Hall of fame | Mandy Coppes-Martin

The winning works in 2012 showed a significant interest in environmental issues with both the winning work by Ingrid Bolton and the works by the runner-up, Mandy Coppes-Martin dealing with different aspects of the fragility of our environment. Coppes-Martin works with specific fibres, threads and silks that weave through through her drawings and sculptures.  In this interview, the artist shares insights into her philosophy and approach to art making.

How would you summarise your artistic practice?

I am interested in the physical connection to the material, the subject matter I work with and the theoretical association with the image and the material”.

I apply the traditional art of crocheting and French loom knitting to paper thread and raw silk fibres to create forms and shapes that depict a life once lived, or an action once taken. Whether the resulting image is a depiction of an abstract mark of nature or an interpretation of a literal object, my work seeks to retrace the past and, in turn, create a new skeleton of memories. A distinctive aspect of the work is the imperfection and the fragmentation. It is symbolic of life itself, the world around us.

“Nothing lasts, nothing is finished, nothing is perfect and nothing is forever”

Tell us a bit about your winning work, conceptual concerns and processes. 

I entered two art works for the 2012 Sasol New Signatures namely; Trembling Giant and Virgin Pulp. Both art works are made from paper thread, paper veil sheets made from sisal, cotton, hemp, as well as paper thread.

Trembling Giant was named after what is said to be one of the oldest trees found in the natural world. It is found in the Fish Lake National Forest in America. Its root system is estimated to be 80,000 years old.  It is made up of concentric circles of crocheted paper thread. The rings represent the life rings of a tree, a passage of time.  A mark left behind. The age of the tree provides the viewer with an almost nostalgic lament to the life of the tree and how we coexist with the physical world.

Virgin Pulp, a term used in the forestry industry for pulp that is made from young trees. The thin sheets of paper surround a small circle, which signifies the cross section or life rings of a young tree. The life rings portrayed in this work are few and show a premature ending without the history that one would normally be depicted in a cross section of an older tree that has been through varying climate changes, forest fires, droughts and floods.

The work is clean and almost mechanical. The cross section appears lonely and embodies a kind of tension with the paper surrounding it and is captured in the moment creating an almost latent image. Whilst looking at the work from a distance you get a sense that the life rings also symbolise a cell, which is the basic structural and functional unit of all known organisms. The cell seems as though it could move around the surface as seen through a microscope.  This work depicts an image of something that once was and at the same time illustrates the building blocks of all living organisms for the continuation of life.

There is a lot of symbolism in your work, both in subject matter – like the recurring use of the tree – and the materials you use, like silk, hemp and paper. What drew you to these materials and what effect did it have on your use of symbolism?

The very nature of the silk worm is, in many ways, similar to the human condition. Silk has been a revered fibre for centuries and has been smuggled, kept a secret and stolen. It is spun from an insect that purges and feeds for days in order to produce something that will protect itself only for a few days so that it can be allowed to grow into something that has no eyes nor mouth and that can neither drink nor eat. It continues to mate, lay eggs and pass away. What is left is something beautiful and rather useless in terms of its natural surroundings. The act of un-raveling a silkworm cocoon feels like a connection to the past and the present through the re-spinning of a new story and the unfolding of a life cycle. The life cycle is ever present in many of my works with many of them speaking about birth, decay and the trace that is left behind.

Paper and paper thread closely represent the life rings found in the cross section of a tree trunk. I began working with tree rings several years ago and find them to be the most beautiful arrangements of natural life. Tree rings tell a story of events through mark making. They offer glimpses into the lost or forgotten stories of our natural environment and represent bits of history that are physically present, yet without narrative.

How has your art making changed over the years?

It has changed quite dramatically in some ways as I have started working with other materials such as plastic, tree resin, silk and wood. My work has oscilliated between the narrative and the abstract but it somehow always remains thin and delicate with a ethereal quality. I guess this is a voice that is preconcieved through making.  

Did winning the competition assist in launching your career as an artist?

Yes most definately. Winning this prestigious award gave me the courage to continue and to push bounderies with paper and silk. It also came at the right time as I was just launching my career as a full time artist which was very daunting.

How important a platform is Sasol New Signatures?

I think competitions can be a scary place for artists but I think its important to learn rejection in the art world too and continue despite not being accepted. Competitions are also places to test the waters with certain works and enter works that are consolidated and that do not necessarily speak to a larger body of work. If your work is accepted or wins it can be a place of massive growth and sucess. The Sasol New Signatures competition can make an artist feel validated and relevent. Even being in the top 100 is an impressive goal. It gives one the nerve and the necessary push to continue building on a body of work that can be placed on a public platformkind and forces you to continue on that level of exposure.

How many times did you enter the competition?

I entered twice. The first time I got into the top 100 and the second time the runnner up.

What have you achieved since the competition? 

I have had three solo exhibitions at Lizamore and Associates. In 2016 I was invited to be on the Paper Biennial in Rijswijk in the Netherlands. In 2017 I won the “Transparency” Design competition, funded by the Swedish Embassy and curated and hosted by the University of Johannesburg. In 2015 I was awarded a solo exhibition at the FNB Art Fair. I was also a chosen artist for an RMBH initiative that included a large commission with my studio time being recorded over a three month period. I have been on several group shows in the USA, the Netherlands and the UK.

Are you involved in any mentorships, community projects or other developmental opportunities?

I am currently working with a Wild Silk project in Madagascar called CPALI (Conservation through Poverty Alleviation International in Madagascar). CPALI farmer’s hand rear Antherina suraka –a native silkworm that feeds off the rainforest tree Polycias bakeriana, aiding in habitat recovery.  I immediately found a connection with the wild silk because by cultivating these moths these farmers are contributing to the long-term sustainability of the rain forests and habitat in Madagascar. I intend to visit the programme in order to gain more insight into the programme and create a body of work using traditional techniques from Madagascar.

What advice do you have for other artists young or old wanting to make their career as an artist? 

To continue working at your practice. To constantly make and mess things up. Through the mess and the mistakes come great things. A child falls 100 times before it learns how to walk. But he/she will walk in the end. As hard as it may be I think its important to not have a plan B. Plan “Bs” always leave room for something to fall back on. As hard as it may be.

What is your biggest take-out since 2012?

There has to be a couple of things such as being on the FNB Art Fair as a solo show, winning an award to go to Stokholm with the Swedish Enbassy and have my work being purchased by a museum in the USA in 2018. I also worked with a master papermaker in the Philippines in 2016 which was incredible for my skill as a paper artist.