Creativity, Mental Health And Making It In A New City: Jess Cochrane Tells It Like It Is
Sipping coffees from her local cafe on a rooftop in a suburb of London’s South East, I caught up with Jess Cochrane, the Australian boundary-pushing artist known for her arresting artworks that blur the lines between what society deems ‘beautiful’ and reality. Her work is an exploration of pop culture, the idea of feminine beauty and how different parts of ourselves are so often disguised by this idea.
Using a mixture of paint and photographic imagery, Jess creates incredibly moving and interesting works that will have you questioning your beliefs long after you’ve left them.
RT: You’ve been away from home for four months now, living in London, how has it been?
JC: Man, this trip has been so eye opening. I’m the kind of person that is so up for jumping in the deep end with my life, and I do that a lot but there’s always a whiplash effect. And the bigger the distance, the deeper the pool (and the bigger that whiplash). I’ve had moments wondering what the hell is happening because it’s such a big thing, but the best part about it is that I’ve had so much reflection time. My ability to deal with my mental health, over the years has become so much better as I’m more self-aware and I’ve actually had some interesting break throughs.
RT: Can you share any?
JC: Well, so often creatives want to be constantly doing (I’m no different), but if there is no solid plan in place, we’ll tell ourselves that we’re not doing enough and we’ll begin to unhealthily compare ourselves to others. I suffer from perfectionism and am so prone to comparison. At the moment that’s with two creatives who are older than me and British, who’ve grown up in London and have built up huge networks and successful careers. So at the start of my trip I tried to match pace by going to see as much art as possible, meet as many people as possible and attend all the right events. This quickly led to burnout and frustration. When I finally got my studio and settled into a routine, I realised that it’s all the same recipe, same method: I know what I need to do but it’s so much slower here for me than in Australia. At home I’m recognised, people know me, which is so cool that there’s recognition. But here I’m a tiny tadpole in the world’s biggest pond. The needing to approach people and getting to know them is more difficult. So I’m trying not to compare myself to people literally born and raised in London and I’ve realised it’s ok to go at a slower pace, it’s still happening. There’s a pressure you end up putting on yourself that’s unhealthy, and I need to constantly remind myself, just to chill.
RT: How else is it different from home?
JC: Being in a big city like London, you realise how small Sydney is (and Australia for that matter). Sydney is not a big city! Coming here puts things into perspective. Realising just how huge a market it is to crack is very humbling and makes you realise how hard everyone works. It’s a tougher and slower process to start somewhere new but that’s ok. It’s really easy to get dejected and think I’m nothing in this city, but you get to a point where you realise the new city has so much to offer, and you start to block out the unnecessary stuff so you focus on the things you want to get out of it.
As a creative that always wants to be doing the most, and constantly needing validation, it’s funny how all those things play on your mind when you’re in a bigger, new city. I think it’s important to reflect on things like this though, so in hindsight, I’ll be able to look back and wonder what did I spend so much time thinking about, what mattered, what didn’t, what came out of it. One things’ for sure I’ll never complain about Sydney traffic again!
RT: How do you feel about social media - how have you utilised it in the past and now in London?
JC: This trip, I’ve loved it and hated it. The main thing that I use it for is as a business tool. I don’t really use it to compare myself to others, more to look at art, what’s going on, scout photography subjects and I tend to see it more as a Pinterest-type gallery so in a lot of ways I have so much love and support for it because it’s helped my career so much and given me so much access to new things. And it’s so easy. But at the same time, in a lot of ways, in the way someone would use it for personal reasons, it’s affected me more. I love photos – taking them and posting them to create a memory board and I think I’ve spent a lot more hours on it personally than for my business because this trip I’ve taken a step back to reassess what I’m doing with my work.
RT: What are some of the challenges of making a move like this one?
JC: One of the biggest things about being away and being in a new place, like starting a new school you have to make new friends, find your place. It took me about three years to really get that in Sydney and now I’m here at the beginning again which is going to take time. Another thing that’s been interesting is the discovery of London through social media. It’s been easy to feel like I’m not fitting in and trying to learn about it. It’s given me a lot of things to think about – differences between English and Australian culture and different city culture. It’s been a bit of a mind fuck – all the different ways people dress, the music. I’ve felt so out of my depth and not cool enough which is so silly but it’s a lot of life stuff happening as well.
RT: Also when you’re home you pick up the phone, call a friend or your mum and get through it, but here, it’s much harder.
JC: Yeah exactly. For me, the thing I’ve experienced is a combo of starting my career here coming in from the side and also starting my life here. Trying to figure out the ins and outs of working relationships and where I want to be, what I want to be doing, and my place in it all. I definitely had a point, last month where I was so over it, I was so tired and had so much to process. When you’re putting your trust in a feeling of “I want to be in London, and this is what I want to pursue…” it’s quite scary.
RT: What’s your internal chatter or mental state around this?
JC: A constant push pull scenario that can be really draining! It’s an internal battle and in a few years I know I’ll be so much stronger for it. It’s hard but then I always think of the alternative: I don’t want to sit on a couch at home and be dissatisfied and wonder what might have been. Unless it’s fully happening to you, it’s difficult to understand, the stuff that runs through your head. And people tell you the process should be enjoyable, which it is, and I’m not ungrateful, but I sometimes wish that people would step into my shoes and give me some credit, for moving my entire life overseas. It can’t all be sunshine and rainbows. There’s a pride to it. And the dollar is so weak!! Rough patches teach you so much but they’re so hard to get through mentally. You need to constantly ask yourself, “how much do I really want this and how much am I willing to put up with the shit?” You have to do it because you love it.
RT: And it’s always good to remember that life is life and you find that issues are the same no matter where you are.
JC: The amount of days I want to have the day in bed. But haven’t allowed myself to because the guys I live with get up and go do their successful careers and deal with the city like it’s not a thing, and I think “I’m exhausted”… maybe because I’m constantly trying to match their pace. Then I think hold on that’s stupid, I’m trying to go at their pace, not my own.
RT: Tell me about the mini series you were involved with for the ABC.
JC: ABC approached me and seven other artists to be in a miniseries, exploring how the self connects with your work – self-portraiture through different practices. It was a real journey through my mental health, which was at its most tumultuous point, and I ended up having a real breakthrough with my art. It allowed me to shine a light on my problems, helped to see myself properly. It was almost like I couldn’t tell people how I was feeling past certain words, but when I painted this thing, it was visualised and I was able to communicate it. People could recognise it and relate to it, that it was from the self and from the heart. I realised that what I was feeling was not uncommon; so many people feel this way so it really resonated. It was hugely therapeutic and cathartic.
RT: How did your art develop growing up?
JC: My dad is an art teacher, I was always art inclined, so many days were spent life drawing and learning traditional art techniques and art history, where women definitely looked certain way. But then I would sit in my room and read every single Vogue magazine and look at the really skinny models, and all the different looks that were in like suddenly it was cool to be rake thin. I spent so long trying to figure out why I felt so inadequate not only as a person but as a woman and also an artist. It felt hard as a woman. We’re fed such contradicting words. We’re just conditioned to feel self-conscious. And making my art which was combining the two – something very glossy and commercialised (how we’re supposed to look in the eyes of the false advertising world) versus the honesty and imperfections of painting and moving paint around, was very interesting to me. It was a meeting of the two binaries, it was my life visualised – it was like I didn’t really realise until this happened, until I had my graduate work. Everyone commented that it was strong, but I wasn’t trying to tick boxes, but rather trying to connect the dots in my own life. And that to me is what makes a good artist. Their work is connecting dots in their own life. It’s always about the artist and the self. So it was interesting. The process of moving on and being in a different city changes the way you work and see things. If you’re away from home, you’re always going to be thinking not just about your own life, but about your work. So it’s a part of being a creative, you’re always putting pressure on yourself because you’re constantly questioning everything. We’re programmed to self-critique: “why is this like this, why am I like this?” If you add your own mental health or insecurities into it, or allow them to take over, it can be really overwhelming.
RT: Do you think it’s important to speak up about mental health in a public arena?
JC: I think it’s important for platforms like this one (Real Talk Project), which is a safe space where you won’t be judged. It’s so easy to feel so much but we as creatives are still always tapped as overly emotional types, like we don’t have real jobs. The stereotype is that we don’t work that hard, but we have to work twice as hard, we have no stability and are putting our whole selves into our work. There’s no switch on and off, making it very easy to get too in your own head. Especially on this trip, I’ve had moments where I’ve just met someone, and I’ve felt like I wanted to pour everything out, which can be a lot to put on people, so you need to be careful. It’s hard being emotional and putting yourself into everything you do all the time. Which is why it’s so important to have safe spaces where there’s no judgement, and you can tell the truth.
For me, if people can look at my work, and what I have to say and can think, “I can relate” and “you’ve helped me”, then that’s all I want. But at the same time, there has to be a balance. Especially this year, I’ve been doing so much talking but not much making that’s relevant or personal enough for me. So in speaking about it, I still don’t feel like it’s enough because I’m not delivering all I want to deliver. So it’s a catch-22. But it’s really important to have the safe spaces to put your whole self on the table and get it out of your body, which takes a lot of bravery and courage. Creatives are the last people to say that: they’re the hardest on themselves. If you’re feeling too much, too overwhelmed or very self-conscious about what you’re doing in a new city, it’s easy to not feel like you can make anything. I had a few weeks of not knowing what to do. You have moments where you overthink everything and forget that it’s something that comes naturally.
RT: What’s one of the biggest challenges of being a creative dealing with mental health?
JC: One of the cycles of being a creative is that if I’m loving what I’m doing, I end up overthinking it, then fear what others think. Then I realise I don’t care so much what people think so I go back to making it and it becomes a cyclical thing. And the further from home comforts, the more intense it feels. It’s ok to feel drained though. Going on big trips or doing big things, it’s all self-discovery really. Sometimes you put too much pressure on yourself to be doing everything in that moment, but really the benefit of that experience is only felt post-experience. So you leave it and reflect, and look at everything that’s happened, then you have the capacity to create. It’s real time research.
I’m also so aware. I wish sometimes I was less aware, I’ve never been at a point in my life where I’ve questioned so much and thought so deeply about things. It’s all happening at once and is so full on. I feel like I’ve lived two separate lives – going to a foreign place is very liberating, I had a huge overwhelming sense of freedom when I first arrived, free of everything people think of me, but at the same time I went from the elation of freedom, to complete isolation, because everyone’s so busy here and I can’t see my friends, and it’s the rat race. It’s almost like bipolar, you feel everything in full effect, the highs and lows. You learn to balance out the feelings but it’s so hard, especially in constantly “on” cities like London. It’s hard to find the balance and neutrality to just stop.
RT: What’s next?
JC: I’m not sure what my life is going to look like – it’s blurry. It’s a funny feeling like I don’t have a clear path of what next year looks like, I’ve been trying hard to figure it out, but I just don’t know, the unknown is scary, but having said that, I have a goal in mind and that’s to get back to London as soon as I can. I have so much to do in the meantime, which is terrifying and exciting all at once.