Words & Portrait Kirk Truman
“You’ve got to believe in yourself, otherwise what is there? Life is just black and white, you have to add colour to it.”
Walking past the many coffee shops of Fitzrovia you may notice the local illustrator Alexandria Coe. You may first hear the scratching of a pencil and then the sweep of a brush. It will draw not only your attention but your self on a page. Undistracted by the passing of people, wailing of sirens and mindless routines that blow through the roadsides and cobbles of Fitzrovia, a young girl is observing, drawing and illustrating; the twitching of a nose; the floating of an eyelash; common gestures; the very nature of reality we assume is pure subjective fantasy. Great Portland Street, autumn 2011, on a Sunday evening, in amongst the crowds that gathered as a fight broke out in a supermarket I met a young lady who turned out to be my neighbour – a creative and close friend. Meet Alexandria Coe, or ‘CoCo’, the illustrator in the frame.
Alex was born in 1990. Her parents were educated in art. She grew up in Colchester, Essex, surrounded by creativity. This environment led to something that gave her direction in life. “Both of my parents went to art school, it’s always been natural that there would be art books out, there would be art documentaries on the television, we would go and look at art. We were generally around people who were also interested in art. I guess, I didn’t appreciate until now I’m older and I have to go and buy my own art products how much I could have for free. My dad had an entire set of oils and acrylics. I was never pushed, but always encouraged. In some respects I wish I had been pushed – that’s just my personality. I spent my childhood drawing and being creative, it has always been quite natural. I’ve got sketchbooks from when I was really tiny. I’ve always drawn people and animals more than anything.” Alex describes herself as coming “to London to study at Chelsea, I haven’t turned back since.” She studied textile design at Chelsea College of Arts, though this wasn’t the route she decided to go down. She learnt about the design process, about how to look for inspiration, how to be a creative worker and her own critic. “I wish I would have done an illustration course, because I would’ve had the contacts and not be doing a portfolio now. In another respect, my course taught me how to push myself and how to say ‘no, that’s not good enough.’ We were constantly taught, ‘how can I improve this, how can I make it better, how can I make this be improved upon?’ So, rather than improving your own style, it was about making something completely new, or evolving something. I think, in that sense it built me up to be the person I am now. It wasn’t really that different, half of the course was drawing. It was drawing interpretation onto fabric; it’s just your end product and what you’re thinking about at the end that is very different. It’s much more either commercial or fine art. Because it’s a three-dimensional object, you are thinking very different about your market and everything. It feels much more natural to me when it’s just pen and paper.”
Like most, she didn’t know exactly what she wanted to do; having had numerous levels of experience in textile design, including an internship with Liberty of London. “I wanted other people to see my work. I think that’s maybe why illustration appealed to me. I think that’s why I loved my internship with Liberty of London, because when I did the window displays I always thought about how many people saw them every day. It’s about having that audience participation, which is great. When I was there, and I remember a woman painting the flowers in the beauty room, I fantasised about wanting that job.” Throughout her course she knew that illustration was her passion, most importantly her strong point. “In a selfish way we always tend to only want to do things that we think we’re good at. Underneath it all, even if an artist says ‘this is rubbish, this isn’t good enough,’ they always know they’re good at something. This is what I think I’m good at. I never felt confident at textiles, though I still got great grades. I didn’t feel confident, but I still got a degree from Chelsea. You need to have a mindset that says ‘I am the best’.”
Her illustrations have one very distinct element of consistency which tells of a very personal relationship between herself and her work: Alex only draws women and the female body. “Because I am a woman I think it’s easier to get into that mindset and I generally enjoy drawing the shapes that make up a woman, there’s a lot of fluidity to it. Even for somebody who doesn’t do it as their focus, it is much more natural drawing a woman than it is a man. I draw stories that are in my head more than anything, like characters. Obviously as a young child you often live in a fantasy world of what you’d like life to be. It’s often been little characters that I’ve drawn in my head.” Her work is inspired by her surroundings, the people that walk among us, the things we see; from the stranger on a train, the whispering woman alone, an image that captivates her imagination, anything can find itself the subject of her work. Alex enjoys drawing a range of things and making the subject her own style, despite her preference and passion being to draw fashionable women: “It just matches how I respond to the paper,” she says.
Today, her sole income comes from producing her illustrations. Alex works freelance, mostly producing illustrations for websites. With her ‘pencil for hire’ she creates, on request, illustrations to suit a brand or service. “I work with a range of companies. It’s an industry all about making contacts. It’s about who you know and who you don’t.” Though do not be fooled by these quotes of confidence: Alex is strong, yes, but she is in no way afraid to admit that she has been through hard times in her life. Though, really, I suspect that this remarkable artist, in times of gloom, turns to her empty pages to draw the positive, and truly escape. She says, “I think the old fashioned phrase is ‘you do what you love, you love what you do’. You just kind of get to a point where you’re just like ‘no, I want to do this’. I wanted to make this my path. I think otherwise I’d end up going off into every other path in life. You have to follow your dream in a really sad way. I used to read all those quotes and think that’s just silly. You’ve got to believe in yourself, otherwise what is there? Life is just black and white, you have to add colour to it.”
Alex needed the security of a familiar place and headed for central London. Despite never having previously explored the area she found a home in Fitzrovia through pure luck and coincidence on Wells Street in 2011. “I’d never really explored this area before, you feel very special when you find little quirky spots in somewhere so central. For somewhere you so associate with a shopping district, you suddenly realise it has all of these little creative holes. It’s the people, there’s no central landmark that says ‘this is great’. It’s the vibrancy of the people, that’s what inspires me and that’s why I draw people, I’m kind of obsessed with it.” I begin to talk to her about what the area means to her, what makes Fitzrovia Alex’s home? “I would say it is the influx of coffee shops!” she laughs, “either creative people like working alone or around buzz. I think I thrive off that buzz. Every day is different and it is quite nice that you can be a complete stranger yet feel like you’re in a community. Especially around here, not everybody who walks along Tottenham Court Road and Oxford Street has found these little pockets in our Fitzrovia.”
Something tells me it is fate that Alex found the blank page as an outlet for her talent. “I remember going to primary school and everyone being asked to draw a self-portrait of what they wanted to be when they grew up and put it on the wall. Even then I drew myself as an artist.” With every illustration, CoCo reflects women in their day to day lives, however, she says that it is every illustrators dream to draw a children’s book. Behind every line, every movement of her brush is a subtle reflection of herself on the page. Alex is very much at home in her illustrations, truly she finds comfort in her frame and Fitzrovia.