It’s good to take stock of what you’ve accomplished – to note where you’ve been and consider how you got here. When Carol Pepper-Cooper looks back at her long engagement with artmaking, she sees her starts and stops, her changes in style and intensity. With no excuses – life simply intervenes and choices are made – she can now see the thread of artistic sensibility tying it all together. She has studied under many masters and exposed herself to a variety of media, yet her primary commitment to color, shape and context is still the same. And she’s not done yet.
“Growing!” is a retrospective solo show of Pepper-Cooper’s work, some of it dating back to 1957 when she was at Radcliffe College, where she earned a degree in English. Not yet a serious art student, she admits that dabbling in paint was “visual rumination” then. “I talk about my life as running to and from art. When I was 5, I remember doing a drawing and being praised for it. And that made a big impression on me. I’m sure I was praised for other things, too. Already, drawing mattered to me, but to find out that one could actually be praised…that was, well! By third grade, I announced that I wanted to be an artist.
“And at that time – it’s changed some now – the visual arts were not important. But somehow I clung to the idea of being an artist. I went to Harvard because I appreciated the life of the mind and wanted that kind of education as well. Every summer I took an art class. In my junior year, I went to the Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture in Maine, and I was practically the only non-art student there. It was fascinating to me to be around people my age who were very serious about art. I don’t remember them ever teaching anything; there weren’t classes. I never showed anything of what I was doing, but I was imbibing the attitude that the other students had. When I graduated the next year, it was very clear that I wanted to go on to art school.”
Instead, she got married immediately, and after a brief stint of painting sets at the Berkshire Playhouse, she moved to Illinois, where her husband was finishing his doctoral degree. Living in the Midwest was an eye-opener in many ways, not the least of which was enduring housing discrimination. Jews were not greatly welcome in the staid neighborhoods of Champaign-Urbana in the 1950s and ‘60s. Pepper-Cooper began to draw during her “off time” there, and accumulated a body of work that she could show when applying to the Pratt Institute, where she earned her MFA in both Painting and Drawing.
She talks about the balance between introspection and responding to exterior cultural influences. “Drawing takes hours and hours of studying a model; I’m sure that’s buried somewhere, how to focus and how to look. But at Pratt, Abstract expressionism ruled the day. Although I didn’t go totally non-objective when I was there, that attitude was very much in the work. Once I moved away from school, I could figure out what my interests were.”
But once again, other opportunities emerged, and she went into academia, first establishing the Art Department at St. Ann’s Lower School in Brooklyn Heights and then becoming a college dean. Oh, and having babies: two. “It wasn’t until I moved with my family to the Hudson Valley in 1974 that I decided it was time to stop being a ‘closet artist.’”
Tentatively showing her work and immersing in the local art scene brought on awards and citations that confirmed her calling – until, that is, she suddenly took up the study of Psychology and headed a tutoring program at SUNY-Ulster. When that program closed, Pepper-Cooper’s life took a turn once again: back to making art full-time. “It took me until the mid-‘80s before I said, ‘What am I running away from?’ Instead, I ran towards it. It feels good to run towards what you really love.”
Pepper-Cooper’s work sometimes relates directly to what’s happening in the world – for example, when she and her husband went to the March on Washington. “I stood in this crowd of thousands,” she says. “And I did a number of pieces that reflected that experience. Recently, I was given a commission to design three seven-foot stained glass windows for Temple Emmanuel on Albany Avenue. I was told that it couldn’t be representational, but that each one had to include music, light and justice. So I had to decide how to suggest those themes without figures. The rabbi told me she didn’t want red, which is a color I like a lot.”
In fact, red dominates much of the work that Pepper-Cooper has produced over the years. Bright colors define the space and hold the eye of anyone brave enough not to look away. She talks about dreaming her way into a painting – not a nighttime sort of dreaming; rather a state of mind disengaged from realism. “I’m trying to make the invisible visible. That’s why I’m not interested in producing something realistic; you can just use a camera for that!”
She points to a piece titled Portals and indicates how a seeming landscape is cut off with geometric streaks of blue coming down out of the sky. “When you look at it, you’re not sure what it is. I was trying to have an ambiguity, even though it’s not a non-objective piece. That thread of interest is in many of my works. The more recent work is more contemplative than my older work.”
Mounting a retrospective of this size, covering multiple decades, is a daunting task. The exhibit will fill all three rooms of the Doghouse Gallery in Saugerties with paintings that range from her earliest endeavors up through 2015. Now in her 70s, Pepper-Cooper is on the verge of a new direction, creatively speaking. It seemed the right time to show how her work has developed over the decades. “If not now, when?” she asks.
“This is a big show. The bottom floor will have the earliest work and a smattering from every decade. One room will be the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s. One room will be my recent work, from 2013 to ‘15. I realized I’m going to change the work, so this seemed like a good point to exhibit what I’ve done up to this point.
“The question was whether the collection would look like it was done by a whole lot of people or whether it would look like one person’s work. There are some people whose work has not changed over a long period of time. My work has really changed over the years. For many decades it was more representational, although not realistically so. But I’m not drawing a figure right now. So immediately there’s going to be a difference. I think that the forms, the rhythms of that thread, are still there for the perceptive eye.”
Pepper-Cooper describes “moving space around, and playing with the ambiguity of space.” So, even if a painting is somewhat referential – the landscape Portals – or even representational, that ambiguity is present. Asked about her process of introspection – how she dreams her way into a painting – and how trends in art or culture have affected what she does, she refers again to the overall movement of her own visualizations. A large body of work like this affords such an assessment.
“My MFA work [done in 1965], for example, was more figurative, very bright and in your face, hard-edged. Now my paintings are much more layered – that is, with many layers of color. As far as being affected by trends or the culture, I’m aware of what’s going on outside of Ulster County, and I’m sure influences have crept into my head, but I would be hard put to say how. I think the fact that I’m working completely non-objectively right now is one thing. I’m not sure what’s going on in New York now. Trends come and go.”
She credits teachers like Nicholas Buhalis, who gave her a structure to work in when she returned to painting. And Meredith Rosier “really opened her up” by suggesting provocative exercises and homework. “Often it’s just a word, and we make a drawing based on that word. She has us explore different concepts. Along with that, every class has an hour of library time – something she wants to teach us about in books and magazines. She recognizes each of us as an individual. She encourages each of us to find our own style.”
Named Distinguished Artist of 2014 by the Art Society of Kingston, Pepper-Cooper continues to grow as an artist. “I’ve been doing pastels recently, and I want to get back to oil painting or work more with ink. There are many things I’d like to try. I want to say something about getting older and finding out that you can still do it: You’re in your 70s, and you’re even getting better! This next phase I’m going into – I can’t wait. I want to encourage other older people to take chances. I have been lucky to lead a very full life, a life outside the arts. But now I don’t want to be diverted from the art at all.”
Pepper-Cooper’s retrospective will be exhibited through June 28. The Doghouse Gallery is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day and by appointment at (845) 246-0402.
“Growing! A Retrospective of 60 Years of Art by Carol Pepper-Cooper,” opening reception, Saturday, May 30, 4-7 p.m., Doghouse Gallery, 429 Phillips Road, Saugerties; (845) 246-0402, www.pepperPepper-Cooper.com.