INSPIRE ME! Artist of the Month, Michael Cook - February 2018

By Ernest Disney-Britton

"My father’s strong atheism that made me think
hard about faith, religion, God, and my own religious feelings"
"Jacob Wrestling the Angel" (2007), pencil on paper
It's hard to believe, but it was only last year when we posted our first article about Michael Cook, but we've been fans of this British artist for years. We've listed him on our roster of favorite contemporary artists, and we follow his daily journeys on Twitter. We invited him to be the INSPIRE ME! Artist because his work is poetic, rich and filled with visionary intensity. We invited him to be the February 2018 Artist of the Month because his works, such as "Jacob Wrestling the Angel" are moving inspirations for the upcoming season on Lent (beginning February 14th this year). Last year, he opened The Manger Gallery, but Michael Cook also offers works through his website,
Michael Cook in his studio
1. Where and when were you born, and what is your artistic training?
I was born in a small hamlet called Kings Newton, on the edge of a market town called Melbourne, Derbyshire, UK. I trained in graphic design in Derby, and worked as a graphic artist and illustrator for many years before moving in fine art.
"Brother Fire" (2015) acrylic on paper
2. Which religious tradition has informed your artwork, and how?
I was raised in a non-religious home, but it was my father’s strong atheism that made me think hard about faith, religion, God, and my own religious feelings. I started going to church when I was twenty, and I gravitated naturally to the Church of England, and feel thoroughly Anglican - the mildest possible way of rebelling!
"Figures in a Garden at Night" (2001), acrylic and oil pastel on board
3. Have you ever had to defend exploring religious ideas?
An interesting question. Only to myself, I think. Contemporary, overtly religious artworks are not popular in the UK - a very secular country - and I sense that choosing a different route could make me more well-known, and make me more money. In some ways it is possible to produce work that is not obviously religious, but is still motivated by religious concerns, which people can either recognise as religious or not, depending on their own receptivity, intuition or knowledge. This interests me greatly; it’s a challenge to come up with an image which is ‘acceptable’ to the non-religious viewer, but that does invite them gently into a religious narrative or idea. It is part of English politeness that religion is not discussed, and religious ‘enthusiasm' is regarded with suspicion. Finding ways of expressing religious feeling in a way that is sensitive to that is challenging and interesting. Perhaps there is even an element of deviousness that is required!
"Gethsemane" (2012) acrylic and oil pastel on paper
4. What challenges have you faced in creating religious-themed works? (e.g., race, class, gender and sexuality)
I have had one religious work rejected by a venue - a church - that was to exhibit it. The work was of the women coming from the empty tomb on Easter morning, and being disbelieved by the dejected disciples. The priest (who personally rejected the role of woman as priests) rightly saw in the work a criticism of the power of men to refuse women that role, and so did not allow the exhibition to go ahead. In a completely secular context, I have had work ‘hidden’ (placed in an awkward space behind a door) which depicted the raising of Lazarus in a way that had homoerotic overtones. The challenge is less to do with creating the work, and comes about when displaying it. Religious work is difficult to place in galleries, whether municipal or commercial. So I’ve had to create my own space, The Manger Gallery.
"Hand Like a Nest" (2016) acrylic on paper
5. Who are your favorites artists, and whose work is in your own collection?
I love medieval art, icons, stained glass, illuminated manuscripts. I also love the modernists, Picasso, Klee, Marc, Feininger, etc. I find my own work fits into the British Romantic and Visionary traditions, which started with William Blake and Samuel Palmer. The Neo-Romantics (some of whom, like Graham Sutherland, were overtly religious) absorbed Modernism but also tried to find the same timeless feeling in the English landscape that Blake and Palmer had found. My work carries on very much in this tradition, and also spills over into the Visionary tradition in British art started by Blake and Palmer, and carried into the 20th century by people like Stanley Spencer, Cecil Collins and Norman Adams. I have found a number of artists living close by whose work also links with these traditions and have started collecting (and exhibiting) their work. Some examples are R N Clarke, Rebecca Mercer and Sarah Sharpe.
"Walking Lazarus" (2007), acrylic on muslin on board
6. Who collects your work, and why?
Quite a lot of my sales come from people who collect my work. Some family members have collected my work, another collector is my old primary school teacher; I’d guess there is an element of bias here! Some people collect my work because they recognise the connections to the British Neo-Romantics, and have a special interest or love for that movement. Some recognise a folkloric element, particularly in the animal pieces. Others recognise the spiritual/religious feeling in them, and whether or not they consider themselves very religious, this is something precious to them which is not much seen in contemporary art. I think recognition of some similar way of seeing, whether of landscape or a religious theme or idea, or a connection to art history, is roughly why people collect.
"Crumbs of Love" (2008), acrylic and oil pastel on canvas
7. Where can AOA collectors experience your work this year?
I live and work in the UK, and though I have sold pieces to people in the US and Australia I do not have exhibitions outside the UK. My work is on display at Artysan Gallery, Moreton-in-Marsh in the Cotswolds and at my own gallery, The Manger Gallery, housed in a converted stable at my family home in Kings Newton, Derbyshire. This gallery also shows work by other artists whose work links with my own, work in the Visionary and Romantic traditions of British art, and work with a strong imaginative or literary dimension. I have a number of pieces on permanent display in churches in the UK. In 2018 I am part of a major exhibition at Southwell Minster for Lent and Easter called ‘Crossings', which includes work by around 40 artists whose work has a strongly religious dimension.


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