Inspiration worked both ways, says artist Míla Fürstová of close collaboration with Coldplay

Coldplay - 'Ghost Stories', photo: archive of Míla Fürstová

Míla Fürstová is currently enjoying a level of exposure that most artists can only dream of. The Czech’s exquisite etching of angel’s wings against the background of a starry sea appears on the cover of Ghost Stories, the hit new LP by one of the planet’s biggest rock bands, Coldplay. Indeed, her intricate illustrations are at present central to the group’s visuals, also appearing on single sleeves and merchandising.

Míla Fürstová,  photo: archive of Míla Fürstová
Born in the small town of Pelhřimov, Míla Fürstová has been living in England since the mid-1990s. On the line from there, I asked what had brought her to the UK.

“I think I first went to England in 1994. It was because I started studying at Charles University, at the Pedagogical Faculty – it was art and English.

“I couldn’t speak any English; I was really having trouble, so I had to come to England to practice. I was an au pair for two months. That was the very initial trip.”

What led you to decide to stay?

“I fell in love [laughs], with a nice Englishman. We dated for about two years and I decided… because I always wanted to study abroad anyway, and it seemed the right thing.

“So I followed him and I followed the art. I found myself a place at university to study art.”

Would you say there’s any Czech influence in your work? I saw one of your pieces – The Ornithologist’s Dream – and it put me in mind of Petr Sís.

“I love Petr Sís. He’s amazing – what a great, great artist.

“As for my Czech roots, I think when I first came to Britain I was wondering what my sort of path, or expression, as an artist would be, what my language would be. But it wasn’t really coming.

“And when some people from my course took a trip to the Czech Republic they came back and said, your work is really Czech, isn’t it?

“I thought, is it? And then I kind of consciously embraced that sort of narrative thing and the sort of poetic side to it. So I think it is Czech, yes.”

Coldplay - 'Ghost Stories',  photo: archive of Míla Fürstová
Currently you’re in the news because you did the cover for the new Coldplay album. How did you first come into contact with Coldplay? Or how did they become aware of your work?

“Well, it was really them finding me. It all goes back a few years, when the fifth, secret member of the band, Phil Harvey, discovered my work at one of my London galleries.

“I think he and his wife bought a couple of pieces and they’re rather large pieces, so they were rather prominent in their home. They lived with them for some time and they resonated with him.

“I don’t think he bought them with the intention of working with me. It kind of came about later, when the director of Album Artists, Fraser Keith Scott, came to Phil Barnes and said, I know Míla, and they kind of talked about my work.

“I think Phil thought that maybe the way that I work is maybe similar to the way that Chris thinks, in his music. So that’s how it started, basically.”

Was the cover of Ghost Stories a commission? Did they tell you exactly what they wanted, or did they say, do what you like?

“You know, these things are such a long journey, usually, just like any making of art. Chris had some ideas and I was invited to their studio initially and met them. We talked about it and I went away and did a few pieces.

“I did a few sketches, came back, and it still wasn’t happening. But then eventually they gave me lyrics. So from telling me a little bit at the beginning about what they would like, they eventually ended up giving me total freedom – although it was within the [framework of the image of] wings.

“Basically what happened was that Phil and Fraser brought a lot of my work into the Coldplay recording studio and they sort of furbished it with it, almost like a gallery.

“So all the five guys had access to it and they could kind of get to know me, to get to know my work…”

'Ornithologist's Dream',  photo: archive of Míla Fürstová
So it was a kind of double inspiration – you were being inspired by their lyrics and they were being inspired by your work directly in the studio?

“Hopefully yes, for the album cover, yes, I think so. I never worked with musicians before and I think it sort of surprised me how very similar it is to the work of a visual artist.

“You have to do so much exploring and so much looking and thinking and understanding before you can sort of embrace and develop something.

“I think it was the same for them. I think because Phil lived with my work for some time he already kind of looked at it for so long and responded to it – and I think the more he looked the more he saw, hopefully.

“I think that he needed Chris and the others to do the same, to see if it would work. And it did work. I’m really grateful that it happened that way. It wasn’t, she’s going to do it [laughs], and then I’d do it. That would be quite artificial; it was a real sort of labour of love and act of art.”

The Chris you’re talking about is of course Chris Martin, the leader of Coldplay. How are they as people? How do you get on with them at the personal level?

“Oh, they are lovely [laughs]. They are just so lovely. It’s hard to believe that somebody of such status in music and that kind of world can be quite so lovely.

“They are very gentlemanly, very kind. When I first came to them Chris was just full of compliments about my work – to the point where I was just sort of blushing, I didn’t know how to respond. They are very, very kind people.”

The album has just come out and I’m sure there are posters all over the place. How does it feel seeing your own image everywhere, on the streets, on buses?

Coldplay,  photo: official website of the band
“It’s quite hard to believe for me. I also just gave birth six weeks ago and everything is just… I kind of keep pinching myself. I’ve got this new baby. There’s this album on the streets – something that was so intimately, you know, on my studio floor most of the time.

“Yes, it seems like some sort of gift from above. It’s lovely. I think it’d be lovely for every artist and it is for me.”

How have your friends and also your family here in the Czech Republic reacted to your work being so much in the public eye now?

“I have a lovely family and lovely friends and everybody has been very kind about it and very complimentary.

“The work with Coldplay was going on for a year and a half and I had to keep it secret, so even my family didn’t know who I was working with.”

Did your parents know Coldplay? I think my dad would know U2, but perhaps he wouldn’t know Coldplay.

“It’s funny that you mention U2, because when I eventually said to my mum, the band that I’m working with, they’re quite important, they are really quite well known. And she went, oh, OK.

“Then she told my brother that I was doing an album cover for U2. I think that’s what she imagined… They have probably heard Coldplay’s music, but I don’t think they knew them, probably, no.”

'Day and Dusk',  photo: archive of Míla Fürstová
Are you in general a music fan? Do you think an interest in album cover art? I guess also you’re old enough to remember when LPs came out on vinyl and the art was really important.

“Am I a music fan? Music’s very important for me, but I’m not a collector of music or a music follower.

“I probably don’t even deserve to do an album cover for Coldplay. I’ve known them well and loved their music, but I haven’t sort of been following them intensely or anything.”

Is the album cover something like, say, an actor having a breakout movie – have you had lots of interest from other people offering you work?

“Yes, there has been a lot of interest. I’m just sort of realisng that there’s so little time really.

“I haven’t been able to accept any offers of cooperation yet, because I’ve got a lot of shows and I’m still working on something for Coldplay which is still secret.”

I’ve been reading that other works of yours are owned by the Queen. You’ve had exhibitions around the world. But your last exhibition here in the Czech Republic was several years ago – you’re not really very visible here. Is that something that bothers you? Or do you just think, I live in the UK now and that’s the way it is?

“It did use to bother me but I think I’m quite an introverted artist. Of course I want to be successful, because I want to be able to live off what I love.

“I feel so grateful that I can make money by art. So to that extent I need galleries to look at the works and exhibit them, and that’s something that’s been happening in Britain.

“But for me to make it in the Czech Republic I would have to have more contacts there. And I’m maybe too shy, or it just doesn’t seem right for me to kind of keep approaching galleries there.

'Other Skies',  photo: archive of Míla Fürstová
“They don’t know about me and I don’t sort of push myself, although recently I have given a few pieces to the Galerie Miro, which is at Prague Castle. The wonderful director Miro Smolák has really embraced it and he sold most of the works.

“So some people know about it but it’s still a very quiet voice at the moment. But if I would love it if that changes, if there is an opportunity in the Czech Republic, definitely.”