Monday, April 4, 2011

Artist to Artist: Julie Cozens

Artist to Artist is a regular feature for still life 365. Through a dialogue about the creative process, grief, loss and art, the idea is to learn more about the art you see on still life 365 and the mother, father or family member creating it. In turn, we hope you learn more about your own art, creative process and grief. Artist to Artist a regular monthly feature of this blog space. If you have an artist that you would like to learn more about, or interview, please email me.

Julie Cozens' son Thomas was born with many complications in October 2007. He lived 135 days and died in February 2008. I can't rightly remember when I met her, but I know that early in my grief and journey I became acquainted with her. Julie has explored poetry, photography, art and graphic design at still life 365. I began watching Julie's work come into my inbox in the early months of this project. Julie’s first submission was poetry, and she started off the “about this piece” section with, “I don’t usually write poetry, but…” And that defines Julie’s creative journey—she is brave, honest, and innovative. Julie joined community poems, mid-month challenges and submission calls whenever they came through the pipeline. When I put the call out for a guest editor position, Julie was the first person to respond. “I don’t usually edit, but I would love to try.” That epitomizes Julie.

It is my great pleasure to introduce April's guest editor. We decided to kick off the month by having an artist to artist conversation, so you can get to know her a little better. We talked recently about art, creativity and grief.

Hi, Julie, thanks for agreeing to talk to me about art and grief. Let me just first say how sorry that Thomas is not with you.

Thanks Angie, it's a pleasure to have this chat. I am very sorry that your Lucy is not with you too.

Can you tell us a bit about your son and family?

Thomas is the fourth of my children. I have four sons, the eldest being born in 1984, then another in 1986 and my youngest surviving child born in 1996 before Thomas who was born in 2007. I think I am one of the oldest Mums in this community with a recent loss, I am now 47 years old. I am married to Dean and he is Thomas' Dad. Dean has no surviving children. Dean and I live with one teenager, two Irish Terriers (Doug and Erin) and one Tenterfield Terrier (Bella). We live in a large suburb of Melbourne, Australia. It's near many beaches. My eldest children live in their own homes with their partners. They are very busy, but they usually catch some time with me on the phone or in person most weeks.

I always like to kick off these chats with just a brief overview of how art played a role in your life before Thomas died. I have to say that we have been sharing your art for over a year now. So many people connect with your work. You have submitted poetry, photography, digital artwork, even a grief sudouko. You work in so many medium.  Is that something you always did, or are you exploring more medium? Do you have a medium that you gravitate towards?

I have always been a sewer, my first love of art was designing and sewing clothes for my doll Giggles, I got a hand driven Singer sewing machine for my 10th birthday. I still have my doll Giggles, she has 1973 stamped on her bottom. As I became a teenager and playing with dolls was not cool anymore, I discovered a love of painting and drawing through art class at high school. I also did Graphic Art and Photography. I have loved photography ever since. Then as a young adult, I started a career as a Draftsman / Tracer in the Engineering field. I love drawing plans, it's like dreaming on paper. Over the years I have drawn countless plans for things that never happened except for inside my head. Most recently I have been redesigning my backyard. It hasn't happened yet either because I am still saving money but it will happen. I also draft my own clothing patterns and make clothes that I design, I haven't done any of that since Thomas died. I want to make a quilt out of all his clothes, but I can't bring myself to unpack the boxes, yet. I knit and crochet too. My art in the past usually appeared whenever I had some fabric and scissors or some yarn and a hook.

As for art for me today, it mostly revolves around photography and writing. I have been doing some drawing lately too. This blog has really prompted me to "do" art, simply because I wanted to share in the experience, to feel included, found, home.

Art does feel like home to me too. I love what you say about how drawing plans is like dreaming on paper. That is beautiful.  How do you think your art has changed because of your grief? And how do you think your grief has changed because of your art?

Grief has changed my art. I see it as being more purposeful now. Before it was quite willy nilly (Australian slang term meaning all over the place or random). Basically I did whatever took my interest at the time. But anything can be art, I think art is an expression of your soul that comes via your hands or body. I have been a single parent for much of my life so the necessary things in life became my medium, like gardening, cooking and sewing.

My grief has a voice since I have been artistically expressing it. I think it is so important to have a voice, to know who you are. While I don't believe I am defined by Thomas' death, my life has been shaped by his life and death and the consequences of both. Having a voice is a way of exploring who I am inside my grief. My grief was so unexpected. I don't think anyone I know could have predicted my grief reaction, it took me completely by surprise, I am normally a "take it all in my stride" kind of person. I am usually the dependable one, not easily panicked, I am normally always calm. I find that writing is like cleaning the wound inside me.

I am not a trained writer and sometimes I wonder if I will ever be able to write smooth flowing expressions like the ones I read on other blogs. Probably not.

As much as creating art has been part of your grief, viewing art becomes part of this journey too. How has  connecting with other grieving artists helped you?

There are so many amazing artists out there and so many unique ideas that I can learn (steal) from. Sometimes I see something and it stops me in my tracks, some things are so raw, or innocent, or simple, or complex, or heartbreaking and I am thinking of photographs, prose, sculpture and craft that I have seen here on stilllife365. And Angie, when I first saw that you were going to post a year of art by grieving families I didn't think of myself as an artist in a contributing way. I sort of saw myself as a copying type of artist, but when you asked for two lines in the community poem a couple of words leapt to my mind and so I had the confidence to try. Then you asked for a photo and I had one already on my computer. You have made it easy for me to join in and belong, so I must say that connecting with you has been a huge boost to my confidence.

I think comments are really important too because a comment might be the difference between someone deciding whether or not to submit art ever again. A comment creates a connection, it says "I'm feeling your space", or "you touched me" or "I acknowledge your pain", it's connections that matter.

I couldn't agree more. Comments make this place extraordinary. Thank you for reminding us of that. I think that I had a lot of hopes for this space, but one was that it was a space that freed grieving parents from the "paralysis of perfection" as Rachel from Curls O' Fred calls it, or the voice of self-doubt. Just let themselves be free to explore grief in a different language, the language of art and poetry. I really wanted still life 365 to be a community, and it has exceeded every expectation I had of it.

I take my hat off to you Angie, this blog was a great idea. I am very glad you came up with it.

Also, thank you so much for agreeing to guest edit for the month of April. I understand you have a theme for the month. Can you tell me a little bit about the theme you chose and why you chose it?

Thanks Angie, this is great fun I am glad that I put my hand up to have a go. The theme of the month is water. I have chosen it because I live near water and it is part of my daily life. I can see water from my street. I am drawn to the water nearby, whether it is the ocean beaches or either of the bayside beaches, whenever we go on an outing it's usually to water. I find it is so intimately tied with grief also. Long reflective walks are more reflective and longer at the beach. I write Thomas' name in the sand at beaches and take photos. And I also have a picture of the one Carly Dudley wrote in the sand in Western Australia. I wonder how many of us babylost parents who read this blog have one of her pictures.

I would imagine hundreds. Maybe all of us. When I first came on the scene, Carly was the only one writing names anywhere. It was sacred to me to see Christian's beach and have my Lucy join the others there.

Yes, I remember feeling so special that a stranger would take the time out of her day to write his name and photograph it then blog it with the words I gave her. It's where I connected with other bablost bloggers that I still follow today.  I have many photos of Thomas' name written in the sand now and for some reason I have thousands of photos of the water too since Thomas died and I don't really know why.

For me, my walk with grief started around the same time that I was found to be carrying too much amniotic fluid. I didn't know why it was such a problem at the time and I didn't have a doctor who felt they needed to share the reason. I googled it because I didn't have the courage to ask. Thomas was floating in about 150% of the water he was supposed to have, and that was at 35 weeks gestation. At 36 weeks he had around 180%, by the time I had an emergency caesarian section at 37.6 weeks there was about 2 liters of fluid. Thomas was born with a birth defect called Oesophagael Atresia which meant that everything he swallowed came back out of his mouth. His Oesophagus  did not join his stomach and that is why he couldn't digest the amniotic fluid, so that is why it kept building up and building up. They couldn't see his OT in scans but they could see that the fluid was building up. The doctor had a good idea that something was wrong. Something pretty normal and uneventful spelled disaster for our baby Thomas.

I must say that the Children's hospital in Melbourne have expert surgeons who do Oesophagus repair all the time (around 15 to 20 a year). And it was pulmonary hypertension that caused Thomas' death but the pulmonary hypertension was bought on by the major surgery he had to undertake to have his Oesophagus repaired. Catch 22. Thomas put up a brave fight and had meningitis and pneumonia, a tracheostomy, a feeding tube (PEG), blood transfusions, a seizure and cellulitis, he was given every chance to recover but lost his battle after 4 and a half months in neonatal intensive care. It was an intense experience for us too.

A book that really impacted me not long into my new normal, was one called "Living on the Seabed" by Lindsay Nicholson.  There were many days I felt as though I was pinned to the ground by that suffocating crushing feeling of grief and my only view of the world was murky and distorted, it was as if I was lying on the seabed and trying to participate in life on the surface.

That was beautifully put, Julie. That is a great way to end today's chat. What an amazing theme and reason for coming to that theme. Thank you so much for talking to me and for guest editing this space. I can't wait to see and read what happens this month.

Thanks Angie, I feel that it's a privilege and I am going to do my best.

I am excited for the month of April, and I hope you are too. We will post Julie's theme post and community poetry challenge for April later today.


  1. So lovely to read. Just as it was to meet Julie in person a few weeks back. Thanks to you both for sharing your thoughts, and I'm looking forward to Julie taking over the reigns for a month. I wrote a post titled "Water" very early on, so it is a theme close to my heart.

  2. Glad to learn more about you Julie!


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