poetical frame of mind, they embody that witness, they’re the ‘flowers that bore witness’. When I walk into the museum I think of all those souls … I want to make a physical memento mori of lives lived.

SLM has a long history of inviting contemporary artists into our places – this three-year journey has only just begun. Read more about Dr Cooper’s practice and inspiration on the facing page.

Artists are gifted creatures, who possess a direct line of communication to our hearts and minds. Artists like Dr Lisa Cooper also hold the extraordinary ability to remind us about the magic and majesty of life. The joy that Lisa’s practice has brought to so many of our sites and visitors this past year has been truly wonderful and we’re so grateful for her residency.

Adam Lindsay, SLM Executive Director

See 33 after drawing 12 in the Paradise on Earth exhibition, on display at the Museum of Sydney until 18 April.

Doctor Lisa Cooper standing in front of her work titled 'CHURCH FLOWERS AFTER THE BUTCHER, THE BONER; IN THE KITCHEN, THE LARDER' in the Dairy at Vaucluse House.

CHURCH FLOWERS AFTER THE BUTCHER, THE BONER; IN THE KITCHEN, THE LARDER, Vaucluse House, 8–10 October 2020

I’ve always thought of the kitchen as the room where the soul resides. A space made sacred by its utility as the site of man’s profane, quotidian coalescence with nature and her seasons. It holds the fundamental evolution of man – his fire – where cooking, metamorphosis and creation occur. The kitchen, the larder and the dairy are the spaces where body, mind and spirit are fed, where social and emotional bonds are forged and cultivated. For many centuries, painters have utilised the kitchen and its paraphernalia to allegorise the brevity of life and the consequence of the soul through motifs such as moulding bread, softening vegetables, rotting fruit and fading flowers. But, to my mind, the most piercing, poetical allegory of the kitchen and her chambers is that they’re places where the dead become ‘meat’ for the living.

The notion of butchery as poetical act is connected to my own personal history. My father and his grandfather were both butchers and, to my father’s philosophical mind, sculptors of a kind. In the kitchen at Vaucluse House I was struck by a deep reverence for the acts of ‘creation’ and ‘de-creation’ that had fed the souls and bodies of those who called this place home.

The church flowers of my childhood seemed perfunctory and metaphorical (of religiosity) rather than decorative and whimsical. Something about the arrangement of them, the restraint and humility of their variety, colour and form, was and remains compelling to me. Within the context of the architecture of the church and its connection to mankind’s spirituality they seemed to speak of gravity and grace, of life (and death) itself. I put ‘church flowers’ – the lily – in the kitchen at Vaucluse House to demonstrate the symmetry of these architectures, these rooms, where the soul resides.

Doctor Lisa Cooper standing in front of her work titled 'CHURCH FLOWERS AFTER THE BUTCHER, THE BONER; IN THE KITCHEN, THE LARDER' in the Dairy at Vaucluse House. Photo © Toby Burrows for Sydney Living Museums.

Floral art arrangement.

33 after drawing 12, Museum of Sydney, 7 November 2020 to 18 April 2021 

The drawings and words of Marion Mahony Griffin transport me to my childhood ‘among the gum trees’, and an abandoned house my friends and I spent hours exploring, with fear and exhilaration. 

In this place, man seemed to have forgotten to stand between nature and architecture. The result was breathtaking: every imaginable indigenous tree and flower, in every phase of maturation, rambled and grew strong around and across every inch of the imposing sandstone structure. From a distance there seemed to be no building at all, but drawing closer one bore witness to an undulating and rhapsodic beauty – the symphony and cacophony of nature. 

Mahony’s mesmerising renderings often place buildings within verdant landscapes. In her illustrations – and in her environmentalism and utopianism – lies a reverence for the landscape. Architectural information is sometimes compromised to monumentalise: the natural environment dominates. 

And so this work appears in the atrium of the Museum of Sydney. A profusion of green vines, cascading, undulant and rhapsodic, obscure and eclipse the porous box, and this place’s histories. 

Dr Cooper’s composition. Photo © Dr Lisa Cooper; Photo © Toby Burrows

About the author

Joanna Nicholas, Curator, Sydney Living Museums.

Joanna Nicholas

Curator

Joanna is Curator in the House Museums Portfolio - responsible for Vaucluse, Elizabeth Bay and Rose Seidler Houses.

This story originally appeared in Unlocked: The Sydney Living Museums’ Gazette, our quarterly members’ magazine.

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