Karen Cooper | Stories in the Shadows

Karen Cooper makes us see what’s not really there

By Gussie Fauntleroy

Karen Cooper, Back Rub, pastel, 24 x 20.

Karen Cooper, Back Rub, pastel, 24 x 20.

This story was featured in the June 2015 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art June 2015 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story!

On more than one occasion, collectors of Karen Cooper’s art have been so certain that an image was fully painted, every detail clearly revealed, that they actually argued with the artist. They insisted, for example, that they could clearly see a horse’s entire flank as it hid in the shadows. In the viewer’s mind there was no question—the full image was there. Except it wasn’t. The areas where the eye so confidently perceived mass, form, and line, albeit in shadow, were in fact the solid black of pastel paper untouched by any marks.

This is the magic of Cooper’s signature style. After years of studying the use of negative space as an integral, dynamic part of a composition, she knows what can be left out and just how much information must be included for the image to read as a whole, even when key passages are omitted. It’s a style that—along with Cooper’s fluency in soft pastel and her remarkable sense of movement, color, and light—has gained a strong and growing collector base and earned the artist numerous awards and museum exhibitions over the years.

Cooper’s husband, Dwight, may not have had all this in mind when he informed his wife, on their honeymoon in 2002, that it was time for her to turn her full attention to art. “He said, ‘You told me that when your kids were grown and gone, you would sell your house in California and move somewhere to be a full-time artist,’” she remembers, sitting in her studio on an escarpment overlooking the Guadalupe River and reservoir in Kerrville, TX. She and Dwight had met in Sedona, AZ, on the first morning of a vacation she took following her father’s death in August 2001 and the events of September 11. They were married the following Valentine’s Day and lived in Pacific Grove, CA, for less than a year before packing up and moving down a long dirt road just south of Santa Fe, NM. There, on a bright winter day, Cooper took photos of a neighbor’s horse in its luxurious thick coat. She used the photos as reference for a pastel painting. It sold right away. It wasn’t the first time she had painted in rich colors on black pastel paper, but it was the first horse. And that horse pushed open a pivotal door to western imagery in her art.

Cooper’s earliest steps into art took place in Northern California under the attentive eye of two teachers in her elementary school. The first was Cooper’s second-grade teacher, who noticed that Cooper liked to color and was good at it. That teacher’s sister was Karen’s third-grade teacher, who watched for her pupil’s budding talent and actively encouraged it, even in non-art subjects. “I was turning in [all my assignments] illustrated. My teacher was so charged with that, and pushed me so much, that by the time I was 8, I’d decided I wanted to be a famous artist,” she relates. Growing up hearing about her ancestors in California’s pre-gold-rush days, she had no desire to be infamous like her great-grandmother’s second cousins, outlaws Frank and Jesse James. Her aim was simply to become the most accomplished artist possible. As a teen she began leaning toward dry media, delighting in scratchboard beginning when she was 15. “Even then, I was working with negative space, finding the light out of the dark. It was just the most natural thing for me,” she says.

Karen Cooper, Bird Brain and Horse Sense, pastel, 12 x 10.

Karen Cooper, Bird Brain and Horse Sense, pastel, 12 x 10.

Following high school, Cooper studied in Sweden as an exchange student in an experimental art school, where the focus was copper-plate etching and oil painting. The experience reinforced her disinclination for paints and also introduced her, through her Swedish host, to textile art. Back in California at San Francisco State University, she earned a bachelor of fine arts in textiles, taking advantage of the presence of two of the foremost weaving instructors of the time. Cooper’s interest also led to a two-week sojourn in Guatemala to study backstrap weaving with indigenous weavers. Although a seemingly incongruous step along her artistic path, weaving gave her a strong sense of color and its variations, which she continues to draw on today. Still, as intricate and beautiful as textiles can be, she knew they were not considered fine art at the time. Meanwhile she had become a divorced mother of two young boys and wanted a way to make a living at home.

As heartbroken as she was to put aside her dream of art, she discovered a love for architectural design, earned an associate degree, and embarked on an architectural rendering career. That came to a halt nine years later when computer-aided design replaced hand-rendering. But again the experience left her with invaluable skills, including meticulous attention to detail. “You had to draw it right, or you didn’t get paid,” she says. She also became adept at understanding shadows and light. “In architectural rendering you can set the degree of sun level, and it determines how deep the shadows are,” she explains. “I do that in my work now by how I take photos. I’m very conscious of shadow patterns.”

Cooper’s first painting in pastel on black paper featured a man holding up and gazing at a glass of red wine illuminated by slanting light from a wine cellar’s high window. The result did not quite capture the light’s smoky, atmospheric feeling, as the artist would have liked. “But it was so bold and different, it caught people’s eyes. The technique caught the eye of friends in the art world,” she says. Encouraged, she continued. Her second painting was perfect: a Guatemalan woman in a brightly colored huipile (traditional blouse), gently swinging an incense censer as she stands in a shaft of light inside a shadowy church. In New Mexico, Cooper happened upon a rodeo, and her compositions quickly gained more movement and visual excitement. A few years later she was invited to exhibit at the Museum of Western Art in Kerrville, TX. She and Dwight were entranced by the Texas Hill Country and settled in Kerrville in 2012. Since then her art has continued to garner top awards, including the Cowgirl Up! show’s inaugural first-place award for works on paper in 2013. Her paintings are in the permanent collections of the Booth Western Art Museum in Cartersville, GA, and the Pearce Museum in Corsicana, TX. And her piece titled BACK RUB was unanimously selected as the official poster for this year’s Cheyenne Frontier Days rodeo.

Karen Cooper, Coffee Break, pastel, 12 x 24.

Karen Cooper, Coffee Break, pastel, 12 x 24.

Today the 62-year-old artist begins new work by combing through the photos she has taken at rodeos, ranches, and other visually interesting locations. She produces extremely precise drawings in which, at this stage, nothing is left out. Even objects and figures in deep shadow are fully drawn, to ensure anatomical accuracy and allow the eye to connect parts of the image that will be separated by black. “Once I go to paint, everything has to be in the right place,” she says. Before transferring the drawing to “toothy” black paper, which can hold multiple layers of soft pastel, she erases all the drawing lines where only black will remain. Then she begins to apply color, starting with deep, dark shades and building up to as many as 10 layers to achieve her work’s distinctive, sumptuous color and luminous glow.

Among Cooper’s favorite visual qualities are the tension and speed that epitomize action in the rodeo arena. Even better is a close-up view of that action, which she has enjoyed capturing at Cheyenne Frontier Days. With a photo pass to an underground concrete bunker inside the arena, the artist shoots scores of photos—bull riders, barrel racers, calf ropers, bronc busters—all captured through a ground-level camera slit. “It’s a 100 percent different perspective because you’re looking from the ground up. You see a whole different set of muscles and power, a whole different dynamic,” she says. A good example is her piece PICK UP SPEED, which features a rodeo pickup man, trained to retrieve loose animals or thrown riders and lead them safely out of the arena. In this case the pickup man’s steed is racing side-by-side with the horse he’s about to rope.

Not all of Cooper’s imagery involves action or western scenes, though. Quiet moments between humans and animals, or among animals, reflect her deep interest in relationships between living creatures. BIRD BRAIN AND HORSE SENSE, for instance, was the result of seeing a gorgeous, iridescent starling perched on a fence near a horse’s head. Aware that starlings like to hang around corrals and eat insects from horses’ coats, she created a painting celebrating that symbiotic relationship. Recently she also has begun expanding more into architectural subjects and interiors, with a special focus on historic mission churches in highly textured stucco and stone. As in all her work, Cooper employs the rich black depths of shadow to accentuate interesting patterns and suggest the whole story by telling only certain parts. “Collectors tell me the paintings never get static because the eye is constantly re-engaged,” she says. “The eye has to solve that puzzle again every time.”

Cowboy Bronze Fine Art Gallery, Fredericksburg, TX.

Featured in the June 2015 issue of Southwest Art magazine–click below to purchase:
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