Michael Cook’s Journey of Discovery
Greatness comes from the heart, not the expectations of success.
That’s artist Michael Cook’s story.
Your first collection of work is not supposed to be chosen by the National Gallery of Australia.
A young artist is supposed to spend years banging on gallery doors.
Yet that’s what happened to Michael Cook.
In the space of six years the Sunshine Coast artist has gone from having never participated in an art exhibition to seeing his works collected by every significant public collection in Australia, and many overseas.
He has also been included in numerous important exhibitions in Australia, Asia, America and Europe.
And this is from someone who was adopted at the age of three weeks. Who got his first break at the age of 14 working in a one-hour photo lab and spent years trying to find his natural mother as well as discover more about his Aboriginal heritage.
Brisbane art collector Andrew Baker, who first realised Cook’s potential, said that not only was he arguably one of the most significant Australian artists of his generation he was definitely “one of the most significant that this region has produced for some time.’’
Jane Deeth, judge of the 2016 Sunshine Coast Art Prize that saw Cook take out first prize, said there are a number of ways for making art.
Describing the real world as we see it. Expressing feelings. Arranging forms and lines and colours and contrasts.
She felt Cook’s winning entry, Tennis, from his Mother series, brought this field of possibilities together.
“And then for me did a further thing – that is, told me a story.’’
Cook, together with Sydney-based artist Natalya Hughes, had an exhibition at Caloundra Regional Gallery until February 26, 2017.
Mother is the most recent series by Cook, while All of Your Women and Some of Mine presents paintings from a recent series by Hughes which examine representations of the female form.
Mother is a journey through 13 images of a woman in a deserted Australian landscape.
The ‘mother’ is always alone, her baby absent, although evidence of a child remains in the empty pram, abandoned toys on the hopscotch court, the slackness of the skipping rope.
Tennis, which forms a centrepiece for the exhibition, is a beautifully constructed and skilfully realised image, Deeth maintains.
“One that invites us to examine every detail very closely from the very near foreground to the deep and wide distance.
“On an expressive level we can feel the emotion – the profound sense of loss and longing that is not only descriptive of a particular moment but which tell stories from the most personal to the most political, and connect to memories and histories that continue to haunt the present. A lot is held in that tiny floating tennis ball.’’
In the Mother exhibition, Caloundra Regional Gallery curator Hamish Sawyer sees “a series of deeply personal work by the artist.
“The images speak openly to Australia’s Stolen Generation and evoke the powerful relationship between a mother and child.’’
Yet the power of Mother comes not from what the viewer takes from the images but from what they put or read into it … their stories.
As Cook points out, it is not the story of the stolen generation – it is his story.
Adopted at the age of three weeks after being born to an Aboriginal father and white mother, the artist has made it he turns the stolen generation on its head.
Instead of focussing on the practice in which children of indigenous backgrounds were taken away from their families by governments, churches and welfare bodies to be brought up in institutions or fostered out to white families, it’s about the natural mother searching for the child she never had, the child searching for its true identity and the story of the adoptive mother.
The Sunshine Coast has been Cook’s home for the past 28 years.
At the age of 14 he was given a job by Clive and Lyn Lowe at Express Photos in Bulcock Street, Caloundra.
That proved to be the start of a career in photography.
“I worked in the darkroom there for six years. Clive and Lyn also had an on-site studio, where I learnt a great deal about lighting and it was for also there that I shot my first wedding.
“Those early years working with Clive and Lyn are the foundation of the artworks I now create.”
Weekend work taking wedding photos proved a turning point. In 2007-08 he put some fashion inspired shoots together using wedding dresses.
The next thing a publisher of a bridal magazine in New York was looking for enough images to fill six pages of the publication that went to 26 countries.
“In 2009, I decided to explore my identity through photography and created my first art project Through My Eyes,’’ he said.
It was Andrew Baker in Brisbane who advised him to spend a year working on the collection.
That series received a great response and the next minute Cook had six gallery directors looking at his work.
“It wasn’t supposed to happen this way.
“It took a long time to realise my story is the story.’’
Cook was adopted by a Hervey Bay family and only met his birth mother Val 17 years ago.
“My niece and nephew, who were adopted by my sister, are both of Thai origin. It is for this reason and many more that Mother can be viewed from a multitude of angles.
“My partnership with Andrew has given me the opportunity to continue to work on projects which interest me and also give me a better understanding of my indigenous identity.
“Having been adopted virtually from birth, this was an issue I was compelled to explore as I grew older.’’
“Mother is a project which started out with a focus on Australia’s stolen generations.
“However, along the way, it took a number of turns and ended up as a more personal exploration about the detachment of a mother from her child.”
This series explores the thoughts and feelings experienced by the child, the biological mother and the adoptive mother.
These works can be viewed from numerous angles, many of which have a personal connection for the artist.
Speaking about the Through My Eyes collection, he said it was not normal to have the National Gallery of Australia buy your first works.
Neither is it normal to have Prime Ministers overlaid with Aboriginal stories.
Through My Eyes portrays Australia’s prime ministers from Edmund Barton in 1901 to Julia Gillard in 2010, through an indigenous gaze.
The series asks the viewer to rethink the way they view history and we are often asked to see these significant Australian faces through someone else’s perspective, through Aboriginal eyes.
By overlaying Aboriginal faces, with focus on the eyes, the viewer is asked to consider history with a better understanding of its meaning.
“We didn’t learn anything about Aboriginality at school.
“But we don’t have to know everything about Australian history. There are people from so many backgrounds.’’
Cook’s transition from commercial photography to fine art came about after realising that shooting weddings on weekends was not where he wanted to be.
So in 2007-08 he put some fashion inspired shoots together using wedding dresses.
“It gave me the process of what I use now … access to make up and hair stylists.
“I’m the type of person who will get on the phone and start ringing, to get what I want.
“So I got on Google … asked a publisher of a bridal magazine in New York if they were interested in a shoot from Australia.’’
The response was: “We have got your number.’’
And they hung up.
Ten minutes later, a lady rang to say, “I have just stopped the presses. There are six pages to fill. How quick can you send them?’’
The artist sent them straight away. The magazine went to 26 countries.
The thought in the back of his mind at that time was one of hope.
“As I got into the fashion industry I completely lost control of the shoots I wanted to do, especially at the high end.
“Dealing on international level, you are up against top photographers.
“The reason I went into art – as well as discovering my own identity – was control of the shoot.
“You realise how much you can change peoples’ perspectives over a range of issues.
“People could take their time, ask a lot of questions.
“That inspired me to do more work. It’s really nice to hear audience opinion.
“You can hear 20 or more opinions.’’
Listening and learning have been qualities the artist combines in life as well as his work.
In the Mother collection, the images look naturalistic yet they are highly composed.
“Fashion taught me to work under any conditions, even in the studio,” he says.
“I like the ’60s feel. I was born then and a lot then happened in indigenous issues.
“If I ask questions, rather than forcing a message on someone … it’s letting the audience find it in their own time.’’
Virtually born in a darkroom, Cook believes that even though he works digitally it’s about making it look original.
Each one is imbued with a lifetime of experience.
The haunting images in the Mother series were determined by the layering of landscape, the models and the props – items that resonated with his life.
He works like an artist, starting with a blank canvas.
The hardest part is beforehand, developing the thoughts.
Mother started with the stolen generation and the idea was to have white babies following the female elders from a remote community in Central Australia through the bush.
Cook liked the idea but felt it didn’t look right. So he brought his own story into it.
“My adoptive mother, my natural mother. Her stories. The idea was supposed to be having a child in the shoot but it is not there.
“My adoptive mother had strong views about Aboriginal rights and this gave me a good understanding of my ancestry and the reasons for my adoption.
“She explained how my biological mother had only been 16 years old when she became pregnant. Being a teenage single mother living in a small country town in the late 1960s, conservative views within the community meant she was expected to offer me up for adoption.
“I now have a very close relationship with my biological mother and she has lived next door to me for the past seven years.
“I create artwork about indigenous issues, past and present, and how the past relates to the present and virtually moulds the future.
“I’m not sure where I belong or whether I really need to belong anywhere.
“Put simply, I’m a person of mixed ancestry – some of which is indigenous.
“Who am I? Where do I belong? Does it really matter?
“Probably not to me. I have a family and a strong connection with the area where I was raised; I have a biological affiliation to a place I have never seen.
“I look at the big picture. I am an Australian; I tell my stories to Australians of all races and also to those beyond our shores. I am part of the human race.
“I am part of Australia’s diverse multicultural population and I know my story echoes those of people like myself as well as those of different backgrounds. Aboriginal people are extremely diverse, our country’s history has ensured this – we are who we are.
“Circumstances from the past have made me who I am today and I’m here to share my story.’’
As well as the Andrew Baker Gallery Brisbane, Cook credits Dianne Tanzer and This is No Fantasy Gallery Melbourne for the making of him as an artist.
In 2012 Cook took Broken Dreams to London, an exhibition that tells the journey through the eyes of a young Aboriginal woman reflecting upon the first European settlers in Australia.
“I thought they understood our history. They didn’t. There was no mention of Aboriginals.
“I was angry yet they said few Britons would know their own history from 200 years ago.
“It was a learning experience. I knew from London I had to open it up more.
“In Hong Kong, people would come up to me and tell me their stories. I knew I had hit something good when I started hearing that.
“Others will see it from their own experiences.
“It’s a difficult thing but also really nice to have an indigenous project that people from other cultures can see it … and not always from an indigenous perspective.
“I don’t label my own work. Others do. It is an indigenous story but it’s however people see it.
“I am thinking of doing a series looking at life through other people’s eyes, by putting yourself in their shoes.
“Like Captain Cook said when he first set eyes on the indigenous Australians: ‘Maybe they are happier than we’.”
Michael Cook’s story is one in which he has been able to re-connect with his background and tell his story.
In effect, he is like his work: Different layers that all go to make a fascinating picture.