Cecil Cooper’s last profile: An exercise in gratitude

BY RACHAEL BARRETT Contributing editor, business barrettr@jamaicaobserver.com

Friday, September 16, 2016

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On the eve of what has turned out to be his last exhibition, Cecil Cooper was in a jubilant easy-going mood. By his own admission, Cooper was far more relaxed than usual for an artist whose 50-year career had seen him celebrated as one of the foremost modern painters in Jamaica, head the painting department at his beloved Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts (EMCVPA), and an active practising artist all his life.

On the occasion of his 70th birthday in June this year, Cooper, who died yesterday, had prepared to mount an exhibition, Milestone, at Olympia Gallery. The exhibition featured some never-before-seen works from decades past, as well as works fresh from the studio, a testament to the artist’s commitment to his craft and continued innovation and exploration of new techniques.

That Friday evening, at Olympia, despite a sprinkling of rain and end-of-month traffic the vernissage was well attended. An accomplishment that would have made Capote proud.

Clinking glasses and a frantic bar made way for an even greater din inside the gallery. The notoriously fractious Kingston art world had turned out in full force, with collectors, museum directors, curators, and artists filling the gallery floor. Former pupil Philip Thomas, now carrying Cooper’s torch as a lecturer at EMCVPA and painter of renown, darted around in suit and tie holding a bouquet to present to his teacher.

Like one of her works come to life, statuesque art superstar Ebony G Patterson held court in one corner, while a phalanx of chic, show-going doyennes such as Pat Ramsay kept conversation going in another.

Cooper paid tribute to his mentor and colleague Barbara Gloudon, saying a few words to mark his appreciation for the distinguished journalist’s contribution to culture, and to say ‘thank you’ (in person and with a painting) for her role in shaping his own view of Jamaica and his cultural and artistic journey.

Prime Minister Andrew Holness paid tribute to the artist and, amidst flashing bulbs, Cooper gladly parted the crowd personally, guiding the PM through the exhibition, taking care to pause to highlight significant techniques in his favourite works.

Adding to the evening’s mystique, the crowd also featured a few less familiar faces, as many long-time friends had made the journey to Kingston for what Cooper planned as a long weekend celebration, with a party at his home scheduled for the Saturday evening. "We will go all night, you know... Until morning," he promised, happy to entertain his overseas guests, like fellow artist Peter Wayne Lewis, who had made the trip all the way from Beijing.

Cooper was fixated on gratitude during this period. He was grateful to be able to mount an exhibition that featured new work and did not serve necessarily as a retrospective of what was, but also, as he indicated, a suggestion of what could still yet come. He was thrilled to have his peers, his former students, new friends and old celebrate and reflect on his achievements with him.

For many in the art fraternity it was a shock to discover in a very short period of time afterward, that Cooper fell ill. His exuberance and energy during the show period had been extraordinary. The quick pace of deterioration of his health was almost an even bigger shock as very quickly it became clear that he did not have much time left.

I had the honour and privilege of interviewing Cooper in the days leading up to the show, and communicating with him afterward, sharing in our mutual love and appreciation for the arts and fantastic "arty-farty" conversation. It is with regret for not enough time spent and conversation made that I remember the best takeaways from Cecil’s reflection on this stage of his life.

"...What is it about my life at this particular point that makes me want to showcase this... and share it with my [friends and family]... I am at a point where I am pausing to say how grateful I am for many, many, many things...

"This exhibition is at a point in my life where I’ve learned the art of gratitude, and I’m saying thank you so many things... I’m saying thank you I am 70 years old, I’m saying thank you because I’m a child of the 60s, I’m thankful that people like Rex Nettleford... Barbara Gloudon... mentored me through a significant period of our development [in] the 60s and 70s. When I look around I see so many young people who are eager and ready to go forward, and I’m thankful that [there are people] ready to lead them through the next part of our journey..."

On life as an artist:

"As young people, we didn’t know how difficult a life it would be, how demanding a life it would be. We were all wandering around with this romantic notion of the artist... but I slowly started to learn, and it’s an incremental thing over the years... that art is really a way of life... it’s not a profession... Only five per cent of people who go to art schools survive as an artist... only people who are committed, as if it’s a religion, are the ones who survive."

Cooper was one of the first major artists in Jamaica to live and work abroad with the leading artists of his time. However, a man who held fast to certain principles, Cooper never regarded his time abroad as a way out, or an alternative reality. His time away from Jamaica was a means to an end; nation-building was seen as an integral part of what he wanted to do and who he wanted to be:

"...A lot of times while in New York I felt a sort of a clinical loneliness and need for connectedness that I felt that I could only achieve by being [at] Yard..."

Undoubtedly, Cooper was a nationalist at heart and in practice. He was a true artist, a man of many trades and talents, one of which was his singing capabilities; however, he was most well known as a master painter.

Cooper produced a voluminous body of work, primarily abstracted painting, large format and heavily textured, featuring recurring motifs and figurative renderings in a modern style. He often experimented with new techniques in paint application and varied his treatment of canvas as well as his palette. However, these explorations were consistently an exercise to facilitate diverse means of addressing his favourite subject, his people.

"I paint my people... and I like to give my people status, I like to feel like my people are [as] aristocratic as anybody... I’m primarily interested in paying homage to my culture, my people, but at the same time, since I am a trained artist in a European context, the vehicle through which I want to [address] talk about these things will have a similar understanding which makes it global in a sense... it’s neither a good nor bad thing, it’s just the way things are."

Full interview available online at www.jamaicaobserver.com


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