Look through a window into Sam Cowley’s imagination and you’ll discover a place of childlike wonder.
His mind – like his sketchbooks – are filled with whimsical characters inspired by life, his three young girls, and the human condition.
“Kids have this really beautiful view of the world when they are young,” says the Williamstown artist.
“The connection between them and magic is a lot closer and a lot more tangible.”
Sam’s ability to tap into this fantasy world has inspired his signature characters, Little Adventurers, as well as interactive art installations like the Story Tree.
“Drawing is magical,” says the Vintage Art Prize winner. “I can literally think of anything and bring it to life.
“It’s not the flower, not the vase – it’s the fairy sitting on the flower, the dwarf hiding behind the vase.
“It’s what kids see that’s not there.
Sam’s talents extend far beyond illustration and graphic design, although he’s highly accomplished in both.
“I describe myself as an illustrator but at my core I’m a storyteller,” says Sam, who is dyslexic.
“It’s really important to connect the images to story – that’s how you get art to people, to kids.
“(Little Adventurers) are not connected to pop culture – they are all new characters – and they all come with a story.”
While his illustrations are playful and bright, they are also a response to Sam’s life experiences and vulnerabilities.
He speaks openly about the challenges of working as a paediatric nurse for 10 years, and his exposure to what he describes as “the reality of the world, the best and worst of it.”
“You see cause and effect in a raw way,” explains Sam.
“Some people shed that easily. I absorbed it and carried it with me. When I lost a patient I would struggle to let go of the trauma. Eventually I couldn’t do it anymore.”
For Sam, art has been a way of reconciling adversity and seeking light among the darkness.
“It’s a very challenging space to step into,” he says.
“It’s a way of dealing with that dark, the trauma and loss.
“To me, art is a warm space, a safe space, a place of wonder, and we make magic in it.”
His characters are also a reflection of his value system and core beliefs around equality and inclusion.
It’s no accident his heroines are brave, independent and adventurous.
“I’m making a conscious choice to push female representation in my books, regardless of the role,” he says.
“To me it’s important and it’s a standard I want to work to.”
He also believes art plays a critical role in supporting children’s mental health and wellbeing.
His workshops and art classes for primary school children are intended to empower, inspire and provide positive emotional scaffolding.
“There’s a tipping point with creativity and adulthood; we tend to take it down as we head through adolescence,” Sam says.
“My art classes are a response to that, supporting those creative building blocks that are essential to health and wellbeing.
“We need to build a positive culture around art, especially in country communities. Art is for creativity what ovals are to sport.”
Sam’s latest creative adventure, Wildwoods, has taken him to new territory, metaphorically and literally.
The interactive installation was inspired by his family’s travels across eastern Australia shortly before Covid hit.
“I don’t know what started it, but I began recording the sounds of nature as we went,” recalls Sam.
“I caught a drought breaking in Goobang National Park – it was the first storm to go through in 10 years.
“The country was burning and the fact that it was pre Covid added to the story…it was a time before the world changed.”
Through the use of touchboard technology, Sam sought to recreate an immersive sensory experience of simply being in nature.
“We become disconnected from going out and being silent in nature,” explains Sam.
“I wanted to create that experience for families, for them to take ownership of that space and relax into it.
“By becoming part of it, their story becomes entwined in it.”
Sam continues to push the boundaries and redefine traditional perceptions of what art is.
His current cardboard-based installation in the Art Gallery of South Australia is a reflection of that adaptive thinking; of art as an experience.
“I’m also interested in that crossover between art and technology, how far we blur the lines and what the future looks like as far as art goes,” Sam says.
“For me (professionally), I would love to see the interactive elements of what I do and the exhibition part of what I do really grow, to have space to push that.”