By Cody Mello-Klein | [email protected]s.com
Art has never come easy to Rosemary Covey.
The long-time wood engraver and painter has spent the last 40 years at the Torpedo Factory with collections of her work on display around the world, yet the process of making her work hasn’t gotten easier. The challenge – the fear, “the edge,” in Covey’s words – is intrinsic to her work.
“You kind of have to skate this edge between being very uncomfortable and yet still being able to have the skills and be conscious yet almost unconscious at the same time,” Covey said. “As soon as you relax, the thing starts to not work. It can work, but it won’t have life to it.”
Given Covey’s preoccupation with death, fragility and the darker side of the natural world, the sentiment might seem at odds with her work, but her wood engravings and paintings come to life precisely because of that tension.
“My work has that duality to some extent,” Covey said. “It used to be what people always considered very dark with themes connecting to medicine and death and fragility. But out of that came a series of work that surprisingly had great, larger appeal.”
Covey was born in Johannesburg, South Africa in 1954, a time of intense social and political upheaval. She left the country at age 10 with her family because her father had been invited to pursue a Ph.D. in the U.S.
Covey’s formative memories of South Africa are still tinged with nostalgia – the memories of a child unaware of the time in which she was growing up, happy in the self-contained world of her family.
It’s also a nostalgia for the early days of her artistic curiosity. At five years old, Covey was expressing an interest in creative expression both in class and at home, where she worked on crafts with her grandmother.
“She had big boxes of scraps and we made things together all the time, so leaving South Africa was hard for me because she and I spent all our time together,” Covey said. “She was the biggest influence on my life ever.”
Covey and her family ended up moving to Ann Arbor, Michigan, where her father finished his Ph.D. at the University of Michigan. The family then moved to Ashfield, Massachusetts, where Covey’s father had secured a position at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
In Ashfield, Covey’s passion for the arts continued to blossom. An art teacher at Williston Northampton School introduced her to print engraving at the age of 14; Covey returned years later, after college, to learn wood engraving from the same teacher.
Covey was set on the path. She knew she wanted to make art, but, like many artists, she found barriers at every turn. Her parents warned her about the scary, impractical path of an artist. Collectors and artists openly questioned her ability at portfolio showings.
The cynics only strengthened Covey’s determination. Covey’s early career was defined by finding a way around the blockades that were thrown up around her, she said.
Covey’s parents refused to pay for her college education, so she left Cornell University after two years. At 18 years old, she married a man who helped support her artistic ambitions, but after divorcing at 21, Covey found herself in need of a way to support herself financially.
“Then I’m on my own at 22 and I have to make a living,” Covey said. “My parents were like, ‘Now you’re on your own.’ So, coming [to Alexandria] I started doing commissions and slowly it became my career and way of making a living.”
Covey immediately fell in love with Alexandria. The history and character of the city were captivating, and the detail of the streets was like catnip for a wood engraver, Covey said.
Wood engraving, at its most fundamental, involves carving an image into a block of wood, applying ink to the face of the block and pressing the ink onto a surface to leave an impression.
It’s a process that is easy to learn but difficult to master, partially because of the intense concentration it requires, Covey said.
“You can’t make a mistake and if you do, you have to incorporate it, which really creates that panic, nervous energy that I think propels work,” Covey said.
Prints created through wood engraving also need to be designed in reverse, since the print will be ultimately be a reverse image of the original design. The reverse engineering makes executing facial expressions difficult for many engravers, but Covey said her dyslexia helps.
“I have extreme dyslexia. I have problems with all kinds of simple tasks, but the reversing of things comes more naturally [to me] than it might [to others],” Covey said. “It’s very difficult to do facial expression and … to get a likeness of any sort when you reverse it, but it helps to have dyslexia.”
Covey came to the Torpedo Factory in 1976, two years after it opened as an arts center. Although she can trace thematic patterns in her work all the way back to those early days, her work has evolved creatively and procedurally.
Death and fragility are still at the core of her work, but Covey has started to find new ways to explore themes that have captivated artists forcenturies.
In collaboration with botanists, evolutionary biologists and entomologists, Covey now finds new inspiration in the natural world, the duality of decaying lifeforms and life under the microscope.
Her series called “Insects” came out of a residency at Blue Mountain Center in the Adirondacks. Combining printing and painting, Covey depicted the bodies of butterflies and dragonflies as beaten and bruised yet beautiful.
“[One entomologist] said, as a scientist, you see them under the microscope and they’re battered and beaten and their wings and their short life are scratched,” Covey said. “They’re not pristine. And what I had been noticing was that, as they lie dead, they strike these human poses.”
Another series of prints and paintings focused on fungi and lichens and the above ground beauty that masks monumental, monstrous rooted webs just below the surface, Covey said.
“I don’t do it, when I work with a scientist, to be an illustrator or scientific illustrator,” Covey said. “[I’m] not interested in that at all. I’m interested in what they can tell me that sparks my visual imagination.”
Covey’s science-inspired and research-driven work hasn’t been limited to just insects and mushrooms.
“David with Astrocytes (Brain Tumor 8)” was part of an intimate series of portraits that captured the eponymous David, a man Covey had met at her Torpedo Factory studio, in various stages of treatment for a brain tumor.
“He looked really haunted. … He’d had all this surgery and you could sort of see what happened behind his eyes, that something monumental had happened,” Covey said. “He hired me [and] I ended up working for him for three years to do a piece on his brain tumor experience.”
Collaboration has become an integral part of Covey’s process, whether it’s incorporating a partner’s scientific knowledge or pieces from fellow artists.
“The best thing in the world is to find other people that are crazy about what they’re doing and that fits with what you’re doing,” Covey said.
Her process has changed even as she uses the same tools. Covey said she’s still driven by the same unknowable passion to create that drove her when she was alone at 22.
“It’s the same exact thing and I still don’t know quite what it is,” Covey said. “You get the idea in your head and then you have to push it. And you’re hoping that you’re gonna push it and it’s going to be better than anything you ever did before. … Once I’ve done it, I’m not even concerned anymore. It’s getting it there.”