Susan Cofer’s drawings may first appear to be shades of colors. But the Atlanta-based artist’s work invites the viewer to look much closer. An exhibit of her work, titled simply “Drawings,” is on view now at Poem 88.
Her drawings begin before she even picks up a pencil. Cofer starts with a large sheet of paper which she tears into smaller sheets.
“I don’t measure it,” she chuckles, “I’m incapable of that.”
She leaves the frayed, uneven edges just as they are, so her works never have right angles.
“Which sets up a compositional problem for me to solve,” she says.
Cofer’s approach to this compositional problem is with thin lines. Her work may appear simple, uncomplicated, but much like newsprint, if you look closely and you see the thousands of tiny components that make it up, it becomes much richer.
“It’s nothing but vertical lines,” she says, “and every line leaves a space next to it. So what you’re seeing is layers of lines. In a work that looks like there’s not much there, every single line matters.”
The approach can evoke both the micro and the macro, with drawings that look like they might be river systems seen from the air or a trickle of water running down a rock. Images seem to emerge from within the colors and shades of the drawings.
“I’m never sure what I’m working towards,” Cofer says. “So when something suddenly appears, I go with it. It’s a matter of starting a work, and making the lines and then seeing that something is going to happen. And when it happens, I’ll say ‘oh, that looks maybe like a seed. I think I’ll work on that.’”
If it seems that Cofer is applying a geological pace and sensibility to her art, that’s precisely where her aesthetic comes from. In the 1960s, she and her husband traveled to Utah to go rafting down the Colorado River.
“And there in that canyon,” she recalls, “in a time that was just as bad in people’s minds as now is, as far as politics, as far as assassinations … of misery and despair over the way human beings can act—here I was on the Colorado River and I saw the timelessness and the age of those canyon walls. There were these enormous boulders, but the light was coming through it. And when I saw that light between those two forms, all of a sudden, I understood the tension of empty space…of how potent empty space was.”
Cofer’s work may not appear overtly political, but each work takes her paper’s uneven borders and the tension between lines, colors, and empty space, and attempts to find balance and harmony between them all.
“It’s an effort to bring your eye to a place of rest within the composition,” she explains. “That’s not easy to do. It’s fun, but it’s not easy to do. It’s a battle.”
Asked if she would characterize her work or her artistic practice as meditation, Cofer says she would say that it’s prayer.
“It’s a prayer facing the way the world is. It’s my prayer.”
The world is a giant, complex place. In allowing her drawing to evolve from simple lines into patterns and shapes, Cofer is in a way, seeking the harmony she finds in the natural world by mimicking its processes. It’s hard work, which you can hear in how she repeatedly refers to her work as “a battle” or “a problem.” And it’s a problem she says she never expects to solve, at least not on her own.
“I’m trying to recreate something that I experienced which is beyond words, and it’s never enough,” she says. “And the only thing I can hope is that when you look at it, you’ve brought your experience and the things that you know. And when you meet the work, you will achieve what I was trying to achieve and couldn’t do by myself.”
It’s optimistic that work which has such kinship with nature still requires people to make it complete.
Susan Cofer’s exhibit, “Drawings,” is on view at Poem 88 through May 24.
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