Record covers I have known

Moyra Elliott introduces us to Jim Cooper's engagement with ceramics, psychedelic pop and the dogged perseverence that led to the making of the spectacular Sgt P.

On first seeing Jim Cooper's ceramic installation Sgt P, you have the overwhelming impulse to rush home and excavate the old LP and check its cover - who stayed in, who didn't make the cut and who's filling whose boots?

The Dunedin artist's 130-piece installation was first exhibited as a solo exhibition at TheNewDowse in 2007 and subsequently toured the country, visiting Rotorua and Tauranga and ending up at Ponsonby gallery Whitespace, where all the works were offered for sale, over a year later. Every piece sold.

Sgt P is a risky riff, which loosely takes its format from the celebrated 1967 Beatles' album cover. Cooper enlarged it with more than 100 figures, drawings and tableaux, although the components changed as the show toured. The album's floral letters, palm trees and drum are still there, as is the multi-armed Vishnu arising from a floral circlet, but there are other figures too.

Cooper has always been interested in music and one day he spotted the poster for Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band in the music store Real Groovy and thought, "Gee, be great to make something from that". He decided to make the Fab Four with a garden in front but it was his colleague Madeleine Child who suggested trying to make the whole thing. He responded and in doing so learned how to plot big projects.

"I intended putting it into an empty shop in south Dunedin - mad but nice to have it there, unconnected to any gallery or anything, with Christmas lights and real flowers," he says.

Looking at Cooper's motley assembly, you check to see if he kept Marilyn, and what about Oscar Wilde, Fred Astaire, Karl Marx and Johnny Weissmuller? And where is that glamorous Diana Dors? Well, some are still there and others are replaced by folk Cooper preferred, like Buzz Aldrin, De Kooning's Woman without bicycle, The Queen, Osama Bin Laden and Mona Lisa. A multiplicity of ‘Beatles' are also present, including Blue Beatle, Orange Ring Eye and Spag Bol Beatle. Cooper has also inserted himself - as Self Portrait as Space Cadet with ghostly pallor and tongue firmly within cheek.

The denizens of the album cover are mostly serious with downcast eyes, recalling the serried ranks in old school photos, but Cooper's colourful figures have an energy that's entirely missing from the original image. They conjure another photographic format - that of the party photo spreads in the Sunday magazine gossip sections whose occupants crave attention; hands on hips they pose like Paris or Posh among the other wannabes. And perhaps it's that cry for 15-minutes' of fame that makes Sgt P contemporary rather than a nostalgic look back at acid and flowers. Cooper's crowd still percolates a flavour of 1967, only now.

Working mainly in clay, Cooper celebrates the hand-made with vigorously modelled figurative works, which read more like crayon scribbles than 3D objects. Though the ceramic sculptures in Sgt P are interspersed with cardboard cutouts and drawings, ceramic is central to Cooper's oeuvre and it would be difficult to over-estimate the challenges inherent in constructing these figurative works. While looking casual and loose, the figures are the result of complex techniques developed over years of dogged experimentation.

Where he grew up on the South Island's West Coast there was "a lack of exposure to art and everything really" and "art was not on the agenda," he says. "At school we had art class once a week but no one said ‘You can do this'. I didn't know art schools existed," says Cooper.

He became a postman after leaving school but was drawn to making things with his hands. "Fiddling with clay between drawing and dabbling" he saw a catalogue from a German Expressionist painting exhibition, which he found exciting and "kind of gave me permission to move things a bit".

Then, in 1985 he enrolled in the ceramics course at Otago Polytechnic School of Art and "found the atmosphere conservative and the library the most interesting place". There he came across the seminal article by Rose Slivka on Californian expressionist clay. Informed by the New York Action painters, the new movement encouraged spontaneity and an intuitive, gestural approach that amounted to uncharted territory for clay; the leader, Peter Voulkos, and his followers had entered ceramic legend. "They were partying and listening to jazz and working hard through the night making great stuff, and nobody before had so turned my lights on and I thought: so this is what's going on out there".

Returning to the West Coast after the one-year ceramic course Cooper found it hard to maintain energy but built a small coal-fired kiln and exhausted himself trying to increase his knowledge of firing and glazes. He wondered what he might be able to make that expressed his interests, "but I didn't really know what I was doing and didn't stumble across anything". Returning to Otago in 1989 to gain a diploma, he found "some kind of integration took place". He started making drawings, cutting them out and standing them up. "Jeez it was slow, and probably bloody obvious to anyone who passed my studio, but I suddenly realised I could make these things in the round. So off I went, but no one told me how to get there. All the pieces cracked of course."

Cooper steadily and painstakingly learned how to treat his clay so that the direst mishaps no longer plagued him. After completing a diploma he returned to the Coast with a determination to "give it a real bash".

Occasional disasters still happened. Once he began making a series of his figures and, finding no sawdust to knead in to leaven the clay body and reduce cracking under the stresses of firing, he used rice from the kitchen cupboard instead, thinking its bulk would produce the same effect and ‘open' the clay. When he opened his kiln "there was not a piece of clay left that was bigger than a cornflake". The rice had puffed up under the heat and exploded as the temperature rose, resulting in a pile of unrecognisable shards in the bottom of his kiln. "It was like I had invented ceramic scree," he says.

Cooper struggled on, incrementally learning how his figures might go together though he had little to draw on from his student days when "the emphasis was on pots rather than the sculptural… I was trying to project something different to how others were working figuratively. I was making sculpture, as I saw it, not figurines out of a wood kiln. I didn't feel connected to that pottery thing."

One day he had a revelation, realising he could make his figures in more than one section and that those parts didn't have to be made right-way-up. This was the breakthrough he'd sought. "I was finally away."

Almost ten years after gaining his diploma from Otago he set off around the country to see what responses he might get to his car-boot full of figures.

Cooper got nowhere in the craft world, which didn't understand his work, and the private art galleries were equally off-putting. "One dealer told me I was a folk artist and should make my works smaller. I couldn't get a show anywhere. I was doing it right at last and the figures were working; I had a houseful of them. No one wanted them. Finally the universe conspired in my favour and I was included in Not Bad, Eh! - a touring show from The Rotorua Museum of Art and History. Even if the show was about folk art and my work was next to the margarine dog, I didn't care, I was in a show."

Coincidentally, while Not Bad, Eh! was at the Dowse in 1995 Cooper visited the gallery with his boot still full of figures. He was on the last leg of his hitherto fruitless journey back to the Coast and this was his last call before boarding the Cook Strait ferry. The Dowse offered him a solo show and he has been exhibiting regularly since then.

In 2000 he returned to Otago to tackle his Master of Fine Arts degree and stayed in Dunedin where he began teaching part time at the Polytechnic, although now he works only one day a week due to his increasing exhibition commitments. In 2006 he entered the Norsewear Art Awards at the urging of colleague Madeleine Child, (who also lent him $50 for the entry fee) and won first prize for his work Snowy from Cavy. The award money allowed him to move into a former pickle factory beside the harbour on the way to Aramoana.

Cooper didn't have long to ponder his next move after Sgt P; he was offered an exhibition at Dunedin Public Art Gallery scheduled for late 2008. Assuming Sgt P would remain largely intact, he had decided some of its pieces might form the core of the Dunedin show. When that core disappeared he recalled the artist who made the original Beatles cover had also designed a cover for the Rolling Stones. Their Satanic Majesties Request must be the only record the Stones wished they'd never made because it was too close, in too many ways, to Sergeant Pepper. But for Cooper, the storytelling, dynamics and the copious amounts of plastic flowers and fruit on the Stones' cover are gloriously apposite. The record cover sits in his studio alongside a book of Buddhist pop-up shrines, some dog posters and the psychedelic cover of Cream's Disraeli Gears - all potential resources for the Dunedin exhibition.

He found the long tour of the mutable Sgt P installation difficult, trying to maintain the original concept as fresh ideas cropped up. For the Dunedin show he expects the same thing to happen, so it's only initially he "buys into that LSD cosmology".

How it will manifest at year's end he's not sure. "I was ready to move on by the time I'd finished making the 600 flowers alone, like ‘Oh yeah, 1000 pots with coloured glazes and gold lustre could get really beautiful…' Ceramic isn't papier mache with paint, it's a long-winded process, construction takes time, then drying, bisquing, glazing, but I like that. I like those demands and challenges; the time and the physicality of it allows change."

The new exhibition carries the title, Peppermints and Incense, from an album by Strawberry Alarm Clock. We shall see how it ends up.

Peppermints and Incense is at Dunedin Public Art Gallery until 1 February 2009.

Jim Cooper, Sgt P, 2007, ceramic installation at Whitespace. Photo: Haru Sameshima

From Left: Jim Cooper, Spag Bol Beatle; Marilyn Monroe; Blue Beatle, Orange Ring Eye, all 2007, ceramic

Clockwise from top left: Jim Cooper; Peppermints and Incense during packing; Peppermints and Incense (details), 2008. Photos courtesy of the artist and Dunedin Public Art Gallery

Jim Cooper, Peppermints and Incense, 2008 (detail). Courtesy of Dunedin Public Art Gallery