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Cooper’s oeuvre is a ongoing narrative featuring Cincinnati, imparted with adoration and idealism. Drawings that are tenaciously committed to archiving the city’s developing reality in bic ballpoint pen, Cooper documents the destruction of old buildings and construction of new ones, while modifying details to reflect the time of year (often after they've been hung in an exhibition space). But they are also richly populated with celebratory, idealistic imagery - flags flying on rooftops, hot air balloons traversing the sky above the river, “Do not be afraid, be a precious friend! Zmile, you’re in Zinzinnati Ohio USA 2011”.
Cooper’s works are often characterized as maps, which isn’t an entirely accurate categorization. Visionaries + Voices’ Krista Gregory points out:
I've come to learn that Courttney has been drawing "aerial views" of Cincinnati since he was a small child, first using an etch-a-sketch. His mark-making certainly reflects having this type of information/tool...I see the work that Courttney creates more in the vein of landscape, or townscape; as they are romantic in their visceral love for this place...I think that this work being categorized as ‘maps’ is misleading and couches them in something that is more related to Courttney's disability rather than to what it is that he is actually expressing and creating. They are not accurate. They are not drawn completely from memory. I've witnessed people hold on to wanting to think these things because it makes the work accessible or novel in some way. I sort of think that it is a reductive way to see them
The desire to see Cooper’s works as maps may be the consequence of trying to categorize autistic thinking - relegating autistic artists as spectacles of savant-ism. Courttney Cooper, however, is not comparable to Stephen Wiltshire, for example; his drawings are not an accurate configuration of streets as a road map indicates, nor are they a repetitious anonymous depiction of a city in an illustrative way. They're indeed informed by an intimate experience with his city - an astounding wealth of information accumulating across increasingly massive surfaces (created by gluing together scrap paper that Cooper gathers while working at Kroger). But this isn't the subject of the work, it's only the formal foundation that serves as a vehicle for Cooper’s voice. Cooper’s drawings are a complex and authentic network of specific places and structures; his streets are composed of details from memory or observation, cataloging expressions of particular perceptions in particular moments. The relationship of these moments to each other in space is approximated, as in memory - all of which culminates in a dizzying realm of overlapping information that becomes a living record, adorned generously with nostalgic, commemorative expressions of community and identity.
Zinzinnati Ohio USA: The Maps of Courttney Cooper curated by Matt Arient, is a selection of Cooper's drawings from 2005 - 2015, currently on view at Intuit through May 29th. Cooper is represented by Western Exhibitions in Chicago, where he has an upcoming solo exhibition November 12 - December 31, 2016. Cooper has maintained a studio practice at Visionaries + Voices in Cincinnati since 2004; he has exhibited extensively in the greater Cincinnati area and has work in the Cincinnati Art Museum collection. Selected exhibitions include the Wynn Newhouse Exhibition at Palitz Gallery, Syracuse University (as a 2015 Wynn Newhouse Award recipient), Cincinnati Everyday at the Cincinnati Art Museum, Maps + Legends: The Art of Robert Bolubasz and Courttney Cooper at Visonaries + Voices, Studio Visions at the Kentucky Museum of Art, Cincinnati USA: Before Meets After at PAC Gallery, and Indirect Observation at Western Exhibitions.
Established 2003, Cincinnati Ohio
Ohio has a high concentration of quality progressive art studios compared to other states - 12 in 11 different cities across the state. During our research trip, we were able to visit both Visionaries and Voices (V+V) studio locations in Cincinnati. V+V embodies all of the essential qualities of a progressive art studio, providing two fine art open studio spaces that are utilized by more than 140 Cincinnati-based artists experiencing developmental disabilities. The studios are staffed by trained artists who provide non-intrusive guidance and facilitation, and the Northside location includes a professional exhibition space.
We spoke with Tri-County Studio Coordinator, Megan Miller and the Northside Studio Coordinator Theo Bogen during our visits; both are dedicated to and passionate about the mission of V+V and committed to facilitating the studio process based on what each artist is compelled to make.
V+V stands out because of its professional, egalitarian culture. The relationship of the staff to the artists in progressive art studios is often simplified in terms of teaching or facilitating. In practice, the latter is defined by hands-off assistance, allowing the artist to create freely, and the former is a more codependent or antiquated approach defined by teaching or instructing in a didactic sense. V+V not only demonstrates the more progressive approach, but also in a deeper way, shows that this bifurcation is just a piece of a more complex continuum. Artists at V+V work with not only a sense of ownership of their own practice and work, but also with ownership of the entire enterprise, the studio itself. They move freely throughout it, develop personalized workspaces with ongoing projects and materials, and enjoy a peer relationship with the assisting staff.
This culture may be explained by their unique history. The studio began as a work space for the late Raymond Thundersky (now a local legend), and slowly transitioned into a non-profit program over the years. The workspace was organized by a couple of social workers for Thundersky and a few other artists. The identity of the studio as a workspace provided wholey to a group of artists, as opposed to an art program functioning as a service provider, persists in the culture today, much to their benefit. Most prospective artists hear about the V+V by word of mouth and have an informal artist interview to determine if they’re a good fit for the studio. Ultimately, their admission is dependent primarily on whether they’re interested in working productively as an artist. To be productive, though, is not considered to be synonymous with being prolific, as many artists may be productively and creatively engaged without necessarily producing commercially viable or permanent works.
The V+V gallery usually hosts five exhibitions a year, and organizes exceptional group shows. They typically curate thoughtful exhibitions featuring 2 or 3 of their artists in a manner driven by those artists’ ideas. Sometimes artists function as curators as well. Furthermore, exhibition opportunities for artists’ work are sought out at galleries, museums, universities, and other venues on both a local and national level. In addition, a Teaching Artist Program (TAP) is offered as an option for artists that instead have an interest in pursuing visual art careers in teaching, speaking, and other leadership roles. TAP “supports those goals, while offering the community the opportunity to learn about art from a unique perspective. V+V artists who complete TAP courses bring lesson plans to classrooms, community centers, and partnering organizations all over greater Cincinnati. Each artist develops their own lesson plans customized to benefit students of all ages and abilities.”
Courttney Cooper creates elaborate map-like drawings of his home town, Cincinnati, at a fantastic progressive art studio in Cincinnati: Visionaries and Voices. Working from a vast memory, Cooper's ballpoint pen works on paper are faithful to the complex layout and architecture of his city. These large-scale works are the result of a detailed process that is difficult to fathom, accurately recording the time of year, current events, and modifying previous drawings to reflect modifications to the landscape. From Visionaries and Voices:
" Courttney Cooper walks the streets of the city, committing the places he visits to memory. Culling observations for cartographic translation in the studio, these “maps” take form on pieces of repurposed paper, from his day job at Kroger, which he glues together creating additional pictorial space as needed. “Bic” pen line drawings of Cincinnati neighborhoods undulate across the constructed surface." (V+V)
Cooper's work is currently on view with fellow V+V artists Robert Bolubasz and Roxann Panetti in their current exhibition "Maps and Legends," at their Tri-County location (225 Northland Blvd) until July 24th. Cooper has exhibited previously at the Cincinnati Art Museum in 2013, Western Exhibitions (Chicago) in 2012, and extensively in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky, including the Contemporary Art Center and Carnegie Visual and Performing Arts Center in Covington, KY.