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Q&A with Award Winner Victoria Cowles

The mixed-media Red Lights Construction won the Adam Wishnow Award for Creativity and Innovation.
The mixed-media Red Lights Construction won the Adam Wishnow Award for Creativity and Innovation.

This month’s “ColorField” exhibit includes a special award for artists taking things in a new direction. It’s called the Adam Wishnow Award for Creativity and Innovation, and it went to Victoria Cowles, a painter branching into the third dimension.

Red Lights Construction, also titled #756, is constructed of wood, fabric, plexiglas, clear roofing, acrylic paint, plastic fencing, and lights. We asked Victoria, or Tory, to tell us more about her constructions and her career in general:

Since this month’s theme was the Color Field movement, how do you think about and work with color?
Tory Cowles: Bright colors make me happy and give me energy. Subtle natural colors in found materials are rich in unexpected colors and textures. For me colors talk to each other and change each other. I pay a lot of attention to how each color affects the other colors and the overall composition.

What is your creative process like — how does an idea start, develop, and finish?
My process is for me to start painting or constructing and then respond as directly and honestly as I can to each step. I don’t have a preconceived idea of where the painting or construction is going. My work doesn’t come alive unless I can reach a state of stream of consciousness. For me the stream of consciousness is an expression of what is most important to me emotionally. I try to allow as much chaos and spontaneity as possible with just enough structure to hold it together.

Tory Cowles painting in her Torpedo Factory studio.
Tory Cowles painting in her Torpedo Factory studio.

I work on 8–12 large canvases or 3–4 constructions at a time. The size allows me or encourages me to paint with abandon. Their large size also encourages the viewer to fall into the painting and travel around inside seeing and enjoying different things depending on the viewer’s mood and the vicissitudes of the light. The 8–12 paintings or the 3–4 constructions often come together at about the same time with certain common elements that evolve through, and are unique to, the series.

What was your goal with this piece?
My goal for #756 was to try to combine strong bright colors, in this case deep red, with some subtler elements. I tried to do that by adding the plastic fencing and the lights behind the plexiglas so that the light came through the layers.

How are your constructions different from your paintings?
So far, I’ve found that, compared to my paintings, I have to simplify my constructions tremendously in order to make them work. It’s so much easier to set off strong colors using paint because you can more easily add subtler colors and shapes that set off the stronger colors without it becoming too busy. Thinking in three dimensions is a different mindset. These constructions are mostly bas relief which is somewhat three dimensional, but still mostly two dimensional. I think I am moving slowly into a more three dimensional direction.

What role does interactivity play in your work?
Some of my work in the past have been highly interactive in a playful way. I would like to go back to that but experiment with using the interaction to illustrate and manipulate abstract concepts, shapes and colors. For instance, a viewer might move a colorful object on a rope across the piece and see how the composition changes and how the colors look different, actually change, when they are next to or on top of different colors.

#576 by Tory Cowles from the Gallery's 2012 interactive-art themed exhibit, "Play."
#576 by Tory Cowles from the Gallery’s 2012 interactive-art themed exhibit, “Play.”

How did you start incorporating lights?
I’ve done a number of light pieces over the years — my first pieces were a series of boxes with electric light coming through various materials. About 5 years ago I made a piece which consisted of a bas relief abstract painting with a box of sand across the front. You could take out a long thin candle and a match, light the candle and place it in the sand in front of the painting – similar to some church altars except that you could say that you were lighting a candle for the painting, or for painting in general, or for abstract painting, or for anyone who you may be mourning. The candles were very thin, leaning in different directions and at different heights. I like lights and their impact on colors. Lights inside a construction are like the spirit that animates a body.

What artists have influenced you most?
Robert Rauschenberg, Thaiwijit, Tapies, Richard Diebenkorn.

What are you working on now?
I’m making some more constructions. I feel like I am just scratching the surface of what interests me with using different materials. I will continue to paint which is very enjoyable and seems easy after struggling with the three dimensional pieces.

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