Susan Cofer, Fall: Decomposing, 1993, colored pencil on paper, 8 x 6 ½ inches. Courtesy of the artist. 

Collection Georgia Museum of Art, UGA, photo by Michael McKelvey

Susan Cofer: In Dialogue

 

with Deanna Sirlin 

Susan Cofer: Photo Jerry Siegel

Susan Cofer, a native southerner, studied Art History at Hollins College in Virginia and then continued her post-graduate studies at Georgia State University, where the reception of her work as an artist was unsympathetic. Nevertheless, she persisted and continued to work in her studio in Atlanta for the next five decades, making highly personal line drawings in color which come into being as a kind of mediation that reveals direct references to nature as she moves her hand vertically on the page, each line as clear and elegant as the next.  The drawings begin to emerge as she layers mark upon mark. The drawings are small and randomly torn – nothing as simple as a rectangular page for this artist, who continues to create works of great beauty. Cofer’s work calls up American modernist artists like Arthur Dove and Georgia O’Keefe, but her sensibility is akin to that of Georges Seurat, in whose drawings each line creates an emergent form.  

It is fitting that Cofer works in a delicate palette that lends light and luminosity to her works on paper. 

 

I have known Cofer’s work since 1994 when she exhibited her work at Swan Coach House in Atlanta.  I believe we met shortly before at an exhibition I was in here in Georgia and I was immediately interested in this person who had a keen eye and profound way of speaking about Art. We have met over the years but had not seen each other for some time even before the pandemic. Cofer had been dividing her time between her Atlanta home and studio and her farm in Northwest Georgia. We first spoke on the phone, then proceeded with this dialogue about her work via email.

Susan Cofer, Approaching the Eternal, 1992, colored pencil on paper, 9 ½ x 7 ¾ inches. Courtesy of the artist. 

Photo by Michael McKelvey

Deanna Sirlin: Can you tell me about the first line drawing you made with colored pencils? What lead up to your making this work? 

Susan Cofer: It was in the early seventies, when I was in my late twenties. I’d been making a lot of the kind of art that can be taught, art that looked like art that had already been made. Then I tried not making art at all, but the mystery of the world and the people in it just kept nagging me. One night, after my husband and children were asleep, I took out a piece of paper, picked up a pencil and made a vertical line. I was thinking how unknowable the people closest to us are, how you can be right next to them and not know how they are thinking. I made another vertical line on the paper but left a space between them. That space became what I don’t know. I kept making lines and spaces until I had covered the paper. I was using colored pencils and I would change colors randomly. After a while, an unexpected image developed, so I went with it. That drawing, and ones that followed it, looked a bit like tree bark--and they didn’t look like art I had seen before. By necessity, I had found the technique that matched the complexities of my thoughts.

Susan Cofer “Site Specific Environment” April 21-June 11, 1989,

Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art, photos: David Roselli

DS: Has living in the South almost all your life had an impact on your drawings--in the palette, for example, or in the drawing’s relationship to nature?

 

SC: I am a Southerner, completely. I have never lived anywhere else. Never wanted to. Suffice it to say that the impact on my thoughts is deep, rich, and sometimes tortured. Faulkner, O’Connor, and Welty helped me in my youth to organize those 1950’s, 1960’s thoughts. In their books, I recognized the not-always-sane people around me and saw myself, too. Interestingly, I didn’t see much visual art that spoke of the South except in pottery and folk art. It seemed so many Southern artists wanted to make art in the New York fashion. Your good question about the pallet and nature makes me rethink my assumptions. I feel sure you are right that I choose colors based on the ones I have seen all around me. I have spent a lot of my life outdoors in the muted gray green of Southern woods. Close inspection of seeds, trees, and ground shows layers and layers of color both subtle and complex. I try to replicate that in my drawings. Heretofore, I haven’t associated that with being Southern but of course you are right.

Susan Cofer, Absence of Certainty, 2010,9.5 x 11.5 inches, colored pencil on paper, Courtesy of the artist.

Photo by Michael McKelvey

DS: Has it been difficult to be a woman artist? Who or what  has helped or hindered your life as an artist?

 

SC: It’s difficult to be an artist of any gender. It takes a willingness, or a stubbornness, not to give up. Of course there have been many times when being married with children took time away from my practice. There have been times when a little resentment bubbled up about comments made about my “feminine” art. I laugh about that now. I remember when my brother taunted me that I “ran like a girl.” It took years before I realized that it was a natural way for me to run. I make art like the woman I am and that is as it should be, though I aspire to make art like a human being.

 

As for help and hindrances in my life, I have found them to be two sides of the same coin. The people who stood in my path discouraging me ended up being the ones that made me stronger in my determination. I look back on my life and see that I needed those brick walls to butt up against. I am quite the goat. There is one person, though, that just keeps getting in my way. Me. I have never been assured that my work is good enough. My insecurities surprise me at this age, but I strongly believe there has been a benefit. There is always a feeling of disappointment when I finish a drawing. It’s never as good as I had hoped. I look at it and think that it doesn’t say all I want that little piece of paper to say. The upside is that I feel I must make another work. A strange kind of optimism keeps me from contentment.

Susan Cofer “Site Specific Environment” April 21-June 11, 1989,

Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art, photos: David Roselli

DS: The marks in your drawings are always vertical. What is it about this direction and movement that appeals to you? Is it a kind of meditation?

 

SC: Could it have been that the vertical line was physically easier to make? Those first vertical lines were without intention. I put the pencil point on the paper and pulled it down until the point lost its sharpness. After repetitive strokes, when something akin to an image developed, I saw that there was a flow in the drawing, a motion like a river or bark, as I have said. The peacefulness of that flow was something I liked. I suppose you could say it was, and is, meditative.

Susan Cofer,The Moss Garden, 2009-10,colored pencil on paper,  10.25 x 11 inches Courtesy of the artist. Photo by Michael McKelvey

DS: Your love of form is important to you as an artist/collector. Can you talk about a work in your collection that is particularly meaningful to you?

 

SC: There is a potter whose work brought about an epiphany for me. I’ve surrounded myself with clay works since I was a young bride. They are accessible, affordable and often useable. Southern potters had the added benefit for me of authenticity. Richard Devore, however, was not from the South but there was an exhibit of his works at the High in the 80’s that knocked me out. I bought a soup tureen then and later saw a bowl that gave me shivers at Max Protech in New York. I bought it and studied it and then wrote a fan letter. What I had seen in this magnificent piece was an honoring of the eternal feminine. I saw it as a form of architecture, sacred housing, a place for us to come together with shared beliefs. That may seem a stretch to you, and maybe even to him, but it caused me to see all art as housing for a belief, a place where people of like minds can gather. He apparently liked the thought because he sent me a most beautiful pitcher. It is very female. It inspired a drawing I call Conversation with a Vessel.

Richard Devore, Pitcher, 1994, ceramic, 8 3/4 x  7 inches

DS: Has the pandemic had an influence on you as an artist? Has it changed your use of time and your work in the studio?

 

SC: Covid 19 has had a positive effect for me and my life. Isn’t that awful to say? Here is the reason. My husband of 56 years had been diagnosed with an incurable lung disease several years ago. When the shelter in place edict went out, we chose our farm as a place to be together apart from others. Spring was just beginning. At first the ephemerals were poking their white flowers out. Daffodils were flourishing. Then every week brought new blooms until, at last, the dogwoods came out like snow in the woods. With every advance of a glorious spring dear Carl’s breath became more shallow. There was nowhere else I wanted to be, except by his side. As you can imagine, all news about Covid paled as we confronted this. After his death, I find Covid more a nuisance than a pain. I hope you and I are spared but I’m making art in spite of it.

Susan Cofer, Rain, 2009, colored pencil on paper, 10 x 12.75 inches. Courtesy of the artist. Photo by Michael McKelvey

DS: Your work has always been at a certain scale – the drawings are quite intimate. Can you tell me why the particular size of around

10 x 12 inches appeals to you so much?

 

SC: The question of scale must go all the way back to my origin. I have always preferred the tiny to the large. My eye always goes to Nature’s small wonders. In college, I was trained to make art in all the ways of art history. My fresco in the manner of Piero Della Francesco was an embarrassment, but my small egg tempera inspired by Joachim Patinir was considered a great success. That told me something. Stay small. And then there is the fact that I had no real space for making art until I was almost 50 years old. I could easily put paper that size in a drawer, something I learned to do after my mother-in-law wrote a phone message on one of my works in progress. Throughout my early years of art making, I was told over and over to GO BIG. For one thing, people who bought art looked for works that fit over their sofa or looked good in an elevator lobby, so my little drawings weren’t very marketable. It’s an example of my stubbornness that I refused to change. I had something I wanted to say--I wanted the viewer to join me in looking at the details, to be drawn in by every line. I didn’t care if the work sold or not.

 

DS: Do you consider yourself an abstract artist ?

 

SC: I have never given any thought to whether or not I am an abstract artist. The artist just makes the work. Other people give it names.

Susan Cofer, Inferno, 1996, colored pencil on paper, 9 1/4 x 7in.  Courtesy of the artist. Photo by Michael McKelvey

DS: How do you want to the viewer to perceive your work?

 

SC: That’s a fascinating question. It would mean so much to think that someone would take the time to look with intention, to try to make the drawing again with her or his own eyes. These drawings take weeks, sometime months to make, and every decision is carefully considered. There is no underlying sketch. If I know where I am going, I get too bored to finish it or frustrated that I can’t get there. The lines cannot be erased as the colored pencil makes an indelible mark. The drawing has to grow organically. I make compositional problems for myself and then am obliged to solve them. The fact that the paper is torn randomly sets up the major problem because the composition has to overwhelm the irregularities. For harmony, the eye must find a place to rest. It would be nice to know that the viewer noticed the colors that peek through the layers--sometimes as many as 15 or more. Like something in nature there is no one color, only layers and individual moments of color changing with the light. Maybe the viewer could see that form is made with vertical lines, weight with changes in color. If the viewer sees an image --whatever image--this is fine with me. Images appear to me, too, but that is not my main intention. Images are the McGuffin. Yet I do have something I want very much for you or any viewer to see. If I could put it into words, I wouldn’t need so desperately to draw it for you.

Atlanta, Georgia 2020

Susan Cofer is an Atlanta, Georgia, native. She attended the art school at Mrs. High’s house as a child. That school eventually became the Atlanta College of Art and the house gave way to the Woodruff Arts Center. She left Atlanta to study Art History at Hollins College (now Hollins University) in Roanoke, Virginia. She received her BA degree in 1964.

She taught art and art history at the Lovett School for several years in the 1960s and took studio art courses at Atlanta College of Art and Georgia State University.  She had her first solo exhibition at the Heath Gallery in 1976. She has been exhibiting regularly since then. 


In 2012-2013 the High Museum of Art exhibited 90 of her works including drawings, sculptures and sketchbooks in a solo show. The curator for that exhibit was Michael Rooks, Wieland Family Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the High

Recently, her collection of sketchbooks, 95 in total, plus photos and ephemera, and letters, pertaining to the whole of her life, public and private, were purchased by Emory University’s Stuart A. Rose Manuscript and Rare Book Library.

Photo: Carl Cofer

Deanna Sirlin is an artist and writer from Brooklyn, New York currently living and working outside of Atlanta, Georgia.​

www.deannasirlin.com