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GOLDEN REFLECTIONS — Alexander Cooper celebrates 50 years

Sunday, September 02, 2012    

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FOR Jamaican painter Alexander Cooper, who, like Jamaica, is celebrating his golden jubilee, it is an "exciting, rewarding and wonderful" time to be alive.

The work of the veteran artist forms the centrepiece of an exhibition now hanging at the Mutual Gallery in St Andrew.

The 31-piece collection covers aspects of Jamaican life over the past three centuries.

The Jamaica Observer caught up with Cooper at his Upper St Andrew home/studio — The Word — where he explained that for this exhibition it is as if he transported himself into the past.

"I wanted to showcase snapshots of Jamaica and Jamaican life as they existed in the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries — to show what existed then and compare to now," he said.

However, this historical perspective on Jamaican through art has become a hallmark of the great artist and something he sees as his legacy to Jamaicans.

Cooper said he first recognised his talent when he was repeatedly asked by his teachers to illustrate Bible stories. This was during his early days at Elletson Elementary School in east Kingston (now Vauxhall High).

Along with the innate talent, it was that validation from teachers and the support and encouragement from family and friends that spurred a young Cooper to delve into the world of art, because as he puts it, "I did not even know who an artist was".

This would lead him to the School of Art where Edna Manley, who has become the mother of the modern art movement, along with painter Ralph Campbell and master potter Cecil Baugh had began to offer classes.

"The art school was located in Kingston Gardens and I was among the first five students who began taking evening classes."

Cooper's eyes light up and a smile comes to his face when he describes the environment in which these early classes were held in the early 1950s.

"Edna Manley and the other artists used the art school as a hub. As students, we were able to see them at work and learn from them in this very creative setting."

The formative training he received here in Jamaica would serve his in good stead when he moved to New York in 1963 to study at the Art Student League and the School of the Visual Art.

The four years spent in the United States would be a big eye-opener for Cooper.

He was one of only three blacks at both institutions, and as such he was viewed with scepticism by his Caucasian counterparts.

However, his talent and the training he had received here in Jamaica would soon set him apart from the rest.

He recalled: "Once I set up my easel and began painting they realised I was not new to this. I remember my German instructor saying 'you have been painting all your life'. To this day I am not sure what he meant, because it could have been that I was ahead of the class, or, that despite my experience I still had a far way to go. Whatever it was, it has stuck with me and so I continue to strive for excellence.

Upon his return to Jamaica in 1967, Cooper found that the art scene was vibrant, and the appreciation of Jamaican art had grown immensely.

He then set about continuing the work of Edna Manley and the pioneers and along with fellow artist Osmond Watson began mounting exhibitions and passing on their knowledge at the School of Art and other institutions of learning.

With more than half a century of experience, The Sunday Observer asked Cooper his views on the current Jamaican art scene.

"Our young artists are doing everything good... they are doing everything right. There are more artists now so it is really the survival of the fittest. This is not a bad thing though as it is the quality of work that counts and this results in excellence," he said.

So where does Alexander Cooper go from here?

"Many years ago, I read about starving artists and vowed never to be come one. So I have been working ever since and will continue to paint as long as I have the strength and will to keep going," he says as a smile breaks at the corners of is mouth and moves on the sparkle in his eyes.

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