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In conversation: Tessa Coe

In this interview, delve into Tessa Coe's vibrant world where science meets art. Living amidst the enchanting water meadows of the river Test, Coe's paintings are intimate glimpses into the intricate beauty of ecosystems. Join us as we explore Coe's celebration of life, colored by the looming specter of climate change and the fragile wonders of our natural world.

Joana Alarcão

29 de março de 2024

Can you start by giving us an overview of your practice and what led you to explore the intersection of art, science, and environmental activism?

My life has been woven through by both art and science. At University I studied science at Imperial College, which is situated right in the heart of London. While there I also spent long, long hours in the fabulous art galleries nearby. I have always taken my art practice directly from the intersection of these two ways of understanding the world. All throughout my early working life I studied art history and painting (from painters) in my spare time. Sudden serious ill health gave me pause. From recovery onwards I decided to focus on my painting. 

The path to environmentalism came from my interest in complex systems. Illness had given me a personal interest in molecular biology. The stories here are fascinating and unimaginably complex, and resulted in a long series of works on canvas and paper. My practice then moved towards an investigation of complexity itself, again producing a long series of paintings. From there, the journey towards learning about ecosystems, which are very complex systems, seemed a natural one. 

Understanding more about ecology and planetary science brought me a deep sadness and fear, as I realised more fully what humanity was embarking on…blindly, stupidly, rapidly destroying their home and their fellow creatures. As always my investigating and understanding came alongside the paintings I was making. The two approaches always encourage and support each other. I decided to put sorrow and fear aside and celebrate what we still have in all its wonderful complexity. I want to tell the environment’s stories and use my paintings and my words to explain what we have to lose.       

Painting by Tessa Coe
Heading for spring by Tessa Coe. Image courtesy of Tessa Coe
Your artistic process involves the repetition of simple motifs, yet the resulting order is fractured, offering viewers a glimpse into a complex and vibrant reality. How do you approach the balance between order and chaos in your compositions?

One thing I learned from thinking about complexity is that randomness and resilience are important parts of how biology works. In the long run, biology does not survive through requiring perfection. Instead, it uses the creativity of randomness to find a path through changed circumstances. So my process starts there. My first marks are made in thin dark paint, drawn spontaneously onto a colour-primed canvas. They get swished around with an assortment of tools, wetted, blotted, added to and occasionally removed altogether. It’s all just play.

My painted responses to these marks continue to be random. I use a range of small shapes to populate the canvas, sometimes following the drawn marks, sometimes avoiding them. Everything is fluid and colours are chosen to suit my mood. At some point, after hours of working and hours of looking I pick out an idea that is sitting close by in my mind, and run with it. This intention slowly influences everything, as the canvas begins to settle into an unspoken analogy of the idea I am holding. This may not be the end of course. Often order has to be destroyed and randomness reintroduced and subsequently overcome, in order to find a better balance point. 

My little colored shapes give me simplicity at a fundamental level. The open space between them lets everything breath and adds a new dimension to the composition, one where anything is possible. Together they allow me to find both change and resolution.   

Living near the River Test, you're surrounded by diverse ecosystems, serving as both a source of inspiration and a reminder of our role as custodians of nature. Could you share how this environment informs your artistic practice?

We live in a tiny village on the edge of a big city. This is the perfect place to witness and struggle with many of the environmental issues of our times. The local landscape features an abrupt change from business park to fragile countryside. This countryside is designated as a ‘Site of Special Scientific Interest’ being an ancient water meadow habitat and a wildlife reserve. Our local river is a famous Chalk Stream habitat, one of only 210 in the world. The river runs into the Solent estuary which is one of 70 Wetlands of International Importance within the UK. The countryside connects to the New Forest which is ironically, a 1000+ year old woodland and heathland habitat and national park. And still, Industry continually plans to encroach here. Our Village is left to fight each application in order to keep them at bay.

The upside to living here is that I know the woodlands, rivers, forests and coasts very well. Our garden is full of wildlife. I watch the seasons close up and have migratory birds passing over our rooftop. All of this gives me a deep emotional contact with my environment and its fragility, and that floods into my work.

The downside of living here is that I see that the world we live in wants money more than nature, and it saddens me. 

Painting by Tessa Coe
Life in the balance by Tessa Coe. Image courtesy of Tessa Coe
Can you talk about a specific painting or series that embodies these ideas?

Just before Covid, I had a show called ‘in the current climate’ in collaboration with an Earth System Scientist called Dr. James Dyke from Exeter University. The series of paintings in that show were about some of the huge things that keep life on our planet going. It’s a long list of things that we are messing up through lack of understanding, greed or politics… soil, marsh land, ocean currents, life in the oceans, the seasons, the forests, resources like water, rivers and estuaries etc. There are some photos on my website. 

I spent time in the gallery in order to chat with visitors about the paintings. Each painting was also accompanied by a short text. We also had a video about Climate Change made by James, running in the background. As usual, my paintings were colourful and mostly non-threatening! For me, this series was about celebrating life on this planet and letting that sit alongside explanations of the consequences of not doing something to protect and reverse their destruction.     

How do you navigate the balance between celebrating the beauty of life and addressing the looming challenges posed by environmental degradation?

It’s extremely difficult. I don't think despair is the answer. Like lots of us, however, I carry around with me a weighty sadness. But I think we need to keep talking about the environment and its huge importance to living things, especially us. I think we need to help people imagine what climate change will mean. Covid has made all of this in many senses harder, as the world wants of course, to forget disaster and just get on with living. 

In the end, I feel we each have a special place in this unfolding story, and we can only do our best. I strongly feel we need to take pleasure and strength from the environment that is still around us. We can’t save what we don’t know or don’t care about. 

Painting by Tessa Coe
Let there be light by Tessa Coe. Image courtesy of Tessa Coe.
Your paintings are described as glimpses of ideas, joys, and fears encountered in your exploration of the living world. Can you discuss how abstraction and strong color play a role in expressing the complexity and fragility of the ecosystems you depict?

Abstraction helps me express the way I understand things. I see life on our planet as one enormous jigsaw puzzle. Everything is interconnected, however loosely. These theads, dependencies and overlaps are everywhere and at all scales. Pulling them apart has consequences.

I make my paintings by a very organic process, allowing at first my simple lines and shapes to interact with one another on the canvas in random and unselfconscious ways. These ‘interactions’ are spatial and via colour. 

Both of these ingredients react strongly with the idea I finally work towards, with strong colour carrying my emotional response to the living world, and the abstract form of the piece working alongside my idea.   

Earth Awakening by Tessa Coe. Image courtesy of Tessa Coe.
What can you tell us about the work submitted, “Earth Awakening” 

I recently acquired a phone app called Merlin. It is capable of very accurate bird song identification even when many birds are singing at the same time. I’ve been using it as I walk along the short lanes near my home. So far Merlin has identified 50 species of bird throughout the year, quite a surprise until you realise everywhere around it is known to be ecologically sensitive.

Earth Awakening came from many hours spent looking through trees and hedges on these bird walks. To the casual eye, there is absolutely nothing special in either place. The hedges were planted ages ago by long-gone farmers, the woods planted themselves, and watermeadows developed as the river slowed down on its way to the sea. But in these places, there is amazing life. 50 different kinds of life coming and going with the season, and that’s only the birds. 

On my recent walks, I was witnessing the very ends of winter and the first signs of spring, and anticipating this tiny patch of Earth fully awakening again and bursting out in bird song. 

Engaging with the viewing public is an integral part of your practice, where you discuss both the artwork and the underlying scientific concepts. How do these interactions influence your perspective on your own work, and what insights have you gained from these conversations?

Talking to people in the gallery is both a pleasure and a tricky business. These are paintings. I made them, but I’ve put them into the world and they are now for others. So what I see and what they see in them, is for the individual. All I can do is give my side of the story. 

Luckily most people respond fairly well when asked if they would like to know more about a piece. Abstraction leaves a lot of room for ideas. I find that talking about a painting and its relationship to a particular idea, helps me explore more deeply what the painting is about, and helps me to re-engage with the emotional aspect of what that piece holds for me. Plus I love to hear people suggest an area of a piece, or a use of colour that for them relates to our conversation, and this can take me on an unexpected journey, which is great. And sometimes the questions that people ask can spirit us a long way from that particular painting and its idea. And that’s the magic.     

Painting by Tessa Coe
Where Oceans Meet by Tessa Coe. Image courtesy of Tessa Coe

Looking ahead, what are some upcoming projects or directions you're excited to explore in your acrylic painting practice? 

I’d very much like to go back to exhibiting. Being vulnerable to Covid I have not exhibited for a long time. I’m starting to feel more confident that I could do so again without too much risk, but it will take time to find the right opportunities.

I am also starting to make a short book about the latest series of work, and explore some of its ideas.   

What message or call to action would you like to leave our readers with?

I feel very ill equiped to do this!….but here goes

Be yourself, and tell the inconvenient truths as only you can. 

We are each a tiny speck on this precious planet, and our planet needs all of our creativity. Right Now.   

Know more about the artist here.

Cover Image:

Mother tree by Tessa Coe. Image courtesy Tessa Coe.

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For the last twenty five years I have been using my interest in and knowledge of science, to provide source material for my work. The latest pieces build on my long standing fascination in the way that ecosystems work. I live on the water meadows of the river Test, one of the few chalk streams in the world. There is an enormous variety of habitats to be found within quite small distances of my home. I strongly feel that we are both beneficiaries and custodians of this wealth of nature. I like to use my paintings as conversation starters to explore this. Ever present in my thoughts is the looming spectre of climate change and the fragility and irreplaceability of all that I see around me. I choose to celebrate this life, and use strong colour and the lens of abstraction to investigate each fragile place. My canvases aren’t huge. They are glimpses of ideas, joys and fears that come with me as I explore the magic of the living world, and try to bring a little of this to others too.


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