By Tay Greenleaf
At first glance, Gary Cooley’s portfolio seems like it couldn’t possibly be the work of a single person. There’s a November landscape teeming with hues of pink and orange, a profile portrait of Muddy Waters, a digital rendering of Obi-Wan Kenobi, and an oil scene of two girls, the neighbor’s kids, playing in his backyard. Each subject and medium is slightly different, yet a signature liveliness unites them.
“I’ve never been the type of artist to think about my style — it’s all about the subject and what gives it life, and somehow my work still ends up looking like it’s mine,” says Cooley. “I don’t gravitate towards anything in particular. I just have to paint.”
Although his résumé includes illustrating for the Star Wars franchise and for various major publishers and advertisers, Cooley put the fast-paced art world aside to find a greater joy putting oil to canvas in his home studio in Hendersonville and at his gallery on Depot Street in Asheville’s River Arts District. “I was tired of painting through the dead of night to reach deadlines — I’d much rather paint in the daylight on my own time,” he says. “One day I decided it would be better for me to get my hands dirty in my own home with my own paints.”
Now Cooley paints at his own pace, usually focusing on local landscapes and portraits of community members. He’s often seen behind his easel on Wednesday nights in downtown Tryon, depicting locals and passersby. It’s something of a new form of going to the office.
Except no office rules apply. “A lot of times I end up paying my subjects for sitting with me for that long,” he admits with a chuckle. Many subjects buys their portraits, but if they don’t, he just adds the finished canvas to his collection: “It’s really just a way to keep me painting anyhow.”
Cooley will do commissions, but with a catch: “I hate when people send me photos of the subject they want painted and go, ‘Make this art!’” he says. For him, nailing someone’s essence isn’t a two-dimensional thing. “I need to meet the subject to really paint them. It’s [about] more than what a person looks like.”
He recalls being commissioned to paint the deans of a private college. The administrators of the school had sent him smiling, stiff photos of the subjects, and after a couple failed attempts, he had to ask to meet all the men in person.
“People don’t realize that a photo and a painting can’t be interchangeable,” he says. “It takes a lot more to capture a person in brushstrokes than to capture them in time.”
Cooley realizes not everyone wants to sit a long time for a portrait, but he insists it’s the only way to get the job done. “I don’t settle for a portrait that isn’t quite right — sometimes I’ve had to go back to people after days of painting and tell them I have to start over.”
But he says his actual style is looser than it used to be. Away from the strict guidelines of his illustration days, he’s learned to love a slower process. He finds happiness setting up his canvas and paints outside, influenced by the sunlight he never got to see in his New York illustration studio.
“I’m tired of doing tightly rendered things,” says Cooley. “The fewer strokes the better.”
Gary Cooley, 1832 Upper Ridgewood Blvd., Hendersonville. Cooley opens his home art space for the 8th annual Open Studio Tour of Henderson County, happening Saturday, Sept. 22 and Sunday, Sept. 23, 10am-5pm. The event is a free, self-guided driving tour showcasing 50 painters, potters, sculptors, glass artists, and woodworkers organized into nine regional “art pods” (Cooley’s pod is in North Hendersonville). The preview party is Thursday, Sept. 20, during the free Rhythm & Brews outdoor concert series in downtown Hendersonville, 5-8pm. Tour brochures are available in Flat Rock at The Gallery at Flat Rock (2702-A Greenville Hwy.) and Firefly Gallery (2689-D Greenville Hwy.), and in Hendersonville at The Starving Artist (814 Kanuga Road), CANVAS ArtSpace (212 S. Church St.), and Art Mob Studios & Marketplace (124 4th Ave. East). For more information about the participating artists, see hcost.org.