What will surprise many people when they meet Cheryl Cook is that this petite woman is the artist producing large, bold, texturally exciting felt art works.
She has always been interested in working with her hands and this has remained a constant no matter where life has taken her.
These days Cheryl works with fibre that she dyes, stitches and paints thus producing her art works that make their own unique statements. This has not always been the case as she says,In my early years as an artist, I loved to work with alpaca fibre… I had about 40 alpacas at that time and exclusively worked in this medium… Now I am broader in my fibre choices and really look for a medium or a combination of mediums that will contribute to what I want to create. I try not to be a ‘medium snob’ so that I keep methodology avenues open.
Cheryl worked in the medium of alpaca for about 15 years, but in order to expand her repertoire, thinking and skills as well as consider her work more deeply and at a richer level she began studying with Kate Horner in the United Kingdom. This has helped her to think of herself as an artist who is constantly developing, changing and enabling her to reflect on her work. Such reflection caused her to describe her style in this way:
My style is one where I explore innovation and where I can bring a unique application to a theme or topic. I don’t want to be constrained by common thinking about felt, textiles and medium. I want my style to be unique, exciting and stimulating to the viewer.
Having now worked with Kate Horner, who is her mentor, Cheryl continues to engage in ways of furthering her training. She is currently completing two masters level qualifications in Creative Textiles and Felt Making and will undertake a three year Research Fellowship (equivalent to a PhD) in 2019. This might ring alarm bells with some artists believing Cheryl is a ‘workshop junkie’ racing around taking a range of workshops in the hope it will help her produce better work.
However, Cheryl is absolutely determined the label ‘workshop junkie’ cannot be applied to her. She wants:
to have a cohesive understanding of the mediums I work in and how to use them to comprehensively to improve my work. This will enable me to develop my own approach and to break the rules as I need and with confidence.
Her confidence is evident in the observations she is able to make about her work which she knows has been changing over the past 6 years:
My work is different from many felt makers in Australia. This brings its own sense of insecurity while stretching my need to be different and unique. I have a loose focus group that provides me with critical feedback. This is sometimes hard but does enable me to evaluate and strengthen my work.
Aside from reading about an artist’s personal reflections on their work it is also important for other artists to read of the process an artist engages in order to produce a personally satisfying piece of work that is the result of initial inspirations. Many artists are clear about what inspires them but not necessarily articulate about a process they use, believing their art ‘just happens’.
Cheryl’s inspiration comes from the emotional and physical relationships she has with the environment and those she loves. She is also inspired by the work of women who created tapestries during the Middle Ages. For her, felt making takes her closer to a long tradition and connects her to an historical line of creation and the work of the women who have gone before her. She also loves Russian felt makers whose ability to create texture is fabulous.
More complex is her reaction to the question about the process she follows to produce a completed work of art:
Through my studies, I have a strong process of design application prior to making the final piece. I might be inspired by a view, colour or comment to investigate a possible outcome. I actually love the design process as I get to refine my ideas, play with colour, distill dyes and create samples. This all gives substance and qualities to the final work that would not be possible without the design element. It has taught me patience, acceptance and enjoyment of each part of the creative activity. Once I am happy with a design and have explored possible methods of approach, I will prepare the various elements needed – this might involve dyeing, printing inclusions, and choosing fibres and fabrics that will give the result I am after. I always like to finish with felting as I love the effects of texture and the influence of colour but I will felt it only to the point that is needed for the application of the work.
For Cheryl the most important aspect of her challenging work is that it explore the connections and experiences we all have in the world. It is humbling too, to know that the highlights for her recently have been the sale of a work as an investment and the opportunity to exhibit in The Station Gallery.
Important also is Cheryl’s confidence in acknowledging there are some of her works she sees as favourites:
Each piece that I create is indicative of the time in which it was made. Currently, my two most favourites are a piece that includes texture and is overdyed with indigo, “Tanjil Blue”. This reflects the colour of the mountains outside my window so deliciously and mirrors the textures, bringing out ideas of trees, wind and manmade impositions on our environment. My other favourite is “Black Cockatoo Dawn”. This is part of a bird series that I am doing. It fascinates me in how the magic of felting can create depth, movement and life.
Apart from encouraging artists to continue a strong and rigorous programme of professional development, Cheryl’s parting words echo the wish most textile artists have and that is for textiles, and felt in particular, to be accepted and known for their artistic merit and for artists to be able to articulate where craft and art diverge.