Try to pigeonhole Al Cote’s art. We dare you. As a painter, hair stylist (yep) and fiber artist, Al finds inspiration in things most people overlook – shiny shoes, squeaky wagon wheels, broken shoelaces. Each has a story behind it that Al brings forward with fabric, thread and paint.
How did you find yourself on an artist’s path? Always there? Lightbulb moment? Dragged kicking and screaming? Evolving?
It wasn’t obvious to me as a young boy that I was an artist! I just thought everyone saw things the same way I did. When I realized they didn’t, I knew I was different. So I guess I have always been an artist from the first time I picked up a pencil or put piles of rocks together in the driveway!
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Which artists do you admire? What draws you to their work?
I was drawn to artists who didn’t cram too much on the canvas, like Rothko, Mondrian and Van Gogh. I loved the artists who allowed you to make up your own stories when viewing their work, letting you “reproduce” their work in your imagination.
What inspires you to create?
As a pre-teen artist I enjoyed folklore and comic books. I began writing my own short stories and poems and illustrating them in small books that I made from folded paper.
It did not take much for me to find inspiration EVERYWHERE! My father’s polished shoes, my mother pushing the hair from her face as she ironed clothes for her seven children, the noise of my squeaky wheels on my wagon all ended up in my stories and illustrations. Even today I can find inspiration on a woman’s dress in front of me while waiting in line at the bank. The inspiration might end up in a fiber wall hanging. I am very good at remembering the things that catch my eye.
How did your creative journey bring you to quilts?
I have always explored many mediums with my art such as watercolour, acrylic, oils, sculpting in clay, and assemblage to name a few. I was a sponge for art books, art history and exploring symbols.
As a single father, I focused on my sons. After they were on their own, I met my wife Debbie while teaching art at the school my sons attended as children. We became good friends and when she retired she opened a quilt store next door to my hair salon which I had run for 36 years.
I helped her with setting up shelves and painting the walls. When the bolts of fabrics started arriving they amazed me! To me they were like large tubes of paint! As our relationship grew I started to realize that cutting hair wasn’t doing it for me anymore, so I cut my hours and helped out in the quilt store in the afternoons. I was very good at sales, and from the hair salon I certainly knew women and colour!
Deb thought that I should learn to sew and I was hooked. She was a tough teacher and I learned everything I could. Soon I was creating my own patterns and classes and between the two of us the store was a big success.
Next we bought a longarm machine and I mastered that. I grew tired of “patterns” and created my own art pieces. Full classes followed as well as running weekend retreats. I started getting requests for trunk shows and workshops for guilds. Soon I found myself travelling across Ontario and Western NY to teach. Showing in Houston, Italy and soon commissions followed.
I have never stopped since! There are certain themes that I have used in my painting career such as birds, broken trees, babies and angels. These started showing up in my wall hangings. I have drawn angels and babies since I was a child and it was just a matter of time! I like to research a subject and keep drawings and make poems and short stories before I create them in fabric.
When it comes to creating, are you more of a planner or an improviser?
I do not really plan a piece. I might accumulate ideas and a subject matter to begin with, but as I start the piece, that can all go by the wayside and I end up with something that has nothing that resembles my original idea. THIS I LOVE! My motto has become, “It is not what I planned, but EXACTLY what I wanted!” So I guess I am a planned improviser!
Can you tell us about the inspiration and process of one of your works? How does a new work come about?
I spent all my childhood weekends and summers with an amazing Aunt in Lewiston, New York. You could say she was eccentric. Being the sixth child of seven, this was my escape.
She was spontaneous and daring. I experienced art galleries and antiques and adventures in the woods to watch the birds and see the sunset. She taught me to “see “ beyond what was in front of me. It never left me.
I find that there are no new works for me, only recapturing the things I already have seen. I have kept journals since I was about 14.
Unlike journals that keep secrets, I filled mine with silly things that people said, or pieces of papers and matchbook covers I would find on the street, broken shoelaces, folded pieces of papers that challenged my strength. These all seem to appear in my works over the years.
Although I am not especially revealing of myself through my art, once in a while if you look close enough you can find these hidden somewhere, especially in my paintings. I truly believe that you unconsciously put yourself in your work and I purposely try to hide it.
I am not one who wants to make a political statement or depict the horrors around the world. There are too many beautiful things to concentrate on. That being said, in the 80’s I was commissioned to paint some very large abstract works for a wealthy family who were building a very modern home. I had complete freedom to do what I wanted. The size of the pieces was the only restriction. The paintings were delivered but not hung until the house was finished. I was invited to the opening party to show the house.
I was going through a very rough time while I was painting these works. The money and the freedom was a godsend for me financially and mentally. When I attended the party and saw these very large works throughout the home, I was a wreck! I saw in those works all the trauma and pain that I was going through. From the glorious comments from the guests, I knew they did not see it. But I did.
How has your work changed over time?
Over time my work has gone through many changes. I am less inspired by the Masters or modern day artists. I do not paint or sew to sell or even to enter shows. Those days are gone.
I combine several techniques in one piece. And I surround myself with like-minded artists. So I am very fortunate to have a small circle of artist friends and we are constantly challenging each other with new ideas.
I also use a very simple computer program that allows me to alter my original finished pieces to create a new version which I have enlarged and printed onto cotton. I then stitch that new piece. This gives me two versions of an original piece by creating an altered version.
Do you think that creativity comes naturally to people, or do you think creativity is a skill that people can learn?
I truly believe that there are people who are born with a creative mind but are never given the permission to access it. Nothing makes me happier than when someone takes a class with me that has never explored their creative side. I can help them see things in a new light. And when they “get it”, they are like sponges. Also, many times they show me things that give me new ideas.
Creativity is everywhere and in everyone. I remember hearing that the first time your child tells you a little white lie, he is being creative and using his imagination!
How can people overcome the challenges they feel to their creative ability?
Overcoming your fears in your art is a thing that every artist goes through. I struggle with this almost every time I start a piece, but I have learned that this is part of the creative process. If I think that every time it will be a piece of cake, I run into problems, BUT problem solving is what it is all about.
Drawing, reading, sharing stories, doodling, even going for a walk can clear my head and I am sometimes shocked at the ideas that start to come from within. The secret is remembering them. Even when I am looking out the window, I am working!
Do you have a dedicated space for creating? If so, what does it look like?
When I started my painting career in the 70’s , I rented a studio in downtown St. Catharines with three other young artists. It was the upstairs of a smoke shop. We each had a section of the space and would work all different hours. It was wonderful! Eventually due to job placements and life in general, I ended up being the only renter. I continued renting for 11 years!
When Debbie and I closed the quilt shop we moved into a large newer home and now we each have our own studios! Deb has upstairs and I have the entire lower level. (I am not as organized as her). The main studio walks out to a beautiful garden and has large windows. I have a separate room for the longarm machine, a laundry room for dyeing, a large area for classes and a library area and a small sitting area with of course a TV and computer and of course music!
What are the indispensable tools and materials in your studio? How do they improve your work?
I have a 5’ X 8’ cutting table which I could not live without. Large windows provide wonderful natural lighting. I have three sewing machines. But I use the cheapest one the most! I very rarely use the fancier stitches on a machine.
I like using large dressmaker scissors as well as small embroidery scissors. My go to fusible is Misty Fuse.
I do not dye fabric anymore but paint my fabrics with acrylic paint. It is cheaper and as a painter I have better control. I do not use a design wall. This is an indispensable tool for many artists, I know, but it is just what I have gotten used to.
I have a program called Rapid Resizer that I could not live without! I sketch a lot of my designs in a small book. With this program I can resize the drawing to any size I want and send it to my printer and it will keep the ratio and print the drawing on as many 8 X 10-inch pages as needed. They are numbered in order, and I can tape them together to create a large template of a small drawing.
What plays in the background while you work? Silence? Music, audiobooks, podcasts, movies? If so, what kind?
When I paint or sew I listen to music. Mostly 60’s Motown! But I also love R&B and the great jazz singers like Nancy Wilson, Dinah Washington, and Billy Eckstine.
Where can people see your work?
I have been very fortunate to have nine (9) very large commissions at The Stabler Centre in St. Catharines. Also a large piece with fellow artists Suzi Dwor and Irma Bull at the Regional Offices in St. Catharines, as well as part of a group commission at Ball’s Falls.
Tell us about your blog and/or website. What do you hope people will gain by visiting?
My website is www.imaginationtextile.com. I am also on FB and Instagram, but I am not very prolific at keeping them up!
Do you lecture or teach workshops? How can students/organizers get in touch with you to schedule an event?
I teach at the Haliburton School of Art and Design for two weeks in the summer, and the Georgian Bay Centre for the Arts in Owen Sound. In addition, I give trunk shows and Workshops at Quilt Guilds, and of course classes in my studio. I am also part of the Haliburton Studio Art Tour in the fall.
I can’t imagine not being able to “create”!
Interview with Al Cote posted December 2020
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