In this week's blog, Costume Society Ambassador Francine McMahon shares her interview with the incredible artist Jo Cope, in which we gain an insight into her inspiration and artistic process. Jo's work centres around feet and shoes, exploring the physical, social, emotional, and psychological histories embodied in them - some of our members may have been lucky enough to see her work in person at exhibitions such as the Venice Design Biennial, or in her solo shows like the recent 'Only Shoes Can Save us Now' in her hometown of Leicester.
Francine: You recognise shoes as a vessel for more than just covering our feet, this is evident through your work; I never knew how emotive a pair of brogues could be! How did you first establish your interest in shoes and feet as a focus for your art?
Jo: Coming from a background in fashion, for a number of years I was exploring all of the spaces in and around the body. I first became interested in the accessory in the wider sense, working on conceptual bags which were exhibited rather than sold in concept boutiques and galleries. To me accessories were the underdog in the fashion hierarchy, often playing second fiddle to clothing. In the early 2000’s when I was embarking on my Fashion BA at Nottingham Trent University, I became part of a performing arts lab and this idea of exploring the accessories and giving it a creative space all of its own was what interested me. Shoes became a central focus for me once I embarked on a Masters in Fashion Artefacts at the London College of Fashion. Although I wasn’t studying footwear directly I had access to the cordwainers department and all of the brilliant technicians who had a life time of experience dedicated to shoe making and leather working skills- it was the right time.
Francine: Your work combines the social, historic, physical and psychological aspects embodied in shoes; are there any references and/or source materials you have found to have had a particular influence on your work? Are there any you regularly return to for inspiration?
Jo: Being dyslexic and struggling with reading and consuming information in my school years, I feel like I am constantly playing catch up- but in a good way now. I read anything and everything that adds to my knowledge and which continues to take me on a journey with understanding the histories connected to shoes, but also I’m interested in the wider more abstract concepts, connections and trains of thought, which is one of dyslexia’s superpowers.
I have Radio 4 on always in the car, ‘In Our Time’ with Melvin Bragg is a favourite for cultural histories generally. Books and podcasts on philosophy are important to stimulate the bigger questions and thoughts. My favourite book last year was 'The Denial of Death' by Ernest Becker which became some of the underpinning text and concepts for my most recent show ‘Only Shoes Can Save us Now’.
I have many books on walking concepts, just yesterday on a visit to my dad, he shared some really great philosophical quotes on walking from Kierkegaard in a book he was reading called ‘Ramble On’ by Sinclair McKay. I am interested in books on the semiotic and psychological aspects of clothing, books like ‘The Language of Clothes’ by Alison Lurie and books on general and extensive shoe histories are important long term references- ‘Shoes: An Illustrated History’ by friend and curator of The Northampton Shoe Museum, Rebecca Shawcross, is a great example; and ‘Feet and Footwear in Indian Culture’ by Jutta Jain-Neubauer. Female histories and cultural perspectives relating to being a woman is also an important element of my reading. In 2021 I was invited to create a performance for the Venice Design Biennale, the book ‘Working Women of Early Modern Venice’ by Monica Chojnacka became the main source of concept building, looking back at the lesser-known positive histories of women in the lower classes in the city, in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth-century. I combined these historical readings with conversations with women currently inhabiting the city to compare and learn together. I sourced historical dress and creating new conceptual accessories for a performance for the roof top of T Fondaco, overlooking the famous Rialto bridge. This project was also in collaboration with Piedaterre - the oldest slipper maker in Venice - and again this is where the historical shoe related source books, conversations and extensive internet researching comes in.
Francine: You use traditional shoe-making techniques, such as cordwaining, in creating your artworks. How did you first learn these skills? Looking at your work, it’s clear that you have established ‘progressive adaptations’ of these techniques to create the manipulations of recognisable shoe styles that are very recognisable to your pieces. What came first in developing your practice – manipulating shoe forms, or learning to make shoes in the traditional methods?
Jo: Great question! Definitely developing the practice first, then exploring the feet through ideas, research and concepts and then trying to work out how to try and materialise the visions. I usually design things that I have no idea how to make, working it out becomes the interest and the challenge. What is interesting about making even one change to objects template such as a shoe, is that when one thing changes -such as creating an extreme length, then a whole range of problem solving, new techniques, working methods have to evolve with it. Shoe making requires wooden lasts to build the shoes around, one of the first things I had to develop was new lasts. One of the shoes I created was a ‘Twisted Stiletto’ the key starting point for this shoe was to generate a twisted last form before being able to work on the shoe itself. Mostly I create one offs, most of my methods are very hands on craft and low fi equipment, more in tune with the origins of the shoe makers rather than with industrialisation. I always visualised myself working from a studio with quite simple equipment but making extraordinary objects.
Francine: In what way do the materials you use play a part in both the storytelling, and the practical making process? For example your work in leather versus wood, or fabric.
Jo: There is a long history of leather within shoe making. Leather is a historical material that takes skill and training to start to master. I feel like you could spend a whole life time just learning leather craft alone. Many shoe makers I have met some with 50 years’ experience have said to me “once a shoe maker always a shoe maker” it takes time to hone a craft and I guess once you do you have made a non-frivolous commitment to it.
Leather I love because you can stretch and form and mould it in a way that you can’t with any other material, and it does have human like qualities as a type of skin. I was taught that because it comes from an animal you need to treat each skin with the upmost respect, using every inch and considering the worthiness of your design for its use.
I talk about my shoes as having their own language and being almost human, I think that the material is part of this visual communication. In a recent exhibition I gave a partially sighted visitor a tour, for her the sensory value of leathers touch and smell was important in making connections back to shoe making histories. Within my lasting techniques I am often designing seem free patterns, this is because I want the visual communication to be uninterrupted, the fact that leather stretches and can be worked over hours and days to achieve certain forms helps me to make the most authentic visualisations of the concepts.
Francine: I personally really resonate with the way your ‘approach considers fashion as an extension of the self'; you see 'shoes as symbolic vessels which are almost human with their own inherent wisdom’. Your work attributes a lot of psychological, emotional, and communicative load to shoes… has the way you choose and interact with your footwear changed based on your own work?
Jo: Interesting question! I think that ‘wearing as an extension of self’ is something that we often do subconsciously, but when we stop to become conscious of it we realise that is a totally a physical and psychological collaboration.
Sometimes I look down at my occasional choice of dirty looking old shoes that are seriously comfortable because they accommodate my high instep and wide foot and think “are you seriously planning to leave the house in these”, and sometimes I think yes, this is me today. Maybe it’s about how many parts of dress are extending from the body at the same time and saying the same message. An old pair of shoes with a fresh suit for example can be seen as being quite rebellious and cool, also if you’ve just fell out of a long day at the studio it is ok to have shoes covered in paint.
Sometimes I wear clothes and footwear that collaborate with the artwork or exhibition I am working on or presenting, so that I literally become an embodied extension. My favourite boots to wear for special occasions are primary red and fairly seam free, they are a sock-shoe hybrid which makes the physical act of wearing more in tune with a second skin.
Francine: Finally, following the close of your exhibition ‘Only Shoes Can Save us Now’, are there any upcoming projects or shows you can tell us about that you are particularly looking forward to? And how can we keep up to date with your work?
Jo: ‘Only Shoes Can Save us Now’ was a really important show for me across 2022/23 as it was very autobiographical and also in my hometown and where I lecture in fashion. It drew in part on my family history of cobblers and heal coverer grandparents and wider family tree. I also collaborated with my parents to create a series of photographic artworks which explored foot related parables and the significance of feet in the bible drawing from their lives as community workers and church ministers.
Later in 2023 I have an exhibition which will be opening at The Hub in Sleaford, formally The National Centre for Craft and Design. For this project I will be working with an international partner from Pakistan and will be exploring wool waste and recycling and relating back to footwear through the sock.
There are many other projects that I am currently working on ..
Find me on Instagram @jocope_studio and through news updates at www.jocope.com
Please feel free to drop me a DM or an email to say hello !
If you enjoyed this interview, explore some of our past interviews on our blog.
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