Melissa J. Cooper | Friendly Creatures

By Gussie Fauntleroy
Ten years spent working in a foundry as a young woman did not incline Melissa J. Cooper toward becoming a sculptor. Starting at age 17, Cooper learned and performed virtually all the sweaty, labor-intensive steps involved in casting bronze at a Loveland, CO, foundry. She was assisting her father, sculptor Robert Larum, whose renderings of Arabian horses were selling so well that he couldn’t keep up with demand without some help. But not once during those years did Cooper pick up a chunk of wax or clay and ponder creating her own little work of art.

“It was not a pleasurable job. Foundry work is hard work and really dirty. I never thought I would do sculpture on my own, because I knew what it entailed,” Cooper relates, thinking back on those years as she sits in her spacious studio in Littleton, CO, in the Rocky Mountain foothills just south of Denver.

But what she didn’t know, as she prepared her father’s art for bronze pouring or welded sections of metal, was how much fun the actual sculpting part was. She didn’t realize how much she would enjoy using her hands and her imagination to shape a compelling form. “When I’m in the studio sculpting, I love it. I have the best job in the world,” she proclaims, adding that she remains involved in virtually every aspect of the bronze process. “Now I thrive on it. When it’s your own art, it’s completely different.”

Despite the grime and hard work, those years at the foundry were worth it, the 49-year-old, award-winning artist acknowledges. They gave her an invaluable education in working in bronze from the bottom up. As a result, she can visualize a complex three-dimensional design (without drawing it on paper), calculate the necessary structural strength and the interrelations of its various parts, and bring it to reality—in many cases without ever having seen how the artwork will look as a whole.

In her bird-and-vessel series, for example, the vessel, birds, and botanical elements are often sculpted separately in clay. The sections don’t become a single form until they’ve been produced in bronze and the artist welds them together and finishes the piece. It’s a way of creating made possible by a keen visual imagination, an intimate understanding of the medium in which she sculpts, and those years of experience in the numerous steps that lead from clay to bronze. Cooper also creates wildlife art (from 5-inch to monumental scale) depicting such creatures as rabbits, beavers, chipmunks, and bears—animals known for their combination of graceful shapes and, as the artist puts it, “fluffy and robust” charm.
Well before she began helping her father at the foundry, Cooper was steeped in the parallel worlds of nature and fine art. She grew up on an 18-acre parcel of land not far from where she now lives, with a cottonwood-shaded creek and small ponds for her playground and plenty of room to ride her horse. Her mother’s field glasses were always on a window ledge for bird spotting. Deer, coyotes, foxes, and porcupines were among the animal visitors the family often observed.

On the creative side of the equation, Cooper’s mother, Mary Jo Larum, was (and is) an artist doing china painting in elaborate floral styles. Larum taught china painting three days a week in her home when Cooper was a girl. Exposed to the fundamentals of composition, color, and form, the sculptor’s earliest artistic expression was painting on porcelain and, later, decorative painting on wood. “My mother was a huge influence,” she notes. “That was my introduction, really, to fine art. A lot of people don’t consider china painting fine art, but it is.”

Cooper’s father, who immigrated to Colorado from Norway at age 16, worked as a brick and stone mason until he fell from a scaffold and broke his leg. Always deft with his hands and brimming with creative energy, he took the unplanned opportunity to teach himself to sculpt. His first works were Viking busts, in honor of his homeland, but he soon turned to Arabian horses. “That was my introduction to three-dimensional art,” recalls Cooper, who was a young teen when her father began to sculpt.

Soon she was recruited to work alongside Larum as he produced his pieces at Art Castings of Colorado, a foundry in Loveland where then-owner Bob Zimmerman generously gave the pair free reign of the facility. They were offered a small room for metal chasing, and Cooper took over the welding equipment while the foundry employees were at lunch. Another remarkable aspect of working there was being introduced to some of the West’s most acclaimed sculptors—such as Gerald Balciar, Glenna Goodacre, and Dan Ostermiller—who at the time were just starting out. “I saw all their works and could appreciate them,” she says.

Yet it wasn’t until she left the foundry at age 27, after getting married and giving birth to her daughter, that Cooper created her first sculpture. It was a Christmas gift for her father, a square-sided vase adorned with bas-relief flowers, which she cast in bronze. “After that, I was hooked,” she remembers. “It was such a new creative release.” She took a sculpting class with Balciar at the Art Students League of Denver. There, in a 20-minute “quick draw” type of exercise, she used a photograph as reference to sculpt a chipmunk, her first animal piece.

Today Cooper consults her own extensive library of art and wildlife books as reference material. The Internet has also become a useful resource for inspiration and ideas, as is time spent outdoors on mountain trails. The sculptor shares her large studio and workshop with her father, and the two provide friendly critiques of each other’s art.

On her sculpting table at the moment is a bird-and-vessel piece: seven bluebirds with an oval-shaped “basket.” In all of Cooper’s work in this series, the vessels, branches, and floral forms provide an opportunity to incorporate delicately curving, contemporary, and geometric forms that contrast with her “fat and fluffy” birds. She considers the graceful botanical designs—and the fact that the vessels are always functional—as influence from her mother, while her love of cute and cuddly no doubt derives at least in part from an animal that shares the artist’s home: a Netherland Dwarf rabbit named Sammie. Sammie inspired one of Cooper’s most popular works, LILY, a life-sized bronze bunny.

While Cooper describes her wildlife figures as fluffy, much of the surface of her work, in fact, is smooth. The impression of a furry or feathery texture is achieved in part through distinctive marbleized patinas created by master patina artist Patrick Kipper, with whom Cooper has worked for many years. Patinas, not paint, also provide the vivid colors on some of her animals, especially birds. “He does the research, mixes his own chemicals, makes his own recipes,” the sculptor says of Kipper. “He’s the best.”

Cooper uses an impressionistic style for a creature’s body, but when it comes to the face, detail is key to infusing the animal with spirit and personality. “I try to capture the essence of their beauty,” she explains. “The face is where I want the detail to be. It can even be just the lip on a bear—grizzly bears have pouty lips. Or the eyebrows. If the eyebrows are high, the animal looks sharper and alert; if they’re lower, the animal looks quiet. In photographs of wildlife, something will catch my attention—the cock of a head or the position of a body. Sometimes I’ll put two pictures together and make it my own.”

As soon as springtime warms up the foothills and the wildlife starts emerging from hibernation and frequenting meadows and woods, Cooper is outside as much as possible, hiking with her husband or tending to another of her passions, her flower gardens. Being outdoors, of course, triggers more inspiration for her art. “Even just walking outside and seeing birds at the feeder, it’s like a switch flips on inside me that says, ‘I’ve got to capture that!’” she observes, smiling.

Her smile remains as she notes how the three things most important in her life—faith, family, and art—are closely intertwined. “Looking back on all the opportunities I’ve had, I wouldn’t have had them without what the Lord did for me,” she reflects. “I have so many ideas for my art, I just hope in my lifetime I can fulfill them. There’s so much beauty we’ve been given. If I could capture just a smidgeon of it, that would be awesome.” She pauses, a hint of tearful joy in her voice. “I have the perfect situation, and I’ve been given huge gifts. It touches my heart.”

Breckenridge Gallery, Breckenridge, CO; Cogswell Gallery, Vail, CO; Galerie Kornye West, Fort Worth, TX; Meyer East Gallery, Santa Fe, NM;
Upcoming Show
Sculpture in the Park, Loveland, CO, August 8-9.

Featured in June 2009