As a talented artist and animal lover with a fascination for linguistics, Jennifer Cossins has woven her way into the hearts and minds of both children and adults alike. A journey through the animal kingdom with her is like no other. “As a child I just loved animals. I had lots of pets and was always drawn to obscure animals in particular. I also loved art from a young age. It was my favourite subject at school…painting, drawing and photography all struck a chord with me.”
Combining her greatest passions ultimately gave rise to Red Parka, a celebration of all things colourful, kind and a little quirky. Ten years down the track, Jen is still best known for her bestselling book 101 Collective Nouns. The colourful collection of her bright and detailed animal illustrations continues to win over thousands of new fans every year. Favourite groupings such as a ‘flamboyance of flamingos’, ‘a wisdom of wombats’, and ‘an ostentation of peacocks’ never cease to delight readers the world over.
“I’ve always loved the English language too and have been fascinated by collective nouns for a long time. Many of them can be traced back to fifteenth century hunting traditions when knowing the correct term to describe what you were hunting, like a gaggle of geese, was essential amongst upper class society. Some of the more mysterious collective nouns have etymological roots in all sorts of different places, and some of the best known ones are actually believed to be errors in translation.”
Jen describes how at age 30 she had a ‘now or never’ moment. “It was one of those times in life. I was single, between jobs and things were just floating around. Nothing had particularly worked out how I had envisaged. I felt it was the right time to take a plunge and try making a go of things with my art. I knew that’s where my passion was.”
Starting small with a presence at local markets, Jen primarily began with cards and prints. “I was also working part time in bars and at festivals to fund my work. I guess it was the typical struggling artist story.” The turning point came when Jen decided to weave her love of collective nouns into her designs. “I’d worked as a copywriter and editor in the past and had developed a real love of collective nouns. As soon as I started combining them with my art, I discovered that others love these quirks of the English language too. I began with just a few…I remember owls and zebras were amongst the first…and then it just grew from there. Once I had about 20, I sat back and thought they would make a great book.”
The first edition of Jen’s signature work was titled A compendium of collective nouns and featured 50 designs. “I crowdfunded the publication of the first 1000 copies. Those early days involved a lot of mornings at Salamanca, and I also travelled far and wide to a range of other markets both here and on the mainland. The next run was of 5000, and then after that it was picked up by a publisher,” says Jen. “I later expanded it to 101 terms and updated the name accordingly.”
A born and bred Tasmanian, Jen’s now sharing her dream with wife Tracy, a fellow creative with a similar passion for the animal kingdom. “Of all the animals, I absolutely love birds,” Jen readily admits. “Both Tracy and I do. We are slightly obsessed with them,” she laughs. “Interestingly, for many birds, the collective noun to be applied depends upon whether the bird is on land, in flight, being hunted, or in some cases, swimming. For example ducks can have a variety of terms attributed to them such as a paddling, badling, a team, a brace or a flush. It’s fascinating.”
It’s clear that extensive research has been required to back Jen’s signature selection of nouns. “For many animals there is no one definitive word that can be used, and for others more than one term is considered correct. Where that occurs, I choose the one I like the sound of best. A good example is a journey of giraffes, as giraffes could also be correctly called a herd or a tower.”
Lost in the comfort of her home studio, Jen spends hours bringing her animals to life on a digital drawing tablet, with each new design taking up to several days to complete. “This is primarily how I work now,” she explains. “I can lose hours in here quite easily. It’s what I love to do most of all…it’s the perfect day. I make a coffee and then just get lost in drawing. My first book was all drawn by hand and then I had to go over everything in fine ink.” Intensely adding detail to a Japanese Grosbeak she adds, “I was initially resistant to going digital, however I have adjusted now and have found this tablet is as close as I can get to ‘normal’ drawing.”
“I love the detail,” she goes on to explain. “I can spend two hours on one feather, which sounds kind of strange but it’s true. It’s my peaceful, happy place and I find it a bit like meditation. It’s so calming sitting here and I love getting into my zone and really getting stuck into the work.” Pausing to reflect, she adds, “I’m quite introverted by nature, so I’m happy to work for long stretches alone. In that way, I think it’s a good thing that I spend a couple of days a week in the shop as it gets me out interacting with people.”
Now a staple on eclectic Criterion Street in inner city Hobart, the Red Parka store draws a steady crowd of tourists looking for a unique souvenir, through to locals grabbing a gift with a difference. “We’ve become known for ‘non-souvenir souvenirs’ if that makes sense,” laughs Jen. “As avid travellers ourselves, Tracy and I know how light travellers appreciate small, original items from local artists. We seek out the same when we’re travelling…you’re often searching for something small with authentic local flavour that’s not mass produced. We do a lot of that sort of thing.”
A riot of colour and fun, Red Parka is an institution for locals keen to support independent artists, those sharing Jen and Tracy’s passion for sustainability, and those picking up a gift with meaning. You’ll find everything from tote bags, tea towels and crockery, through to books, cushion covers and original prints. Jen’s bright artwork is a favourite with all ages, attracting attention not only for her detailed drawings but the meaning and education that sits behind each one.
Ten years as a self-employed artist has seen Jen’s brand morph through market stalls, pop up shops and in more recent times, bricks and mortar. “I’ve had the shop here since 2015 and it’s been a whole lot of fun. It’s really given Red Parka an identity,” says Jen. “It’s super busy in tourist season and we probably take three-quarters of our income in one-quarter of the year, but that’s ok. It’s been rewarding to be able to employ local staff and support other independent artists and designers. That’s something that continues to remain important to me.”
Together Tracy and Jen have uncovered a joint love of ceramics, releasing their unique creations under the name T.J. Finch. A new pottery studio nestled in their back garden has recently freed up the kitchen table and provided a haven for kiln fired creativity. “It’s something we both enjoy doing,” says Tracy. “We have different skills though, I’m more into the shaping, whilst Jen is happy to spend hours on detailed decorating. Adding a myriad of tiny dots to a design doesn’t faze her in the slightest.”
T.J Finch takes its name from Tracy and Jen’s first initials. “Then we just picked a name we loved as well,” says Jen. “The bird theme won out again,” she grins. Their quirky assortment of vases, plates, spoons, bowls and homewares are inspired by the natural world and are wrapped in their love of warm simplicity.
Working exceptionally well as a team, it’s not the first time this creative duo have teamed up to launch a new enterprise. Sitting under the Red Parka umbrella is Yay Gay, a vibrant brand celebrating and supporting the LGBTQI community. “It started with a cushion as our shout out to the world during Australia’s marriage equality campaign, but has grown to include a range of products,” explains Jen. “We know it’s not always easy to be yourself and we’ve committed to donating 25% of the sale price from each of the Yay Gay items to organisations that support the LGBTQI community both here in Australia and overseas.”
“Red Parka has always been about making people happy. There is so much negativity in the world and if I can bring some moments of happiness and belonging to others then hopefully that can help spark further change,” explains Jen. “I think of drawing as my superpower, and if I can use it to bring attention to the plight of the natural world, then that’s great. Red Parka has always stood for all that’s good in the world. It is important to me that every purchase also contributes to something positive, be it supporting an independent artist, buying a product that helps the environment, supporting fair trade, saving animals or supporting marginalised groups.”
“Our mission is just to create a better world through colour, art, love and laughter.”
True to her colour loving self, Jen is often clad in her own bright red jacket. She laughs, “I’ve had a red parka forever, it’s my favourite piece of clothing of all time so really the name was an obvious choice. My friends often comment that they’ll never lose me in a crowd! The original one is old and faded now and I’ve had to retire it and replace it with another one. But I still have it, it’s pretty special.”
Jen goes on to recount how one afternoon an old man came into her shop. “He explained to me that his wife had recently passed away and that she’d owned a beautiful red gortex jacket. He said she’d always loved my books and he knew she’d be touched if I would have her coat. It was one of those moments when I realised my art can really make a positive difference. When your work goes out into the world, you really don’t know what effect it has on others. It’s so nice when you have moments like that.”
From one extreme to the other, Jen has been touched by connection to her work from all walks of life. In 2018, she was overwhelmed with a shout out by Anne Hathaway on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. “I was lying in bed one morning and someone sent me a Facebook message saying ‘Anne Hathaway is looking for you’. I tracked down the clip and before I knew it things were going crazy. Anne had explained on air that she was after a copy of my collective nouns books for Ellen, and put a call out to find me.”
Jen continues, “Sales went insane that week. It happened on a Friday and we were completely sold out across Australia by Monday. My publisher quickly arranged another order and it was all hands on deck with my family helping to pack them for shipping across the globe. It was kind of weird. That incident took things to a whole new level, and I suddenly had a lot of new bookstores wanting to stock my work. It also opened up valuable doors with Amazon. After that happened, people would often ask how it felt to become an overnight sensation, but it really took me years of hard work without much income to get to this point…I wouldn’t change a thing though.”
Jen grins, “The thing I loved the most about the whole episode was the fact Anne Hathaway said to Ellen, ‘I’d give you my son’s copy…but I won’t,’ she loved it that much.”
A highlight of more recent times was seeing her collective nouns work spring to life on the Spirit of Tasmania. “I’m originally from Devonport and grew up watching the boats, so having my work featured in a ship was extra special. I was really excited when they approached me to bring some vibrancy to a kids wall. Hopefully that great big wall of bright art will make the trip more fun for everyone…and I hope people will learn something too.”
Whilst the nouns keep winning out, they’re really only the start for this down to earth Tasmanian. “Last years The Ultimate Animal Counting Book has been really popular, and I’m working on a new alphabet book at the moment, plus a series of smaller gift books,” says Jen. They’ll no doubt add to her other beauties including the A-Z of Endangered Animals that was an honour book in the 2017 Australian Children’s Book Council awards, and The Baby Animal Book that claimed a Notable Book title in 2018.
“At the end of the day I’m a non-fiction children’s author. It’s a niche and my work is certainly different to a storybook. I didn’t set out to do that, it just happened. It was an accident…I just love drawing animals, making lists and weird facts,” she smiles. “But I’m glad other people enjoy it too and I can bring some joy to the world at the same time.”
A visit to Red Parka is a must when in Hobart. Call in and say hi to Jen at 22 Criterion Street. If you’re further afield, you can treat yourself online via the Red Parka website or follow the fun on Facebook and Instagram.