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‘I owe him so much’: Legendary Nelson artist John Cooper passes away

Cooper died at 85 on July 20
John Cooper in 2000. Photo: Fred Rosenberg

When Meghan Hildebrand signed up for John Cooper’s class on colour theory at the Kootenay School of the Arts in 1997, she had no idea she would be meeting a life-long mentor and friend.

“That day, he explained how the eye perceives colour, with some exciting demonstrations,” she wrote in an email to the Nelson Star. “Before we knew it we were mixing colours and filling a colour wheel as he circulated and made sure everyone was keeping up and not skimping on paint.”

Hildebrand, who now lives in Powell River, completed the KSA program and went on to a prolific career as a painter.

“I went in as someone who could draw and copy, and I came out an artist,” she says. “Twenty-five years later, I am still painting every day using Cooper’s approach to colour.”

Cooper died on July 20 at age 85, having moved three years ago, in failing health, from his Queens Bay home to live with his son Moses Cooper in Portland, Ore.

Self-portrait by John Cooper, 2008. Photo: Submitted
Self-portrait by John Cooper, 2008. Photo: Submitted

“Up until a few months ago he was still giving me advice and encouragement on the pieces in my studio via Facebook,” Hildebrand says. “Even though he must have had hundreds of friends and thousands of students it meant the world to me that he still had time to do that. I feel like I owe him so much.”

Cooper’s KSA classes were known to be both technical and freewheeling. Hildebrand says every class “felt like a party,” and she describes “painting a still life he set up from what seemed like random objects from his car, and using his teachings and examples from art history.”

Nelson artist Ian Johnston says Cooper was an inspiration to many students.

“He was an evangelist for colour theory. He was an inspirational motivational speaker. A lot of his classes were really about life, and not so much about colour theory. He inspired a lot of people to see what they could find in painting. He basically read each student and dug into what was going on with them.”

#53, Let’s save this Toad Rock, Mt. Loki + 5 neckties, by John Cooper, 1994. Photo: Submitted
#53, Let’s save this Toad Rock, Mt. Loki + 5 neckties, by John Cooper, 1994. Photo: Submitted

Johnston says Cooper was known until the day he died for his unstoppable energy level, his humour, and the sheer volume of his work. Johnston curated a Cooper exhibit at Touchstones in 2008, and says Cooper slowed down a bit in later years but was actively painting until the end of his life.

“For a long time he was doing a painting a day, 365 paintings a year.”

Nelson photographer Fred Rosenberg, who works only in black and white, decided he wanted to better understand color, so he went to some of Cooper’s classes.

“His students were thirsty for what he had to say. I could see they would try to keep up with him, or pull what he was saying into them and hold it there until they could understand it. That’s how I felt. I was on the edge of my seat.”

A wall of John Cooper paintings at a 2017 exhibit at The Langham in Kaslo. Photo: Submitted
A wall of John Cooper paintings at a 2017 exhibit at The Langham in Kaslo. Photo: Submitted

Rosenberg says if Nelson is known as a centre of creative and artistic activity, Cooper laid the foundation for that. He says he was moved until the end by his friend’s “wild-man irreverence, his sacred irreverence for all things.”

One of Cooper’s favourite subjects was Toad Rock, near his Queen’s Bay home, which he painted hundreds of times in all seasons.

Cooper’s house in Queens Bay was also part of his art, says Arin Fay, who curated an exhibit of Cooper’s paintings at The Langham in Kaslo in 2017. She describes Cooper as “larger than life” and his house as “like an Escher painting.”

Costa Rica by John Cooper. Photo: Submitted
Costa Rica by John Cooper. Photo: Submitted

Moses Cooper describes the house, in which he grew up, as “an ever-changing masterpiece/accident/art sculpture home,” and he says his father once described it as a house “blown together by the wind.”

When Moses posted the news of his father’s death and a tribute to him on Facebook, the response was a deluge of people from many countries and decades, expressing love and appreciation for him.

Moses Cooper and his father John Cooper in 2020. Photo: Moses Cooper
Moses Cooper and his father John Cooper in 2020. Photo: Moses Cooper

The response, he said, made sense because all his life he has seen his father acting as a connective force.

“I also watched him miscommunicate a certain amount, it was definitely a mix, but overall, I watched him be a kind soul, and really have good genuine intentions, and do his part in showing up for people.”

In Moses Cooper’s Facebook tribute, he summed up the legendary wildness and kindness of his father.

“John lived and breathed art. He was a mix of energies to most that knew him well. Wild artist, explorer of consciousness, lover of humanity, dreamer of a world where people are sweeter to each other around the globe, jack of all trades, make-it-happen’er, and devout believer in his own 11th commandment: ‘Thou shalt not give up.’ He had a way of being with people, present like he meant it, while giving space for life’s flow to intuitively guide him.”

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Bill Metcalfe

About the Author: Bill Metcalfe

I have lived in Nelson since 1994 and worked as a reporter at the Nelson Star since 2015.
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