Judy Cooke: The birth of an artist

Paul Sutinen's interview with Judy Cooke focuses on the Portland painter's development as an artist

Since her first exhibitions here 45 years ago, Judy Cooke has been a leading artist in the realm of “painting” in Portland, though paint is just one aspect of her materials palette. All of her works in the current exhibition Conversation: Aluminum, Oil, Rubber at the Elizabeth Leach Gallery were completed this year. However, the range of sizes, formats, materials and motifs—ten inches to eight feet, polygon, square, skinny rectangle, found sheet metal, wood panels, rubber sheeting, tape, oil paint, line drawing, brushy painting—samples her interests over the length of her career.

Portland artist Judy Cooke

Cooke had a retrospective exhibition at The Art Gym in 2002, Judy Cooke: Celebration After the Fact: a retrospective, 1973-2001 (the catalog essay is by Bruce Guenther), and she has also been the recipient of numerous prestigious grants, including the second Bonnie Bronson Fellowship Award in 1993.

The exhibition at the Elizabeth Leach Gallery continues through October 27. She will be speaking about her work at the gallery on Saturday, October 13, at 11 am.

When did you decide that you wanted to be an artist?

Probably when I was about eight.

Interesting. Some people have that very early thought. Did you know what an artist was when you were eight?

No. When I was six, I had a fabulous first grade teacher. The art part of that first grade was always the best part. It was kind of unusual. This was in Bay City, Michigan, a small school. There were two very large blackboards in the room. Every week she would let two kids go up and paint on those blackboards, with chalk or whatever—something you could remove. The whole class got to do this. At the end of the week they’d vote on whether one of those pictures could stay up. It was a fairly big blackboard. So that was where I had a chance to see something on a very large-scale. And I always drew when I was a kid—tended to be large shapes. The crayons that everybody used were very thick. At school they tended to use these big materials.

The black and the blackboard are still in your work.

Somewhere, yes. I think I tended to work more abstractly, at an early age, than concrete observation. I mean really paying attention to space and three-dimensionality.

Did you study art in high school?

Yeah, I did, and that was wonderful. That was at Cambridge School of Weston [in Massachusetts]. It was a private school and I dropped back a year so I has two years there.

How did you decided to go there?

My sister was living in Massachusetts. I was the youngest of four. I was going to a very large high school. It was one of the only co-ed boarding schools at this time.

They had a good art program?

They had an art studio, a whole building on that campus. I was a boarder, so on the weekends I could just go up there and work. It was like having a studio.

Judy Cooke, “Pink”, 2018, oil, aluminum, 14” x 10” x 1.5”

You’re getting into a routine already.

Yeah. The campus was beautiful, a lot of trees. New England rock walls, which I’d never seen in Michigan—that really affected me. For a long time I was doing lots of drawings of rock walls—just in shapes. I thought that was really an amazing thing.

Then you went to a combined program at Tufts and the Boston Museum school. When you decided to go to art school were you aspiring to be a painter?

I didn’t have any discipline in mind. I was one of those students who was very up-and-down. I did very well in literature, terrible in math. That sort of dragged on me for a long time. There are a lot of requirements all the way through school. So, the idea of art school didn’t initially involve some of the structures that I kind of had a lot of problems with. The Boston Museum at that time—in the first year you had art history [that] was based on what was in the Boston Museum. We were sent off to draw from specific things. There would be a slide lecture on pivotal things that they thought we should know. So, you’re drawing and you’re looking.

If you have to draw you really have to look at it.

You really have to pay attention. The drawing program at the school was three hours a day, with an optional Saturday. You’d be there on Saturday. You’d want to be there. I think if you hit a place like that as a teen and a lot of people there are much older—there were a lot of vets there, the G.I. Bill—and I didn’t have any sense of their backgrounds. There were also New Yorkers who moved out of New York and came to Boston, applied because tuition was really cheap or want a change from New York.

There was competition.

Yeah, a lot, it was very competitive. And there were a lot of grants. That was one of the things that drew me to the school. I noticed the Boston Museum school had a lot of grants for women. I looked into the school’s history, and the school started out as a finishing school for women in that area.

Yeah, so what did you do there in the end?

I was a printmaker. I had a year of sculpture and thought about going into that. But sculpture was a very buttoned-down structure. It was all from the figure. My first encounter with sculpture at the school was in a first-year design class, and I thought that was what sculpture was going to be—we were moving from one material to another, using clay or using wire—and I thought that’s what was really involved. When I went into second year and had a class in it, I realized that was really going to be working more from the figure. Printmaking offered much more opportunity for just exploration—drawing in another way. It wasn’t as pinned down.

You were in school in the heyday of abstract expressionism. Was that influencing your studies there?

No. This is Boston. It’s not New York.

But there are art magazines.

A lot of art magazines. The discussion that I recall was around Hans Hofmann and that very small book Search for the Real, and this whole idea of push-pull [a concept related to the structuring of abstract painting]. I was in the printmaking department. This was being discussed in the painting department, and there wasn’t a lot of overlap between those departments, much less than what you’d expect now.

Judy Cooke, “Spill/Time”, 2018, oil, aluminum, wax, 10” x 10” x 2”

Did you take painting classes?

I took one painting class. That was based on still life; there was a portrait or self-portrait that we did.

Beginning painting, so you’re going through standard problems.

Exactly. And what was happening in printmaking was you were basically allowed to set your own agenda. For example, if you had to do a wood block they would pass out these papers that suggested some sort of idea and nobody paid attention to them. They had their own ideas. The school was really a trade school. Art schools used to be learning about mechanics. They had to catch up with the university. Then you start getting BFA’s.

It sounds like it was a very conservative kind of place.

Oh, it was. I got there 1959-1960. Around that time there had been a [Willem] de Kooning painting exhibit at the school, which I heard about probably two years later, getting to know some painters at the school. They were still talking about it. That was the first time I heard his name.

By then end of your time at the school what kind of art were you doing?

I moved into etching [but] I ended up doing a thesis—for a grant which I got for traveling in Europe for a year—with silkscreen [a stencil printing method]. It taught me a great deal about color—not really having known much about color. Because, again, I wasn’t in a painting class, so that came very late. I had a color class, but that’s barely touching it.

Silkscreen was pretty radical for “art” printmaking at that time.

It was just a commercial endeavor. We did some very strange things, mixed different glue solutions and stuff, see what happened, and overprint. It had a kind of looseness to it. I didn’t continue it. I realized the whole process of touch was really important to me. If you go from etching to silkscreen, you’re removed from the surface more. With etching you’re touching something.

Were these figurative silkscreens or…?

No, they were really abstract.

So you were getting way out there.

I guess so.

Judy Cooke, Drawing, 2018, oil, rubber, crayon, 37” x 26.25” x 1”

What did you do in Europe for a year?

Bob [Hanson, 1936-2011, also a prominent Portland painter] and I got married at the end of the post-grad year. We took an entire year. Went to countries that were relatively cheap. We spent more time in Spain because at that point it was much cheaper than Italy. We got to Paris, the Louvre, just overwhelming. When we were in Italy—we spent about a month—we tracked down all the Piero della Francescas that we could.

Was drawing something that you were good at?

Drawing was empowering. It was really important to be good at it, or try at it. It had a lot to do with space, ways of attacking the space, seeing the whole space and negative/positive space. I was probably much rougher on proportion. It was a very serious endeavor to me, but it took a while. By the time I got out, I was much more confident about handling the figure.

At some point you started doing something that wasn’t printmaking anymore. The first work of yours I remember seeing was made from tarps at the 24th Avenue Gallery in 1975.

Bob got a job at what was then the Museum [Art] School [now Pacific Northwest College of Art]. We moved from Boston. That was 1968. We got out here, and he was fine because he had a job. I had to drop back from substitute teaching to waitressing because there wasn’t any work. I still had a lot of time to do work. So I decided that I wanted to do some very large-scale drawing, but then I immediately thought that if you do large-scale drawing, how are you going to install it?

That’s the problem with paperwork.

Yes, and particularly at that time. You weren’t seeing a lot of people just pinning up a large piece of paper. So, I ended up at Schnitzer’s marine surplus and found all these very thick canvas tarps selling for 50 cents apiece. They were canvas. I didn’t know quite what I was going to be doing with them. Some of them had drawings in ballpoint from sailors because they were sailors’ bunk beds, and sometimes felt marker markings, numbers that had been screen printed. There was always a lot of debris. They were beat up. They had grommets all around the edges because they were installed on a ship. So I just cut some of the grommets off. I wasn’t much with sewing so I ended up stapling them together. I’d staple them on one side, flip the tarp over and nail them down with a hammer. They held together. They were always about the same length, which I remember was about six [-foot] two [inches] or something—they had to fit some guy. So I could put as many of them together as I wanted. I was just using charcoal line drawing.

Found materials gave you a place to begin.

My impression of Portland after leaving Boston was that it was an amazingly clean city. There were old buildings that are now long gone, but basically it was clean. I kept looking around for more debris stuff. I got into a habit of walking a lot and looking down at the pavement and picking up collage, just scraps of paper, things I put together with masking tape and cardboard, also pieces of color, things that have color in them.

Nowadays there’s digital art, video art…

In this day and age I’m still really a paper person. The work isn’t always on paper, but sketchbooks are paper. The phone’s great. I use it in the studio a lot to go through the process of something that’s changing. That’s helpful. If you keep those pictures sometimes of course the result is totally different from the beginning.

Judy Cooke, Notebook page, 2003

Keeping notebooks is very important for you.

My sketchbooks go back to 1965 because we were taught to use sketchbooks when I was in school. [For each page] I’ll date it, the process, any painting that I’m working on. I’ll know the colors that I was using, I’ll put those colors on a piece of paper and glue them in, or make a swipe of paint. I’ll write down the manufacturer, what kind of paint it was, who made it. I’ll have it as a kind of sample of what I was using. That’s actually how I develop my color vocabulary. You’re trying to find your own palette. I’ve been collecting pulp paper from the New York Times, just where there’s a section of just a color, the blue page, green page, or chartreuse, cutting it out. I realized that you’ve got a sample already made for you and you can match that color. Sometimes you’ll be looking for a green or looking for a blue, and you can go back to the notebooks.

Making these notes you are not only finding your palette, you’re making sure you don’t lose it.

Oh yes, and it’s really helpful. I had a painting that was sold. It got some kind of water damage, but they knew they could repair it. They gave me a date and I found what materials I was using for that painting. It’s a good habit.

Do you think of yourself as a painter?

I don’t know. I thought about some of those categories. The work is kind of under “painting.” I don’t know whether that could really be pinned on me. I kind of think of painters—when I’m thinking about painting and I’m looking at history—there’s a lot more feeling for that material itself.

Paint?

Yeah, paint. I got a lot of experimenting with that, but I never really worked with thick paint—just hasn’t ever been something that’s had much interest for me. Maybe that’s a reflection on printmaking.

You do let much of your material assert its physicality.

I really like physical stuff.

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