Featured catalogue essay: ‘Turning Points’ by Helena Lee

Read the full essay by Features Director of Harper’s Bazaar, Helena Lee, from our recent exhibition catalogue Eileen Cooper: Personal Space.

This is a story of friendship and growth. How empathy can gently take you in different directions. Because, what a new mother needs, above all else, is empathy – an understanding that the overwhelming responsibility of parenthood comprises daily heartache and joy, that every endeavour to shape and nourish a life plumbs the depths and reaches the extremities of human emotion.

I didn’t think, after the birth of my second child Margot, that I would make new friends. But then I met the artist Eileen Cooper in a chance encounter at a traffic light near our houses. We first came across each other on the cusp of spring when Margot was weeks-old, when her breath was cloud-like, and eyes still blue. On the discovery that we were almost neighbours in Brockley, Eileen invited me over for a cup of tea with her customary warmth. Our friendship can be measured with Margot’s milestones: smiles, laughs, her body unfurling like a flower from a tight new-born ball as weeks, then months passed. Eileen inhabited a mother’s sensitivity, ensuring I had coffee, tea, ginger biscuits at hand, offering me lifts home during sudden rain showers, taking Margot while I rearranged myself after a feed – patient with the whimpers and mews of this small creature. She would look into Margot’s eyes and discern how light they were, striking given her half-Chinese ethnicity, and then note with an artist’s assurance (and a smile) how creative she was going to be.

It was during these meetings that I saw Eileen’s latest work. The studio, up on the first floor of her handsome Victorian villa, housed canvases filled with scenes of femininity: a girl, head angled in concentration as she lacquers her toenails red; a swoosh of hair being combed at a dressing table. There were large-scale portraits, impending figures of posing artists unused to being in the spotlight. We’d enjoy long conversations, about the way her imagery mythologised the modern woman, the experience of liberation and loss as children grow up, or just what we’d done that day. After a few weeks, Eileen said she had an idea for a mother-baby drawing, would I be interested in taking part? Remembering the transience of this period of motherhood I was immersed in, I said yes.

And so, one April morning Margot and I find ourselves in Eileen’s drawing studio, her son Sam’s old bedroom on the second floor. I’m invited to sit in a low, blue chair with sloping arms. The light is bright, but not overly so, tempered by the ashen clouds overhead. I settle Margot, who is fascinated by Eileen’s sculptural face and calm demeanour, to face outwards, perched on my knee. Eileen is swift. She outlines my hair and face with charcoal on paper: the round of Margot’s head, strokes of blue for her eyes, the impression and knot of my fingers. She then applies peach chalk around the edges of my hairline, letting the board that’s propped against the easel rest on her thighs so that she can reach the top. All the while, we chat. A light rain of yellow dust falls onto her jeans as her fourth finger smudges the colours. At first I look out of the window, at the blossoming trees across the road, but she wants a three-quarter view of my face, so I turn, and my gaze eventually rests on a relic from the room’s former inhabitant: a decades-old Ministry of Sound poster promoting a ‘journey into drum & bass’.

After a while, after Margot has discovered her toes, she starts to dribble. I ask if I can feed her, aware that I have to change position. Eileen graciously stops working on the drawing. Margot relaxes into contentment while I put her to my breast. I suggest that Eileen capture what’s before her. ‘Are you sure?’ she says with genuine concern, then pauses: ‘What a privilege’. She starts a new piece, maps out my lopsidedness and angularity, runs the dark blue used in my dress into my hair, then interlocks the baby’s shape into mine – the length of her body, from her full cheeks to her chubby toes, conscious of the intimacy, perhaps even the responsibility of the moment.

This is the first time Eileen has revisited the theme of motherhood since her own two boys were born. Then, she felt that she had no control of the emotional charge that swept over her, and recurring tropes seeped into her pictures: a baby’s head, their bottoms, loving hands, mothers cradling infants. In her painting Gift (1985), cocooned in the palm of a female figure’s hand is a tiny pale creature, which she nurtures andholds up to her face. Another oversize but benign presence – a man, maybe – and a crescent moon gravitationally crowd in and bear witness to this new arrival. The evident conferring of love is so open, so powerful, it is almost unbearable. For Eileen, the intensity she experienced manifested itself in an obsession with all permutations of the colour red, and I now look at Gift, a painting suffused in terracotta, rich violet-reds, brown-earthy reds, and I identify with this dreamlike, primal and profound state. The woman in the painting is every mother. The woman in this painting is me.

That was more than 30 years ago. The intensity has waned. The boys have grown up, left home, got jobs. Their rooms are no longer inhabited by pubescent anger or the volatility of teenagehood, instead they ferment growth of a different kind – the evolution of their mother’s practice. Eileen began drawing from life only in the last 12 months: a momentous shift from working purely from imagination, memory and feeling that has coincided with the ending of a 40-year teaching career. She invited younger generations of artists to her studio (‘I had a hankering for it,’ she says) so she could draw them, as a way to keep connected with this talent.

This is pure Eileen Cooper. She is an artist led by her subconscious, by instinct. She turned her back on the rigidity of the life-drawing tradition that dominated her studies in the early 1970s, as it inhibited the ability to bring herself into her work. Four decades, countless exhibitions, and thousands of paintings, prints and drawings later, Eileen has reclaimed the practice, eviscerating the conventional line between artist and subject. I feel honoured that I have become part of this progression. I am at ease at being looked at, because there is a fluidity and gentleness to Eileen’s process, knowing that the femininity of the idea that informs the painting will ultimately be more important than the specifics of whether my hair is tucked behind my ear, or whether Margot keeps perfectly still. Eileen imposes no restrictions or rules, feeling through the situation as naturally as it happens.

She puts down the chalk, she knows this last drawing is the one – the cornerstone of the final piece. In the afternoon, she paints a mother feeding her baby, agile in paring down the details that yoke us to the here and now, taking only the information she needs to work her alchemy, her instincts, the pulse of the sitting into her vision. When I see the final painting several days later, I am stunned. What doesn’t translate through photographs is the luminescence of the oils; the life and warmth that emanates from the image is different from her earlier presentations of motherhood, which thrum with a vital urgency. Instead, the colours are more muted, more real – there is a tenderness, a simple purity, that comes with distance from her own adventures. Inherent is a consciousness of Madonna and child iconography, but augmented and strengthened by female insight and an empathic woman’s eye.

This painting is not a portrait. It is as much about Eileen as it is about me. She once told me that she struggles to make her images universal, but I do not see the struggle, only the reward of the power of her art. I see a nobility to this quiet ambition to capture the essential nature of womanhood, to convey the universality and timelessness of the experience. The woman in the painting is every mother. The woman in the painting is me.

Helena Lee is features director of Harper’s Bazaar, editor of Bazaar Art and founder of Bazaar Art Week.

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