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A closer look at Alexander Cooper


- Contributed

A detail of 'Correctional Institution' by Cooper.

Sana Rose, Contributor

THE Annual National Exhibition, which opened last Sunday, has once again presented a special display of the work of yet another Musgrave Medallist, Alexander Cooper, who is the sole medal winner for art this year.

Born one of four children in 1934 to Rev'd. Violet Carby and Timothy Cooper, a fieldhand, Alexander Cooper hails from Enfield, St. Mary. He attended Ellison Elementary School on Windward Road, which has been extended to become Vauxhall Secondary High School.

In his youth, Alexander used to draw from comic strips and things around him and became very interested in art as he "realised that there was a great feeling for doing art". He states however, that "at that time, being an artist was unheard of in this country but funny enough, I liked the name, the name sounded good".

By age 12 to 14 he "knew exactly what I wanted to do" which was to be an artist. His mother supported his decision to pursue art and he enrolled at the Jamaica School of Art (now Edna Manley College of Visual Arts) and became a member of a class with about six or seven students.

Alexander learnt a lot from his first art school instructor, Ralph Campbell, and also other artists such as Albert Huie, who was an artist-in-residence at the time. After graduating in 1959, he attended the New York School of Visual Arts and the Art Student League in the United States, studying part-time while financing his studies with income earned through odd jobs and sales from his paintings.

The 1960s were very rewarding years for Alexander as he says, "I was well known in my country and from there on, there was no looking back".

He started exhibiting with the Hills Gallery in Jamaica from which income was earned for his studies abroad. He developed a love for landscape painting through the influence of Ralph Campbell and Albert Huie and remembered that "those fellows portrayed their country within a period". He shares both Campbell's and Huie's interest in history and legacy and wishes "to record a period of (my) country and to remind people of past lifestyles in Jamaica."

His subjects range from fishermen and various other beach scenes to old buildings, groups of persons playing dominoes etc., old and young couples dancing, rural scenes, nudes and the occasional portrait.

In terms of giving back to the community, Alexander taught full-time at Kingston College and part-time at the Jamaica School of Art. These were for him, "great years where there were a number of youngsters who are now artists and one of the things that I really look into and I feel great about was that I was not only giving back (to the community) but a number of youngsters have the appreciation of art".

Alexander's peers include artists such as George Rodney and Osmond Watson and he refers to this group as "the second generation of artists (who) established themselves and established Jamaica.

"When we started, only foreigners came to buy our work. Now it's our own Jamaicans buying our own paintings and supporting us".

He states that this level of support from Jamaican patrons occurred because, "from 1960 to the present time, we have taken art across our country and to the world at large. We not only educated ourselves but we educated our own Jamaicans where today, a parent will tell (his/her) child that (he/she) has talent (and should) go to the art school.

It is because of instilling in our own people the knowledge of accepting not only painting but (all the arts) - art, drama, dance, music". He admits however that there is still a great number of people who do not know Jamaica's art but states that through the efforts of artists like himself, "Jamaica is well-known as an art community but we need more exhibitions abroad in public places where we can educate the wider audience that they will accept not only (our) music.

"Bob Marley is one of the artists in music who established Jamaica on the map. Many people know Jamaica because of that music." He expresses a desire to see "our art go across the board and be accepted". Today, Alexander Cooper is married, the father of five children and grandfather of many. He is still painting, collects antiques and enjoys his hobby, architecture which gave birth to the design and building of his own home in Cooper's Hill, St. Andrew.

Among his accomplishments, are two first prizes in the National Fine Art Competition in Jamaica in 1962 and 1964, the Prime Minister's award for his outstanding contribution to the art world in 1983, the Order of Distinction from the Jamaican Government in 1990 and recognition from the Caribbean Foundation of Arts & Culture in 1991. He was the first Jamaican artist to be invited to exhibit at the State Department in Washington, DC in the United States in 1965 and his most recent significant show is his exhibition in 1999 at the Organisation of American States (OAS) Building also in Washington, DC.

Alexander is very happy and proud to receive the Silver Musgrave Medal, the newest addition to his collection of awards, for distinguished service in the field of art. He states, "I am very, very glad that I am alive and I will stress alive, at my age, to see that I am recognised to receive such a prestigious award, that I have made a commitment to my country, not only to my myself but a commitment to my country. I have served my country well as an ambassador in my field of art so it is recognised that I have done well over a period. I am glad that they bestowed this on me and I am not the only artist, there are several artists. They recognised that the artists have made their contribution to their country and it is good that they do this".

Thoughts, Ideas and Personal Philosophies - Alexander Cooper on art students: "The art school has done a good job from it started, I think. It is left to the students to really promote themselves. The art school is just there to point out to you where you are heading, where you want to head and to show you what to look for and how to put it down. It is for you to come out of the art school and grow leaps and bounds like any other master artist." Being an artist. "I don't want to say (Jamaican art) is at a crucial point but even if I use the term 'crucial', I still believe in my arts, if you want to get somewhere, you have to work on your profession. (Jamaican art) is crucial in the sense that because of the economy today, many people are not really buying so this causes a lull and the young artists will feel that because nothing is happening, they should just give up their trade. I'm still not going to foster that.

"Once they have the guts like a number of us, they are to work on it. It is the artist who teaches the people, not the people who teach the artist. I never subscribe to the "starving artist" thing. I never had any time to be frustrated. I just worked at my trade. Once you stick to your trade, come what may, somebody is going to hear about you and you are going to survive, you are going to live. If you even starve for a day or two, you get into your studio and work. Put your work out there and you will live."

The future: "I am still trying as always, still working. Whether I get a commission or not, I will sit in my studio. It's just that drive that I have where one painting grows out of another - when I do one, I want to do another one. I'm not satisfied with one or two but this is how I have always been where I need to do more paintings. I want to see more paintings in the studio whether I eat or not but fortunately along the way, I'm eating."

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