From a distance, you look at the picture and see an undulating mass of black ink. It is an incomprehensible tangle, a gnarled mess. Walk closer though, and you enter a city that you only think you know. The lines ripple and undulate across the paper, which is wrinkled itself and rippling across the wall. Up close you see the handiwork that built the streets of Cincinnati, wiggling up and around hills, making swift time down to the river. You see the buildings that define this place, black lines that in their stern sturdiness and humble directness accurately depict a tower, a block, a city with a fading German accent. The drawing—great layers of pen work that multiply on the paper, that push up from it—give the city an incredible activity. It throbs with energy, the streets humming like electric cables.
A few square inches are enough to flood your senses; faced with 20 or so square feet of this urban scrawl, you are dropped into one man’s dizzying need to capture this town.
It is a map, one that lives most fully in the imagination of the artist Courttney Cooper, who spends months making his large drawings. It is a map of a place—maybe better than Siri for getting you around town—and of one person’s obsession with that place.
Cooper has studied maps and travelled around town and he remembers the kind of detail that few of us ever notice. Symphonic visions of Cincinnati are a specialty, but he also focuses on other local aspects. Early on, his art rendered Kings Island, and he has drawn a wonderful series of watercolors of Union Terminal, some of which just happen to be populated by a cast of comic book superheroes. Later this year, Visionaries + Voices will present a Cooper-curated gallery of Oktoberfest-inspired beer stein art at Funke Fired Arts. Cooper loves Oktoberfest the way North Korea loves making nuclear threats, the way Kanye West loves Kanye West. In 2012, he did the chicken dance onstage in Fountain Square. What Memphis is to William Eggleston or London was to Charles Dickens, Cincinnati is to Courttney Cooper: a life force.
This May, something exciting and unexpected happened: Cooper’s work went on view inside the Cincinnati Art Museum. It’s a big deal because any contemporary artist faces challenges in getting their work shown in a great museum in their lifetime. It’s also a big deal because Cooper doesn’t work within typical art world circles. He doesn’t have the usual kind of connections.
That, however, is starting to change. He’s entered a tangled world of lines and found his way into the center. Mastering the city, Cooper has found a home.
Here are some of the things that Courttney Cooper is:
Bagger at Kroger
A big ice tea drinker
Country music fan
Having read that last one, can you even remember anything else on the list? The very word autistic pulls a shade down between the subject and object. To the degree that people with autism seem to occupy a different world, or block out this one, any art they make gets understood as a message from Some Other Place. Also, there’s the way arts and crafts have been used as therapy for people with disabilities, giving rise to a patronizing set of feelings attached to the things they make. But one glance at Cooper’s watercolors, sculpture, collage, and drawings reveals he’s living in a place that’s identifiably the one we all know. As for sympathy, the work turns that away with a flick of the wrist.
Another problematic word: outsider. There are outsider art galleries, dealers, collectors, and scholars these days. The art world rubric is used to categorize work by autistic painters and others with disabilities, but it covers a vast amount of ground beyond: Everything from the colorful folk art of the late Reverend Howard Finster to the recently discovered paintings of the self-taught artist George W. Bush. Like “autistic,” “outsider” too pulls the art away from the viewer: If Cooper’s work is “outsider,” does that mean every artist without a disability is an “insider”?
The Cincinnati Art Museum show is called Cincinnati Everyday, and it runs through September 22. It is a two-man exhibition. The other presence is Cole Carothers, a locally-born painter and, it could be said, a to-the-marrow insider. He has taught painting at the Art Academy of Cincinnati, been an adjunct professor of design at the University of Cincinnati, received grants, is in numerous public collections. He frequently works within two standard painting genres, the studio still life and landscape.
Like Cooper, Carothers has a deep interest in painting the city. Where Cooper waves his passion like a banner, Carothers is droll about it, misleadingly offhand: He paints a studio with an open window, through which you glimpse the city at an angle. He paints the back of a big box store, or an industrial valley bisected by freeways. His feelings are complicated and reveal themselves slowly.
Carothers is excited about the show, and sounds even more excited about the pairing. “Courttney is a unique artist, and his way of expressing something about this city is pretty fascinating to me,” Carothers says one afternoon sitting in his garage studio in Milford with power tools and paint scattered about. “He puts a lot of complexity into it. And I do, too. But we’re coming from different places.”
Carothers says it’s important to look at the work and respond to what you see, rather than viewing it through the filter of what is known of his or Cooper’s story. “If people are told to respond to it differently, maybe they do,” he says. “That’s why people who are coming to it with, let’s say, discretionary information are going to see it in a totally different way than those who have no information. To me, that’s an interesting question.”
The show’s curator is Matt Distel, an exhibition director for The Carnegie in Covington who also serves as an adjunct curator at CAM. Distel knows that in pairing Cooper and Carothers he walks an unavoidable line: He wants people to view Cincinnati Everyday and ponder the contrasting work but he doesn’t want to be seen as making a socio-cultural statement. “I’m not using Cole to make a point about Courttney,” he says. “Each is mining the city for its resources, and they come to some pretty dramatically different places—and that’s interesting.
“Putting Courttney’s work in a museum context does not feel forced to me at all,” Distel adds. “Certainly the work is ready for any accolades it receives, much as is true with Cole. [Cincinnati Everyday] legitimizes the art in a way that I think is really important. There’s a lot of ways you can establish someone as a relevant artist—gallery system, collectors, through a museum. Courttney’s been gathering steam through collectors and galleries and this is a really prestigious jump forward.”
The show, which would only be better if it was bigger, discards at least some of the associations that attach themselves to art made by the autistic, or by outsider artists: that it’s otherworldly, or so much its own thing that it can only be seen with other outsiders. That it is somehow childlike, or just incredibly direct and visceral, as it would have to be since the people who make it aren’t “thinking,” they are merely channeling some inner currents that only they connect with. Pondering an artist’s mental state may expand an understanding of the work, as considering Jackson Pollock’s alcoholism and depression, or William Blake’s visions, might cast light on their achievement. But it can also limit your response.
Monica Cooper, a five-foot-tall sparkplug in jeans and sneakers, was watching TV late one night in 1977. A World War II film was on, about an American soldier serving on the front, and the plot just didn’t make sense. “I couldn’t see how he could be at war and romantically chasing this lady at the same time,” she says with a cackle. But it got her attention. The soldier’s name was Courtney, and Monica knew she had a name for the son she was carrying.
As a baby, Courttney did not speak, or seem alert; doctors tested his hearing before finally reaching a diagnosis that his autism would keep him from ever talking or communicating. “They said that mentally he wasn’t gonna be able to come out of himself,” Monica says. Over time, he not only learned to talk but to enjoy the kind of attention some children with autism don’t like; he also doesn’t mind being touched. “It never dawned on me that they would be right in the first place. I just did a lot of praying,” says his mother. “[Doctors] don’t know everything—and the amount of things they don’t know could fill up two or three football fields.”
Cooper started talking at three, and later exhibited some of the qualities of a savant, memorizing the phone book and spitting out numbers at will. He can tell you what day of the week you were born on, and never forgets a birthday. He’s also not afraid to speak his mind.
“I’m the one and only artist” in his family, Cooper says. “I got one brother named Parris. I think Parris is not an artist. Parris is a full-time hustler.”
One day while playing outside, he pulled together bricks, rocks, stones, and detritus and built a recognizable version of the downtown skyline. The city has always inspired him, and there is an uncanny aspect to this relationship, too. He has committed many parts of it to memory, possibly using a map in the White Pages. Even today, as he draws, he likes to have a phone book handy for reference. “When you are driving around with him he is photographing mentally every street you go down,” says Bill Ross, who first met Cooper in his job as a county social worker. “When you cross a street, he’s looking both ways, checking references in his head that are already there just to see if he’s accurate.”
Where does this intense interest in the physical nature of Cincinnati come from? “I...have...no...idea,” his mother says.
As a kid, Cooper sometimes wandered off, and was picked up more than once by the police and threatened with institutionalization. Once he drifted into a Mensa convention at the Westin Hotel and sat down in the middle of a “Come Dressed As Your Favorite Pun” dinner party. While the Mensa members contemplated what pun he was dressed as, Courttney ate contentedly.
He might never have gotten a show at CAM, or had a chance to develop his talents, but for meeting Cheryl Beardslee, who was teaching a self-contained special education class at Merry Middle School in 1991. She took her students out on field trips in her car, to museums and galleries and different neighborhoods. One day, motoring past a distinctive Victorian house, she offhandedly told Cooper to remember it because she wanted him to draw the house when they got back to class. She was impressed by the precision of his representation.
Six years later, Beardslee heard of an artists’ co-op in Newport that exhibited local work, and she made a few calls on behalf of Cooper. The co-op expressed interest and asked that he come down for an interview.
“‘That is going to be impossible,’ I told them,” says Beardslee. “‘First because Courttney has autism. Second because his mom won’t let him out at night.’”
So they asked if Beardslee could stand in at his interview. “We all sat in a room, and round-robin, I tried to answer their questions as best I could,” she recalls. Cooper got the show, but then the gallery was sold and transformed into the York Street Café. Somehow Beardslee convinced the new owner to let Cooper exhibit there, at the beginning of 1998. Now he works at York Street on weekends.
In 2003, Cooper met Keith Banner and Bill Ross. Both were social workers by day, but Ross was also a painter, and Banner had a master’s in writing. Ross had been assigned to work with a man named Raymond Thunder-Sky, a local character renowned for happily wandering around town in a clown costume. Thunder-Sky was also, however, an accomplished artist who over the years quietly made hundreds of simple but striking pictures of construction sites. It was from this and several other encounters with local artists that Banner and Ross ultimately organized Visionaries + Voices, a local art center that works with artists with disabilities.
Beardslee was now teaching at Western Hills High School, and Cooper was volunteering at a class she taught when the two men came to talk with the students. They had just opened a studio on Essex Place and had incorporated as a nonprofit. Their approach was not to “teach” art to disabled students but to give them whatever tools were needed to let them make art. They invited Cooper to come by Visionaries + Voices; he started coming almost every day after work.
Banner: “It was like leading a fish—”
Ross: “—to the ocean.”
The founders of Visionaries + Voices have always contended that the success of their project would come at the moment when a critic gave one of their exhibitions not a good review, but a bad one. That is, when viewers could judge the work in front of them the way they judge any other piece of art. An artist with a disability is likely to get points from sympathetic viewers, and sympathy scrambles their ability to honestly respond to what is in front of them. The artist’s struggle to communicate, or survive, becomes the story, not the skills they have mastered to make something that matters. In short, pity corrupts.
Then there is the problem of preconceived ideas about how these artists work—the same issue Carothers spoke of. “When people encounter artists with disabilities, there are times when it becomes ‘Oh, this is very pure unfiltered expression,’” says Distel, who served as executive director of V+V from 2011 until this spring, taking over after Ross and Banner left to start the Thunder-Sky, Inc. gallery in Northside. “Sometimes this is true. But it also ignores or obscures the fact that there are choices being made. That certainly is the case for Courttney, and for many of the artists we work with.”
Distel comes out from behind the desk he’s about to give up at V+V—he had not yet started his new gigs at the Carnegie and CAM when we met—and pokes through work by some of the 150 artists that is stored all over his office before pulling out a few of Cooper’s maps. Spidery lines at the bottom form a fortress-like wall of the cityscape as seen from across the Ohio River. There’s so much detail it’s easy to miss, but squeezed in on one of the pieces beside more familiar downtown landmarks are a set of twisty, ornamental spires that are identifiable as the Watts Towers, a landmark of Southern California. The towers—built by an Italian artisan who lived in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts a century ago—are a collection of 17 structures, including towers that are about 99 feet tall, made of steel and concrete and found objects. They amaze in part because they were the inspiration and labor of one untrained person. The Towers are among the most celebrated examples of “outsider art” in the United States, and here they are popping up out of the Cincinnati skyline, rooting themselves in the spirit of Cooper’s work.
On one level, you wonder what the Towers mean to Cooper, why he has punctuated his pen-and-ink reportage with something so fanciful and distant from his hometown. But the question ultimately becomes: What does it mean to the viewer when the artist puts an emotional landmark—an acknowledged masterpiece—in his otherwise accurate representational map of the city? We want the artist to explain, yet the only lasting answers come from our own experience with the work.
On a recent weekday night, I stop by V+V’s Northside studio (there’s also one in Springdale) to watch Cooper draw. He has just gotten off his job bagging groceries at Kroger in Walnut Hills, where he’s worked for 15 years; we shake hands and he rustles up a chair for me. “I’ve been working at Visionaries and Voices for about nine years,” he says. “I travel all over the place, I walk around the neighborhoods and I ride the bus sometimes, too.”
We talk about some of his favorite parts of town. “Mainstrasse Village. Nice. And Fountain Square. And Sawyer Point and Newport on the Levee...” He kisses a teacher on the cheek as she leaves.
“My favorite festival is Oktoberfest carnival. Because Oktoberfest carnival is kind of big. Rides, games, arts and crafts, German food vendors, restaurants and German beer vendors and beer gardens, too. All things German. And also thousands of barrels of beer. There are a lot of German people in Cincinnati.”
He has spread out his materials on a long cafeteria-style table. There is plenty of space to pull his map out of his backpack and unfold its many pages. Cooper calls the big pieces maps, not art. I ask him if they are meant to be real guides to the city, and he says “literally maps.” He treats them more like the map in your glove compartment than a work destined for a museum wall. There are food stains and numerous liquid spills across the page. “It’s something he lives with more than puts on a pedestal,” says Carothers with admiration. “I’ve kind of taken that away as a pretty good thing.”
The maps are drawn mostly on eight-and-a-half by 11-inch paper he brings from Kroger—butcher paper, office forms, applications glued together into large white spaces to draw on. Spread across the table in front of him is the beginning of a new piece. A phone book is thumped down on top for easy reference. The streets he will eventually get to, but first comes the true foundation of his work: language. There are riveting, provocative shreds of utterances—heard and imagined—that the artist collects as he walks around town, written across the paper. Here are a few he has jotted down tonight:
• God I love Oktoberfest so much
• America’s super princess
• “Darin” “What?” “I told you to get those fat smelly people out of the stores, restaurants and work place areas NOW got it!”
• Rip into a Ripplins
• Hmmm lights on the dark side of the moon
The riverine stretch of the I-75 freeway swirls up the left side of the paper. But mostly there are just words here, which will slowly, painstakingly get covered over by the careful lines that form the buildings, streets, and monuments of Cincinnati. You could write a powerful essay about Cooper’s process of building a city, imposing order on the chaos of language at the base. “He’ll write down some of the dirtiest, meanest things, like he has to get it off his chest, and then he buries it under the city he loves. I think that’s so poetic,” says Banner.
Cooper’s hand moves with economic grace across the page, briskly drawing charged lines, scratchy lines, champion lines with an authoritative twist. All in plain black Bic pen.
When not working, he roams the large room, an amiable, gentlemanly presence. There’s a measure of charisma, even swagger to the way he moves. He’ll peek in on what others are doing, offer a compliment, then saunter back to his table. Whether by design or by accident he takes up a lot of space, and leaning over his map, his scattered drawings, his pens (each with a star taped to the end), he could be a commodore, albeit one with an easygoing command. “Like a Magellan,” Banner says with a smile.
Lifting a stein of iced tea up and down, banging it on the map and leaving puddles and rings on the work, he looks over the room, raises it up again and shouts, “Toast! Toast!”
Somewhere the chicken dance is playing, and folks dressed up as their favorite puns are shaking their tail feathers. Meanwhile here on a quiet side street in Northside, Cooper offers tribute to this room and moment, in a place that he has made his home.
Originally published in the June 2013 issue.
Illustration by Mario Wagner
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