An Interview with Artist Alexandria Coe
06 12 21
By: Julie Tanner for MIRROR WATER
London-based artist Alexandria Coe is known for her fluid line works depicting nude female figures—but Alexandria prefers ‘naked’ over ‘nude’. She cites John Berger’s distinction here, from his collection Ways of Seeing: ‘To be naked is to be oneself. To be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognised for oneself’. Alexandria uses her art to shed the associations between nakedness and shame. She asserts that a highly personal feeling such as shame might seem like it comes from deep within ourselves but it is in fact derived externally, from society. Alexandria knows this intimately because she developed her artistic practice upon realising her poor relationship with her own body: ‘I found it freeing to draw nakedness based on how I wanted my body to feel rather than how I wanted it to look’. Her spontaneous drawings provide deliberate contrast and opposition to ‘the photoshopped and over-laboured images’ she saw around her in magazines and on social media.
" 'Who are you?’ and ‘What do you want to do?'
Alexandria has felt the pull to make drawings and paintings since she was a child, but her vision has not always been as clear. Even with parents who met at art school, who filled their family home with art, and who let Alexandria use their supplies (she recalls being left alone with her dad’s paint brushes from the 80s and destroying them within minutes), Alexandria still felt that making art was reserved for the rich, the extremely lucky, or ‘famous dead men’. So she studied textile design, which felt like a more practical route, and although that was not to be her final mode of expression it led her to a master’s degree where she experimented with stop-frame animation and made short films. She remembers a critique with a tutor known for tough love who said simply ‘Who are you?’ and ‘What do you want to do?’.
"life drawing is the beginning of all art
At this time, Alexandria developed an interest in feminist theory and became fascinated with academic theories of the ways that bodies can be considered a product of our media landscape, and how that reflects back onto our own impression of ourselves. She had found an answer to her tutor’s questions but she worried that her character was too soft and feminine to strike out into the famously cold world of professional art. A friend on her MA course encouraged her to embrace those elements of herself, to find her own way of moving within that world. Alexandria also trained as a yoga teacher and found that this trio of factors—reading feminist criticism, accepting her own femininity, and improving her relationship with her body via her yoga practice—established the foundation of the artistic style that she is known for today. She set up a studio, gained commissions as an illustrator, and drew naked figures, following her strong sense that ‘life drawing is the beginning of all art’.
Things took off as soon as Alexandria started posting her work on Instagram, just as the platform had its own boom. All of a sudden—luxury London department store Liberty was her first client! She held a sale at her studio and remembers being floored when ‘people actually showed up’. She quit her teaching job and kept drawing. Her studio reflects her busy schedule and somewhat haphazard practice; it’s her preference to go in for one concentrated hour, draw exactly what she feels like producing, and then leave, with charcoal and paper scraps strewn everywhere. ‘It’s never what people think my studio will be like. I think my work has a clean aesthetic but my studio is a mess—I’m like that housemate who leaves old mugs everywhere, my studio is the equivalent of that’.
Impulsivity is key to Alexandria’s style; ‘I can’t switch creativity on, so my work has to be impulsive’. One canvas in her studio contains six layers of paintings because one day, feeling frustrated, she covered a painting with black paint—‘It felt incredible!’—and she has since also painted over that. This is because, for Alexandria, ‘drawing is my diary, my journalling’. She finds it calming and meditative, especially useful for sad emotions. But because drawing is also her career, this can make her feel like she is always working, and Alexandria describes showing her work to potential clients as ‘like constantly going on a blind date’ because she is judged on the very same work that is her emotional outlet, and often feels that how she looks is part of that judgement too. For other outlets, she strongly believes in therapy and in finding people to voice such intricate feelings with—‘If you don’t, you’ll find vices of distraction and develop unhealthy relationships with yourself, others, or your work’. Alexandria published a book called Lovers, which helped her to realise that she had more work to do to within herself to process her experiences. She learned that while each piece she makes is an intense articulation of specific feelings, sometimes things in life are not finished even though the drawing is complete.
"putting people’s bodies and stories onto paper or canvas, and producing something for the viewer to relate to, and map themselves onto.
Alexandria now only draws from real life. She finds life models in individuals and couples who ask to model, as well as ‘comfortable friends’, and has even asked people on beaches if she can draw them. She particularly enjoys the latter, finding that people on beaches sit in a different way because they are relaxed, and their bodies rest softly against the sand. Alexandria finds that drawing from life prevents stagnancy and she also enjoys talking to her models. This is partly because it can be awkward otherwise—‘if we’re just stood in silence as they take off their clothes in my living room… then the 55 bus goes past the window’. But conversing with models is part of her conception of drawing as dialogue, putting people’s bodies and stories onto paper or canvas, and producing something for the viewer to relate to, and map themselves onto.
Alexandria is clearly passionate about addressing the ways that women in particular are made to internalise social standards. She feels that the moment she adds clothes to her body, she becomes concerned with social elements that we have all been taught to feel insecure about. But when she is naked, she is most comfortable, and enjoys being reminded of ‘all the amazing things that human bodies are capable of’. When I ask Alexandria about her advice for other people to reach that same mindset, she says that being naked more often, especially by oneself, can help us to be more comfortable in our own skin. The idea is to distance our nakedness from the perspective of being viewed by others, and focus on our own experience and perception of our bodies.
"we live in a shallow society
Alexandria also recommends reading in order to understand the wider root of insecurity, particularly reading from the field of women’s studies, such as Unbearable Weight by Susan Bordo, which deals with bodies in relation to society and culture, or nonfiction like Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth about social standards of beauty. Checking in with yourself is the final tool in her arsenal, and she recommends asking yourself ‘Am I really feeling bad about this, or have I been taught to feel bad about this?’, and thinking about the subtle differences between these states. Becoming angry can be part of this, a feminist tool to frame questions with: ‘Why am I made to feel this way about myself?’. Alexandria knows that it’s not unusual to wake up and feel bad about getting dressed sometimes—‘we live in a shallow society’—but emphasises the importance of questioning this in the moment, and seeking the help of friends and therapists after the fact.
"It’s good not to be boxed in by the past
Questioning accepted ideas about body image is central to Alexandria’s philosophy, but it’s also at the core of her aesthetic practice, and she often develops new turns in her artistic style. Whether it’s enjoying the idiosyncrasies of charcoal, trying out inky blue figures, or expanding in scale by producing a figure across an entire rooftop, she is always looking for interesting modes of expression. She describes hoping to create an immersive installation in the future, displaying her work by draping rolls of paper from the ceiling. Alexandria seems excited that life at the moment is open-ended. She has recently closed some doors involving personal relationships, clients, and artistic projects and has taken time to reflect on what has been outgrown: ‘It’s good not to be boxed in by the past.’