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Part 3 | Artist Barbara Cooper Reveals the Invisible: In Art, In Nature, In Life

Part 3 | Artist Barbara Cooper Reveals the Invisible: In Art, In Nature, In Life With Ideas on Craft and the Craft School Experience from Jean McLaughlin, Executive Director, Penland School of Crafts Jean McLaughlin is one of most thoughtful people I’ve ever met. When you hear her speak, you are immediately drawn in by her intoxicating and contemplative passion to propel not only the vision and mission of Penland School of Crafts forward but also larger conversations about art, artists, craft, and craft education. Recently, I asked her What is Craft? She replied, “It is invention – it is the intelligence of the hand and body joined with knowledge of materials and skillful use of tools to realize an idea – it is an endeavor that has intrigued humankind for centuries and challenged us to be continually learning from the past to make something for the benefit of our species.” An interesting answer for a complicated word, I don’t know that I’ve ever looked at it so holistically. Craft is undeniably a source of infinite fascination, and to truly begin to understand it as a term or a field, we collectively must look to the past for insight and to the future to conjure what’s next; but I couldn’t help but think: what about right now? I asked McLaughlin if she could identify three current topics for the field, she stated: “Body intelligence, muscle memory, understanding that forms of intelligence exist that have not been adequately tapped…articulating the non-quantifiable values of the handmade, of the creative process…and linking craft to disciplines other than the fields/histories of painting and sculpture—like archeology, anthropology, science.” She continually expands my boundaries of knowledge, interpretation, and possibility: consider me once again riveted. Undoubtedly, in order to realize and/or enact avenues for engagement for these topics and more – craft education will have to, as McLaughlin suggests: “…continually develop craftsmanship and skillful use of materials in pursuit of ideas, foster the boundary-less, inventive nature of makers, and cultivate and intelligent dialogue about the work being made” – thoughtfully linked to knowledge of the history of craft and art and design of course. This is no small undertaking, but McLaughlin is masterfully tackling these topics (and more) at Penland by creating and fostering a “craft school experience that is about intensity and focus, personal growth and artistic experimentation, and the support that comes from engaging within a community of fellow artists.” This unique vision of total immersion in a nurturing and experimental environment embraces the genuine possibilities of exploration and innovation to not only honor and value the traditions and makers of craft but also to encourage the next generations of artists, curators, and collectors. What it really seems to do though, at its core, is offer thoughtful education and foster thoughtful dialogue which in turn inspires thoughtful makers who produce thoughtful works. So, when I asked McLaughlin for suggestions of artists with ties to Penland to speak with for this series I was delighted that she suggested Barbara Cooper – an accomplished and celebrated artist and sculptor whose introspective work has long been a source of inspiration for me personally as an artist. I was, of course, beyond excited to be able to ask her some in-depth questions about her inspirations, her process, and her magnificent works (a few I’ve been lucky to see in person). What I found during our conversation was a profound correlation between her process and conceptual ideas with the larger conversation of what craft is and means and can be – both are more than I imagined. Cooper’s work is exquisite: it is seductive, complex, and subtle; and listening to her talk about it convinces me that she possesses the same thoughtfulness I find so appealing the further into this subject of craft I go. Our captivating conversation about art, inspiration, and being reveals more than I ever planned:

Q: If you had to describe your work in three words what would they be and why? A: Time: How the time that it takes to make something is revealed in its form. That time taken gives a certain power and credibility to an image, just as an ancient tree is so powerful to take in, or rock strata that reveal eons of time. Movement: It adds a dynamic to any image. It is an implication of what might be about to happen or the record of what just did happen. Space: Activating space is very liberating. It is about being free from the wall and flatness! I think that good sculpture gets you to move around to discover how a form changes and that we cannot know what it will be until we get there. With public art, I love thinking about how people use a space, and how they will engage with a sculpture and that it will change from different vantage points. So in a sense, we must move our own bodies to really experience it. Q: Conceptually, you note that nature is always your place to begin. What is it about nature that interests you? And how has this evolved over the course of your career? Can you speak about where you began to where you are now? A: The world of nature is my temple, it is where I find myself in a state of awe and wonderment. I feel that we humans could never create anything quite as amazing and complex as what is already out there. The repeated patterns and systems existing in multiple scales and materials is truly amazing. Forms are created and live for a particular function and each fits into a larger whole. There is none of that arbitrariness and absurdity that can be a part of what we do as artists. That is what I aspire to do with my own work. Hopefully it convinces that it needs to be in that form and with those materials. I think that for this reason, while I am aware of what goes on in the art world, it has less and less interest for me. Q: Any other sources of inspiration (artistically speaking), such as artists, philosophers, writers, musicians, etc…? A: I love contemporary dance and watching how people move, interact, come together. It has an orchestral complexity between visuals, light, sound, movement, and of course, time and space.

Q: How did you come to work with wood? What is it about this material that drew you in and continues to provoke your interest? A: When I moved to Chicago from Bozeman MT, I had been working with a variety of materials, from welding with steel, bronze casting forms made from plant materials, and working with scrap wood from a pallet factory there. When I got to Chicago, it was suddenly hard to find plant material. I came across strips of wood veneer in a home supply store and started fooling around with it. It was very expensive but I was intrigued with it. I tried to make veneer, but you loose more wood in the blade than you make. Ultimately, I got in touch with some woodworking factories and arranged to take away their scraps that were too small for them to bother with. That was when I realized that industrial waste products were the raw materials of the city, just as plant material had been for me when I was in Montana. I also loved the idea that I was working with a material that started out as a growing tree, that was cut down to become an industrial material, and that I was then taking industrial trash and returning it back to an organic form that referenced growth again. This process was allowing me to create a cycle of life, which was a principle in nature that I loved and revered. I am drawn to the tension between what grows and what is made. I am now leaving larger areas of the ‘industrial’ aspect of the material that is not manipulated by me.

Q: In your artist statement, you talk about your unique construction methods being gleaned from those you find in nature such as our bodies being built cell by cell, birds nests, etc… This is particularly evident in some of your older works such as Thrust and Rift. Can you describe your technical process of making, how you actually build your pieces? A: I feel as though my building process comes out of my fiber background of building line by line, whether spinning, weaving, or off-loom techniques. That approach merged with what I learned from studying animal architecture. When I decided I needed to move away from fiber and into the world of sculpture, I studied this book called Animal Architecture by Karl Von Fritsch, which my dad had when I grew up. I always felt drawn to these forms and found them amazing. Animals and insects don’t carve. Rather, they construct and forms grow by accretion. That is what I do, as well. I start with some material or something that I find and I add on and take off and add on and take off until I find the form.

Q: There always seems to be a focal point in your works that the piece appears to emanate from or gather around, as seen in works such as Mantle (detail at top) or Core (pictured right) – is there a relevance for you of these starting points and/or cavities or do they just appear as the form develops? A: Everything starts from something, whether an egg, a seed, a piece of this or that. But ultimately, I am looking at forms I find in nature, whether a flower, part of a tree, shells, rock strata, glaciers. Those are my real starting points. Many of the forms that I am drawn to come about through the process of accretion.

Q: Your works, such as Shear (detail pictured left) or Whorl or Fall, have incredibly sensual movement, something I think you are referencing when you talk about your work manifesting as a linear recording of time? Would you say that is true? How does time, both actual and subjective, come into play in your work? A: I love the movements found in water. Another book that was exceptionally influential for me was Theodor Schwenk’s Sensitive Chaos; Flowing Forms in Water and Air. He describes water as a sense organ, a fluid form that has a life of its own. He studies how solid forms reveal the process of their coming into being. He was verbalizing something that I was intuiting and it allowed me to see and understand form in a totally different manner.

Q: One of my very favorite pieces is Surge from 2002; a beautiful arched form that combines several of the methods I see in your other works. Can you talk about this piece in particular: what were you thinking of and how that was translated here? A: Surge was made at a residency at Bernheim Arboretum in Kentucky. I was working on some very large drawings (5’ x 10’) that were for a show in Iceland, about my experience that I had had a few years before, when I had a residency in Akureyi. I was trying to balance in my mind the connection between the vast fluid landscape of Iceland, much of which is volcanic, to the verticality of this library of living trees that I was in; two very different scales and very different materials and life cycles. But, as with so much of nature, there was certainly a connection, this time between the macrocosms of the immense horizontal landscape and the microscopic surfaces of the trees. Particularly the grey, muscular bark of beech trees fluidly reveals the history of their growth; for instance, around a branch or injury. It was so comparable to the lava I was astounded. Surge was a combination of what I saw in glaciers and on the bark of trees. I loved how glaciers revealed the terrain that they flowed over by almost creating stretch marks, or pulling apart. I also loved seeing this frozen suspension as they flowed over the side of a mountain edge. That was what I realized what I was trying to capture, because I usually start with something intangible and as I work, I subsequently comprehend what the influences were.

Q: You’ve also created works in different materials such as iron, glass, and tyvek, such as Folded Terrain: a temporary installation you completed in Pilsen in 2012. What challenges, if any, have you found in translating your ideas to be embodied in different media? What materials, if any, have provoked new ideas? A: Somehow I love being able to move through materials, and I always have – that was what I felt limiting about being defined by a material. I am challenged by finding out what a material will do and what it won’t do and I love the surprise of coming upon something that I never would have thought of because I ultimately took the time to listen to what the material could do that I never imagined. I have had residencies at both Pilchuck, a glass school, and the Kohler Foundry. In both cases, I started out totally open ended, no idea of what I would do. I experimented with all of the different processes and then decided on a path toward work.

Q: There is a real fluidly between your sculptures and your drawings. How would you say these two medias intersect for you? Does one influence the other or is it more organic per the piece you’re working on? A: The great thing about drawing is that gravity is not an issue...but the definition of spatial relationships remains in both mediums. I drew with charcoal for many years and loved that process of putting it on and taking it off; that you could see the process of how the drawing developed. But, after those 10’ Iceland drawings, I suddenly stopped with the charcoal. I feel like the drawings are reflecting my interest in assemblage, through collage now. For the last four years I have been responding to either scanned and photo-shopped material that I make or leaves that I collect and press every fall. As with the sculpture, I am trying to take evidence of my hand manipulations out of it, or at least have it appear that way. Q: Ok, so, let’s talk bigger picture: how would you answer the question: “What is craft?” A: Craft is the ability to work with materials, a sensibility of the hand. It can just as easily refer to paint and metal as to any of the traditional ‘craft’ materials. Both artists and crafts people utilize craft.

Q: Historically, and often critically, there has been a delineation between the disciplines of fine art and craft? Do you think there should be separate categories? And if so, what do you think causes this separation? Do you identify with one or the other? A: I went through a BFA and MFA in the field of fiber. Those artists that I admired at that time, like Abakanowicz, Tawney, Hesse, were all working 3-dimensionally. I ultimately had to confront that myself. There were then a lot of people working in the abyss of the in-between…the work was not strong fiber, nor was it good sculpture. I believed that work that pushes a boundary, has to be able to be successful on both sides of that edge. Personally, I wanted the freedom to work with the material and process that was right for the idea. I did not want to be defined by the materials that I worked with. Differentiating between art and craft might be comparable to deciding at which point grey tonalities belong more to black or white. Sometimes it is clear-cut and sometimes it is impossible to differentiate it. Perhaps what I would add about the difference between craft and art might be that the object, or image, is not totally focused about the material or skill. Rather the emphasis in art is on transcending beyond the how and of what it is made. Q: Name 3 ideas / topics that you feel are the most relevant to the field of craft at large right now. A: I think that there seems to be a trend making a connection between craft and design, at least in terms of museum aligning themselves with that ideation.

Q: If different, name 3 ideas / topics that you feel are the most relevant to the field of sculpture at large right now; and, if applicable, works in wood. A: I think that contemporary sculpture is very involved with the ephemeral, with phenomena, which might include installation, light, sound, and projections. Some is very conceptual and not very interesting in a material sense; to me, it does not have a sense of the hand, materials, or of the tactile. Public art and social art also have some very interesting work being done in those areas. I also think that the scale of some public art can be totally amazing. But don’t think that I don’t love machined or stainless materials. It is all very subjective and relative how we respond to things. Q: How would you describe a craft school experience? And how do you think it is different from other forms of arts education? A: Actually, I think of it as more about comradery, that there is something kind of communal about many of the processes. Perhaps that it is more the idea of the workshop than the solo artist. I think there is something wonderful about working together toward a common goal. That is one of the things that I really like about the public art process, that the scale of the work makes it necessary to work with skilled artisans to bring a project into being.

Q: How would you describe your personal experience(s) at Penland School of Crafts? How has your time there influenced your artistic pursuits? A: I went to Penland twice as a student and absolutely loved it. And I have been back maybe 3 or 4 times to teach. I will be back there again this next summer. I am a big fan of the coming together of people from all backgrounds and all ages to learn and work together. The setting is beautiful and the history of the place is powerful. A lot of amazing people have been through here. Last time I was there; Paulus Berenson was also taking the yoga class. What a treat to have his presence in the class, to feel his gracious spirit and to watch him move. As a student, I was very influenced by MC. Richards. So to have this icon of an artist and a friend of hers right there was fabulous.

Q: Just for fun: a major museum is burning and you have to go in and save 3 works — knowing that you may endanger yourself, what works do you rush in to get? A: Some artists whose work is in the upper echelon, in my humble opinion: Martin Puryear, James Turrell, Anish Kapoor, Brancusi, Ursula Von Rydingsvaard. These artists all work poetically with material and have the capacity to really think about big ideas, and certainly to physically work big as well. Q: Last question: what’s next? A: Right now, I am ready to take some time to play, experiment, to make some ugly things and see where they take me…. I would also like to be doing more garden development and design work along the lines of what happened in Copenhagen, as it connects with my interest in environmental issues.

Barbara Cooper was born August 21, 1949 in Philadelphia and currently works and resides in Chicago, IL. For more information about Barbara and her work, please visit the following: Website: Facebook: YouTube: Arts Across Illinois with Barbara Cooper, 2006: Artist at Work, NeIU Gallery, 2006: ASCENDance, 2013: Intersections Garden / Interview at the Museum of Copenhagen, 2014: Images courtesy of the artist (from top to bottom): Mantle (detail), 2014, wood and burl, 16 x 20 x 20 inches; Joint, 2011, wood and glue, 23 x 24 x 12 inches; Coma, 2006, wood and glue, 21 x 26 x 15 inches; Rift, 2004, wood and glue, 32 x 26 x 14 inches; Core, 2008, wood and glue, 24 x 24 x 24 inches; Shear (detail), 2011, wood and glue, 70 x 30 x 12 inches; Surge, 2002, wood and glue, 21 x 24 x 66 inches; Folded Terrain (detail), 2012, 14 x 14 x 7 feet, Temporary Installation on Halsted Street / Pilsen neighborhood / Chicago, IL, photo: Jyoti Srivastava; Process of Change: Pull, 2002, charcoal on paper, 60 x 120 inches; Joint (detail), 2011, wood and glue, 23 x 24 x 12 inches; Fall, 2004, wood and glue; wall: 85 x 36 x 18 inches; floor: 74 x 30 x 13 inches; Whorl, 2014, wood, 14 x 22 x 12 inches; The artist in her studio

This series is sponsored by the National Craft Schools Initiative – five US craft schools who have teamed up to promote the craft school experience on a national scale. For more information about the national initiative, visit

To learn more about Penland School of Crafts, visit or via email or via telephone: 828-765-2359.

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