Carole Cooke | An Independent Nature

Mysterious, oil, 20 x 24 by Carole Cooke
Mysterious, oil, 20 x 24 by Carole Cooke

By Virginia Campbell

Carole Cooke’s plein-air landscapes show a remarkably sure eye for composition and the intimate moods of light. But as a girl growing up amid the avocado and orange groves of Yorba Linda, CA, in the 1950s and ’60s, Cooke showed no overwhelming inclination toward becoming a painter. She drew pictures, yes, but not more than other kids. Given the choice, she opted instead for roaming the countryside, riding her horse over her family’s acreage, hiking in the Sierras, and hitching rides to the beach. The most dramatic evidence of her artistic talent may well have been the excuses she used to get out of school. “I had forged my dad’s signature so many times that even my dad couldn’t tell which ones were real when they called him in to look at all of the notes I’d written,” laughs Cooke. The desire to be out in the natural world rather than in a classroom—and to do what she wanted, rather than what was expected—ran notably deep.

All that said, Cooke’s present life as a full-time landscape painter in Pagosa Springs, CO, seems the life she was destined for, and inadvertently preparing for, during her years in Southern California. Today, Cooke lives on three acres in the middle of a meadow at 7,500 feet in the San Juan Mountains of southern Colorado. To the east runs the Continental Divide, to the north stands 12,000-foot Pagosa Peak, and nearby on the San Juan River are the healing waters of Pagosa Springs. “I am surrounded by what I want to paint—all day, every day,” she says. “Even inside my house, I’ll be walking by a window, look out, and just stop and stare.”

The key to the way Cooke’s life slowly conspired to maneuver her into wielding a brush and creating a new, ultimately more profound relationship to nature was her unfettered independence. “I didn’t stick to rules very well,” she says dryly. “It’s ironic that I’ve chosen such a traditional style of painting.”

By the time she got around to taking formal art classes at Fullerton Junior College, where she studied basics such as drawing, perspective, and composition, it was the 1960s and pop art and conceptual art were au courant. But such aesthetic adventures as creating giant teabags out of cheesecloth filled with avocado leaves failed to ignite any passion in Cooke. She took off for the mountains outside Albuquerque, NM, to become the hippie wife of a hippie husband and live in an A-frame cabin with no plumbing. “I painted stars on the ceiling of the outhouse,” she recalls, “and bought a horse.” About the time her husband traded the horse for a chainsaw to cut wood for the stove, and the first snowfall forced her to wear plastic baggies over her moccasins, Cooke’s romance with the lifestyle came to an end and she and her husband returned to Yorba Linda…

Featured in July 2007

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