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Animal kingdom

The realistically surreal creatures of Joe Coffey

- Words by Sean McIntyre Photography by Don Denton

Joe Coffey strives to get to know his subjects before setting his brush to canvas. Though this might be a commonplace approach among artists, complicating Joe’s task is that his subjects are most often four-legged members of the animal kingdom.

The Victoria-based artist usually begins by looking through countless reference photos. Scrolling through images of creatures both domestic and wild, Joe awaits a spark of inspiration.

“The expression is always key for me and something inside me thinks I can tease it out more and work with it into a painting,” he says. “And then, once I get started, it feels like an excavation of sorts. That might sound strange, but I feel like I am actually looking for some kind of personality to appear, and when that happens, I always have this voice in my head that says, ‘Ah, there you are, nice to meet you.’”

Working in a studio that slowly evolved in his apartment’s living room, Joe brings his animals to life with a realistic style that is in sharp contrast to the abstract backgrounds or settings within which they are cast.

Joe’s paintings incorporate a tangible sense of drama, brought about by his intentional positioning of his subjects. In many of his works characters are looking “off screen” towards something unknown and unseen by the viewer. Sometimes his backgrounds allude to a larger scene. It’s also very rare to see an entire animal pictured on his canvas, adding further intrigue to the imagining of what could lie just beyond the edge.

“I have never been interested in depicting my subjects in what you might think of as their normal environment. I find removing them from that heightens them somehow, setting them in this very simple background with perhaps an abstract element,” he says. “[My subjects] well and truly are actors and models for me, and I create what I like to think of as theatrical tableaux. Freezing them in such a way that there is a hint of a narrative happening, or even just a visceral feeling when you look at it, is what I am trying to do,” Joe says.

“I keep working at a painting until I have that feeling I just described within myself; it is a feeling more than a distinct complicated conceptual idea. Once I get that, I know I am on the right track, and then I send it out into the world and hope others respond in the same way.”

“I tend to have an initial vision of how it will work, but then the magic happens when I come up against things that might not be working when I see it on the canvas, and so I have to adjust and make things up as I go to keep the painting moving forward.

“It is often really interesting when I look at the finished result compared to my initial idea. I even admit to patting myself on my own back when I see it is so much stronger than my initial idea,” he adds with a chuckle.

In addition to doing commissions, which include both animal and human subjects, Joe has an ever-expanding body of work that you can see through his website (

Here in Victoria he is represented by Madrona Gallery, where some of his work is currently exhibited. He is also working towards a solo show for that gallery that will occur in early 2024. Closer at hand is his participation in the annual Deck the Walls group art show, also with Madrona, which opens in early December.

“I’m quite excited about the ideas I have for them and, as usual, a bit daunted about the execution. Always good, that feeling,” he says, adding with a smile, “It keeps me honest in my effort.”

Story courtesy of Boulevard Magazine, a Black Press Media publication
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