Courtney ‘Coco’ Presber is a self-taught artist working in various mediums including painting, drawing, collage, graphic design and, most recently, textiles.
We recently caught up with ‘Coco’ for a very timely interview about – among many things – the climate change crisis and the responsibility of artists as advocates.
What were you like as a kid? How did art fit into your upbringing?
I liked to play with my brother’s Ninja Turtle toys and build forts. I collected rocks (still do) and climbed trees. I didn’t grow up with artists in my family but my mother was a house painter and decorator. We had a sewing machine in the apartment I grew up in. I used to make clothing for myself from my mom’s old duds but they never fit right. I used to make beaded jewellery for my friends, I loved to bake, read, draw and colour…I was a crafty kid.
When did you realize that making art was your purpose and/or a viable career option for you and how did that alter your approach to art-making?
I don’t see art as a viable career option for myself. I live paycheque to paycheque. I have a job in the service industry like many other artists in this city. At one point I did have a graphic design position but that wasn’t enough to support me and give me the freedom I need to develop my art practice. I think a lot of artists have a hard time supporting themselves selling their work while maintaining artistic integrity. I make stuff because I like doing it.
Recently you produced some (amazing!) t-shirts in support of Tree Canada in order, in part, to bring attention to the issue of climate change. Why did this particular issue speak to you and what inspired you to start this fundraising effort?
I have known about the science behind climate change for a long time and have been grappling with the anxiety of remaining action-less in the face of such a huge crisis. On a sunny afternoon in July, a conversation with an informed stranger triggered an awakening and inspired me to act. This conversation was the catalyst for the t-shirt project.
This issue really speaks to me because, in my opinion, it is the biggest of our time. It is affecting every person, animal, plant, and organism on our planet. Some are more affected than others and we are globally not equipped to deal with rising sea levels, increasing forest fires and toxic air, all leading to health issues as well. There will be no art, love, family, friendship, joy or anything on a dead planet. I feel like a big value shift in our society needs to happen right now.
Who or what organization would you ideally like to work with in the future?
I’ve always been a fan of the David Suzuki Foundation and the Canadian Orca Rescue Society. I’d love to do an internship with renowned mushroom expert Paul Stamets. He has very compelling research on fungi and how they can be used to combat environmental degradation. I hope to continue making art that contributes to raising awareness about the climate crisis and other pressing environmental issues.
Why do you think that it’s important for artists to speak out about current issues?
I believe artists have a responsibility to advocate for issues that resonate with them. We have an audience and platform to do so, even if that audience is only a small number of people. Artists are the creators of culture. What we put out into the world affects it and my priority is to put out a positive message through my work and the way I live my life.
What other pertinent issues or topics are you impassioned about and how do you plan to incorporate them into your practice?
I’ve recently been interested in the healing powers of psychedelics. They have the ability to treat depression, anxiety, and substance abuse problems, while generating creativity and producing profound changes in consciousness. I’ve been considering making work (art) that might shift the social stigma against psychedelics in hopes that more people might benefit from their healing potential .
What power to change does art have today? Can you tell me about a time that you witnessed art making a change and how it affected you?
Artists are able to show you a different reality and that is powerful. Art gives you a glimpse into the way someone else experiences the world and that in turn generates empathy and expands your awareness. I really admire disabled artist Sharona Franklin and the influential advocacy work she’s doing. She is shining a light on the stigmatization that disabled people face. I think her commitment and compassion are inspiring.
Menus, zines, notebooks, t-shirts, street art, paintings…your mediums span the gamut, as do your applications (public art versus gallery exhibitions). Why is variety important to you? What is the underlying cohesive element that makes each piece uniquely or identifiably yours?
I am curious by nature and value learning and personal growth. Every medium and application has its own challenges and contributes to how I experience and use the other. For the Tree Canada project it was essential that I source second hand clothing and make use of clothing donated to me. I think experimentation is an important part of my work. I tend to use a lot of bold colour and incorporate salvaged materials.
What projects are your currently working on and/or are excited to tackle in the near future?
I’m excited to begin working on a series of paper mâché sculptures, using recycled newspapers and cardboard. I’ve named the painted tee/tree planting project the Positivity Exchange and I want to continue devoting my time to that. I’d like to expand into making objects and painting different items of clothing and to continue donating all sale proceeds to tree planting initiatives.
Let’s imagine a time in the future – say, 100 years from now – that someone is discovering your art for the first time. Without knowing anything about you, what do you think your art would tell them about the artist and Vancouver today?
“Paint what you can with the paint in your can.” – Mark Delong
I want to buy a Courtney ‘Coco’ Presber shirt. They are great !