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January 23, 2018

Beauty amid the storms

Creative practice buoys Lane Cooper's loss-laced life

Beauty amid the storms

Lane Cooper in her studio in Cleveland's Collinwood neighborhood.

By Karen Sandstrom

When young Lane Cooper headed off to the University of North Alabama, her parents expected she would study graphic design. It was, they thought, a fiscally responsible way to focus her lifelong passion for art.

Cooper herself wasn’t completely on board. She got to campus, heard a registrar clerk ask her if she wanted to declare a major, and told him, “Studio Art: Painting. Sign me up!”

Word soon reached home. Her father said, “I am not paying for this.” So Cooper took a part-time job, accepted the proceeds her mother secretly sent after emptying the change from the Coke machine at the family drugstore, and a few years later earned her bachelor’s degree.

It could be said that everything worked out fine.

In 2001, Cooper joined the faculty at the Cleveland Institute of Art. She’s chair of the Painting Department, and teaches art history. She is known by her students as simply “Cooper”; she won’t let them call her by her first name until they’ve graduated.

Her studio practice is built around painting. In recent years, she developed several series using variations on a style of partially representational works (houses, pop-culture imagery) interrupted by striped layers that pull the image toward abstraction. Last year, she was part of a group show at Gallery W at Cleveland’s American Greetings headquarters. Her work has been presented from Birmingham, Alabama to Madrid, Spain.

She also makes videos and artist books, curates exhibitions, and writes about art and culture. In short, she has built a rich life around the visual arts — the kind of which her childhood self might have approved.

But it hasn’t always been easy. And not everything worked out just fine.

***

“My life is such a Dickens novel,” Cooper says with a wry laugh.

Indeed, she seems to have received more than the average share of travails. Born in northwest Alabama, Cooper had a small-town southern upbringing influenced by a culture that ran from Tupelo, Mississippi to Asheville, North Carolina.

“I have a southern Appalachian accent when it’s not being heavily mediated,” she says. “Dad was running the drugstore, and Mother would go and work, and people would pay their bills sometimes in vegetables and stuff,” she says. “We were rich comparatively. Here we would be at best maybe middle class.”

Three days before Christmas when she was 8, bad wiring sparked a fire in the family home while her parents were hosting friends for dinner.

“My dad crawled under a burning house to save our dog and her puppies,” she says. “His friend threw our Christmas presents into the back of the pickup. We lost everything. There was nothing left. Just the dogs and the presents and what we were wearing.”

The memory of the house still haunts Cooper’s dreams, but so much was good about her early life. Even now, her devotion to her parents, her sister Kathy, and their extended family is evident when she speaks of them. She drew and painted. She watched “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” and imagined a grownup life of urban sophistication and independence.

Ultimately, Cooper was able to earn not just her bachelor’s degree, but a master’s in art history and an MFA in painting. She married twice, divorced twice, and inherited beloved, de facto stepchildren from a longtime partnership with another artist.

But at 32, she was struck by an atypical, complex form of thyroid cancer that killed film critic Roger Ebert. By the time it was diagnosed, it had spread. Surgeries and other treatment ensued.

After her cancer specialist transferred to Ohio State University, Cooper started traveling for treatments. “My sister was actually paying for me to go back and forth to Columbus,” she says. The commute got shorter when she was hired at CIA, but the cancer battle itself continued.

Then in 2007, Cooper’s mother — suffering from her own cancer — had a stroke. Cooper and her sister took to covering shifts in their mother’s hospice room. “I realized that for Mother, it was all kind of like a dream, in that same way when you’re lying on the couch, little bits of information come in and become part of your dream. You’re constantly scanning your environment and picking up bits of information, and then putting it back into an image.”

Cooper attributes her “striped paintings,” with their bits of solvent and dissolute imagery, to the thinking she was doing during that period of her life.

“At the same time my mother was dying, I had a really bad health year. My tumors had started growing again. My doctor and I had had a long talk about how at some point this cancer could turn on and go nuts. So they signed me up for surgery. …I remember Kathy and I talking about it, and she asked, ‘Are you going to tell Mother?’” She didn’t.

Her mother died on Thanksgiving that year as Cooper plunged into recovery from yet another surgery.

“It was truly terrible,” she says. “But not nearly as bad as Kathy dying. That will always be the worst thing that happened to me. I will never get over that.”

After their mother died, Kathy was diagnosed with the colon cancer that would take her life in December, 2014. For Cooper, the loss was profound on many levels. So many memories involved Kathy. They had even shared a bedroom in the house that burned down.

And Kathy was forever looking after Lane. “She was as much my mother as my mother was,” she says. Many of the key people in Cooper’s life are gone by now. Her father died in 2002. A pair of cousins who were like brothers to her are both deceased. And last year she lost her dear friend and CIA colleague Dan Tranberg, who had suffered with leukemia for several years. It’s very unmooring,” she says.

Still, it hasn’t destroyed her zest for life.

***

“Art keeps me alive,” Cooper says. “I go through dark times and sad times and all that, but I think of myself as fundamentally optimistic person, and I think it’s because of art; because I have this mental plan of going forward. Cooper practices her art at her home, which she shares with beloved cats, and in a studio in the Collinwood neighborhood of Cleveland.

“I am first and always a painter, I come to everything through painting. It’s my first true love,” Cooper says. true love,” Cooper says. Narrative creeps in around the edges of all her work.

“I write and think about things in terms of sequence and series, and when I make videos I actually think of them as paintings. When I make paintings, I think of them a lot as a series or sequence that unfolds over the course of the painting,” she says. “My undergraduate teacher used to say the record of the journey should be in the work. That got really deeply inscribed on me. So, for instance, if you stand in front of drawing, you can see the erasures and the reworking and the redrawing.”

She takes joy in watching her CIA students develop themselves artistically and intellectually. And she tries to impart in them a passion for art history.

“A lot of students see that as a hoop to be jumped through,” she says. “No; you should give yourself over to this. It should be fuel for your making. It’s not instead of.”

But as with many of her students, for Cooper, nothing beats the making.

“Teaching is incredible. Being at the Cleveland Institute of Art, I cannot tell you how many great opportunities this has afforded me. I could not be more lucky,” she says. “But when I go into the studio, and everything is clicking, that is the greatest joy and the greatest freedom. And I feel so lucky to be able to sustain that.”

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