Mixed-media artist still feels the pull of classical European influences

The cathedrals of Europe inspire Cathryn Cooper when she paints Western North Carolina’s tall trees. Photo by Karin Strickland

As a young girl, Cathryn Cooper was already a collector of odd bits of paper, leaves, ribbons — anything that caught her eye. “I liked the tactile quality they offered,” Cooper says. It’s a habit that still figures intimately in her collaged drawings and mixed-media pieces. “Objects become totems useful in storytelling,” she adds.

Cooper works in a variety of media — from graphite drawings, watercolor, and oils to photography — and her striking collages combine natural elements with religious iconography. “I am finding my way,” Cooper notes. The collages were her primary means of expression for some time, constructed from her trove of found objects but without any drawn figurative elements. “They were more about color, texture, and composition,” explains Cooper — although she sometimes fashioned a collage’s elements to recall traditional portraiture.

Watery Landscape

“Only recently have I felt the need to include faces and contrast the starkness of graphite drawings with the objects and the painting,” she explains. “They are the icons and storytellers for me.”

Among her most potent influences are the soaring Perpendicular Gothic cathedrals of Europe, particularly Notre Dame in Paris, where Cooper sought answers to her fascination with the religious and spiritual. “The extreme verticality, the feeling of light and dark, felt comforting and embracing,” she says, remembering her immersion in the cathedral’s vast interior. “There’s a mystery offered in that experience that I want to explore. I don’t feel much of an attachment to any one religion, but I feel the need to embrace a certain reverence for the divine.”

Morning on Cold Mountain Rd

Arches and soaring vaults are echoed in Cooper’s graphite drawings of the tree-vaulted country roads through the Western North Carolina hills, drawings which capture the otherworldliness of a spiritual life. “I am undertaking to convey that sense of light and dark, of serenity and healing to the viewer,” Cooper says.

The acrylic glaze she adds to some of these drawings replicates the play of light through stained glass.

Also potent was a visit to the Sistine Chapel, where she zeroed in on Michelangelo’s rendition of the oracular, muscular Delphic Sibyl. “Her face felt both male and female to me. I’ve done different drawing renditions of her in collages,” Cooper says. “She’s a soothsayer, and she and the other faces I draw are the storytellers for me. But it’s less about any verbal explanation I can give and more about what the observer will receive.”

Other figures that appear frequently are crows and ravens, whose intelligence and playful nature are a constant in folklore from around the world, and whom the artist considers her “spirit animals.”

Illuminated Foliage

Cooper’s grounding in skillful drawing began early, at age six, when she began art classes in her hometown of Atlanta. “My grandmother was instrumental in getting me into the classes,” she says. Her grandmother also taught her to play piano (Cooper’s mother, too, was a talented pianist and singer). “I sang in the church choir and at school, and even now classical music is very much on my radar to listen to when I’m working.”

Later on, Cooper got a scholarship to the Atlanta College of Art (now absorbed into the Savannah College of Art and Design), graduating in 1980. Her first experience of Notre Dame and other European sites came in 1993, when she won a painting competition to mark the 500th anniversary of the French art-paper manufacturer Arches.

Her association with Brevard’s Artists at Work, a studio gallery she shares with two others, has been her latest grounding force. “It’s set me back on my right path,” Cooper says. “I stumbled for several years as an artist trying to find inspiration, but now I have the opportunity to join a group of artists who feed my sense of purpose again.”

Cathryn Cooper, Artists at Work Studio & Gallery (4 West Main St., in the McMinn Building, downtown Brevard). The gallery is open Wednesday through Saturday, 10:30am-5:30pm, and from 5-8pm on Friday, March 23, for a special event Brevard’s first . For more information, call 828-577-2719 or check out the gallery’s Facebook page; also see cathrynpcooper.blogspot.com

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