Wed | Aug 16, 2017

Cecil Cooper - Remembering the work of a legendary artist

Published:Sunday | September 18, 2016 | 9:00 AM

Cecil Cooper, retired educator, musician, and realist painter, who passed away on Thursday, has left behind a lasting legacy that will continue to reverberate within the visual and performing arts landscape in Jamaica way into the future.

Cooper's passing comes just over a week after he was conferred with Jamaica's fifth highest honour, the Order of Distinction (Commander Class), at a special investiture ceremony at King's House.

He was one of the first students to graduate from the Jamaica School of Art diploma programme in 1966. During that time, he was taught by artists such as Barrington Watson, who was then the director of studies and head of the painting department; Karl Parboosingh; Vernal Reuben; Milton Harley; and Albert Huie who was the 'artist in residence'.

In those days, he gravitated towards a style incorporating an expressive realism.

Cooper's first exhibition was held at the Gallery of the Contemporary Jamaican Artists' Association. However, his talents were not restricted to the visual arts. He was also a talented classical musician. For that he was awarded a scholarship by the Jamaican Government to study music in New York.

He attended the Art Students League, where he studied under the African-American abstract expressionist Norman Lewis and, a few years later, he attended the School of Visual Arts, where he obtained his Bachelor of Fine Arts Degree in 1976.

Cooper began his professional career as a fine artist exhibiting in New York galleries, returning to Jamaica in 1980, when he began teaching painting at the Jamaica School of Art, now the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts. For three decades, Cecil Cooper provided intellectual leadership at the School of Art, inspiring many generations of students from across the Caribbean to develop their talents.

Familiar images in Cecil Cooper's paintings are geometric masks that both conceal and reveal the human face. One of his early paintings, 'Warriors' (1980), embodies fierce resistance, with the militant faces overlapping in a tightly knit brotherhood, and the powerful image of community is also seen in many of Cooper's later works.

Meanwhile, another of his pieces, 'Rites of Spring', uses intertwining female faces to create a sensuous sisterhood, while there is also a hint of the female body as a musical instrument.

The 2015 painting 'Devotion' sustains the image of fertility with the inclusion of a fish, a sign of pregnancy in Jamaican folk culture. In other paintings, the female body is presented as delicious fruits and flowers.

Music is also a favourite theme in Cooper's work as seen in the titles of some of the paintings from his 2012 solo exhibition: 'Music' (1 and 2), 'Adagio', 'Interlude', and 'Reverie'.

In celebration of his birthday in June, he unveiled his final exhibition, 'Milestone - Cecil Cooper at 70', an exhibition featuring works from his collection from 1948 to 2016 at the Olympia Gallery in Kingston.