Cooper Hart was born in Savannah, Georgia, in 1952. The son of a career Air Force officer, an aircraft navigator and crewman, he grew up around military bases scattered across the prairies of Nebraska, Kansas, and Missouri. In 1967 his father retired from the Air Force after 23 years, moved the family to the Seattle area and went to work for the Boeing Company.
“I thought I had died and gone to Heaven“, Cooper says, “I found out that the whole world didn’t look like Kansas.” He quickly set out to enjoy all the outdoor activities that the Pacific Northwest had to offer. He began exploring the mountains and beaches, hiking, camping, boating, and fishing.
Not far from his home in Edmonds he soon discovered the wreckage of an old wooden sailing ship, the barkentine Conqueror, on the beach. Launched in 1918, the Conqueror was one of the last wooden sailing ships to be built on the West Coast and marked the end of the era of sail. With a keen interest in all things nautical, he often visited the old ship, thoroughly exploring every inch of the decaying relic of a not-so-distant past. Remarkably, he even found copies of old newspapers dating from World War 2 still in the shattered remains of the chart house.
As a child Cooper had little interest in art. His older brother, however, was an extremely talented artist, and encouraged his attempts at drawing. His brother would eventually win a scholarship to the renowned Kansas City Art Institute, becoming a graphic designer and commercial artist, working in Hollywood in the 1960’s and later in New York City.
Cooper can recall being mesmerized at an early age by 19th Century American landscape paintings. He would stare intently at scenes of the American wilderness that he found in his school books. It seemed to be an interest that was always present. His courses in school did not include any art studies. Later, in college, there were no art classes on art technique or history.
In the 1970’s he began working in the silkscreen printing business cutting screen stencils by hand. This led to a great familiarity with letters and type of every description. From there it was a natural transition to the art of sign lettering and brush work.
Around this time he took a trip to Ketchikan, Alaska to visit some old college friends who had moved there. For the return trip he joined the crew of a very small Tlingit Indian salmon gillnet boat that was southbound back to the States. It was a long trip on a very tiny, slow wooden boat but it was a great way to see the country up close. It was a life changing experience to sail down the Inside Passage, stopping in various Indian settlements and towns along the way. A stint of gillnet fishing followed after getting back to Puget Sound.
A LOVE FOR WOODEN BOATS
Cooper used his skills as a sign artist to get work in the shipyard of the Whitney-Fidalgo Cannery company, which was located in Magnolia, on the ship canal opposite Ballard. In those days the fish canneries owned their own fleets of purse seine boats which they leased to the skippers. These were usually very young men that ran these seiners and were bound by contract to sell their fish to the company. The fleet was kept at docks on the historic site of the old Maritime Shipyards building, where scores of wooden workboats had been built by hand in the decades that came before.
“It was my job to paint the names on all the boats”, said Cooper. It was a fascinating place for anyone who had an appreciation for old wooden boats. There was a constant buzz of activity as the crews prepared their boats for the upcoming season and run up to Alaska. The boats were well taken care of by the company. Every year they had to be hauled out, the hulls de-fouled, scraped, and painted. The hydraulic and electric systems, radar and radios needed to be working properly. The nets needed mending and rigging repaired. The old diesel engines needed to be made as reliable as possible as lives depended on it.
Many of these boats were positively antiques. Some of them were 75 years old or more. They had carried generations of fishermen north to seek their fortunes and they were still being used for fishing. It was quite a testament to the men that built and maintained them that they were able to remain in use for so long. “I had the run of the place. I got to work on all the boats”, Hart said.
It was at this time that Cooper came to know this nomadic sub-culture of young men, the crews that worked and lived on these boats. He said, “I was taken by the pirate-like fantasy existence that they led. They were free to run up and down the coast in those beautiful boats, working and living in the fantastic playground that was Southeast Alaska.” It seemed to him that somebody should be documenting this scene, this era, somehow. “It was fading into the past and nothing like it would likely ever come again.”
“I didn’t really see anybody else doing it, at least not like I thought it should be done”, he said. There were a few Northwest artists that did some fishing scenes but not really like he wanted to do. “I wanted to be a marine artist but the only problem was I didn’t know how to paint,” he said. He set out to change that.
SELF TAUGHT ARTIST
Cooper was in his later twenties when he decided to teach himself to paint watercolors. “There was never any question that watercolor was the medium I wanted to use”, he said. It seemed like a natural for the pictures he wanted to make. He had always been a do-it-yourself type and usually just picked up a book and learned how to do home repairs or build things on his own. He picked up some watercolor technique books and went to work.
“I was a closet painter. I didn’t show it to anybody for a long time”, Cooper recalls. It took several years before he felt that his work was good enough to show to others. “I knew that I wanted to make contemporary seascapes with boats but in a traditional style”, he said. He began a large collection of books of landscape and marine artists of that period. He carefully studied the works of Winslow Homer, Fitzhugh Lane, Sanford Gifford, William Bradford, and others.
Eventually, in 1984, he took a dozen or so paintings to a small museum near the Seattle Aquarium called the Museum of the Sea and Ships. The curator decided, on the spot, to host a one man show. Soon after that he was invited to be represented by the Kirsten Gallery in Seattle, a well known venue showing local and national marine artists.
Cooper met his future wife, Karen, in 1980. They lived at that time in a 1930’s log cabin in Woodway. He was honing his watercolor skills while at the same time running his home based sign business. He was still often working on the waterfront and the docks of Seattle doing his sign work and lettering on the workboat fleet. He was able to balance the time so that he could work and learn his art simultaneously.
1984 was a pivotal year. Cooper began showing his artwork in galleries around Seattle. He and Karen were married and she began her first year of medical school at the University of Washington. Cooper kept up the balancing act between work and painting all the while. Karen graduated from medical school in the class of 1988. Following that they moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin for three years of medical residency training, Cooper still doing artwork and working at local sign shops.
In 1989 he submitted an entry into the Mystic Seaport International Marine Art Exhibition in Mystic, Connecticut. This was the premier venue in the United States for the genre of marine painting. As it turned out his first time entry won one of the museum’s top awards, The Award of Excellence. Since that time he has been one of the museum’s “core” artists. Cooper has won the Award of Excellence twice and another top award, the David Thimgan Prize for best depiction of West Coast maritime history.
They returned to the Northwest in 1991 and Karen began her medical practice with the Everett Clinic, for whom she has worked for nearly 28 years. They have two grown daughters and live near the town of Snohomish.
For Cooper,” Watercolor seems like a technical skill that anyone can learn to master. It seems like anyone who can hold a brush can be taught to do it once you figure out the technical aspects”, he says. Of course, most people seem to disagree. The goopy and noxious enamel paints used in sign lettering are nothing like the delicate watercolor paints. “The ability to control a brush already made the crossover to watercolor easier”, he says.
“Mistakes are not allowed in watercolor”, he says. “There is no going back. Anything that touches the paper is going to be there. You can’t cover it up or at least only to a very limited extent. You have to know exactly what you are doing because you can’t take it back.”
“In painting watercolor you move from the background to the foreground,” he says. First, the sky is washed in, sometimes requiring laying in 6 or 8 washes before he gets what he is looking for. This is where his background in printing comes in. In the printing process you have the three primary colors, red , yellow, and blue. “In watercolor, you need to have a balance of all three colors in the sky or the picture looks flat,” he says. He puts in washes that may have only a trace of red, blue, or yellow. “If they aren’t all there, it doesn’t look right.” With watercolor the light in the picture comes from the paper so you have to be cautious “not to muck it up with too much paint” which muddies the painting.
Being a self-taught artist, Cooper had no formal training. However he has intensely studied the works of those considered to be the masters of landscape and marine painting, both vintage and contemporary. He also tries to make it back to New England for the annual marine exhibitions on a regular basis. It is important to connect with the other artists, the top talent in the field, and see what they are doing artistically. “It’s also useful to see what is selling in the galleries and what isn’t.”
Cooper’s style is very traditional. “On the East Coast they seem to hang on to traditions of all kinds, artistic or otherwise. There is nothing avant-garde about my work. Some people like traditional art and some people don’t. It’s just the way I do it. I don’t know how other people develop a particular style. I just know how I do it. I appreciate other people’s art and I would like to do some different things sometimes but I haven’t been able to yet.”
THE CHALLENGES OF BEING AN ARTIST
“Watercolor is a very immediate medium. Things can go bad really fast.” The artist doesn’t really know how the picture is going to turn out. “What you think you are going to do when you start may not resemble what you end up with. You have to be flexible. That can be a problem for some people, especially people like me who want to have such tight control over a rather difficult to control medium.”
Perhaps more challenging than watercolor itself is the business of art. Cooper points out that styles and trends come and go and seldom last very long. He remembers how marine art exhibits were sold out events in the 1970’s and 1980’s around Seattle. There were a number of marine painters in the region at the time. “Artists like Steve Mayo, William Ryan, Byron Birdsall, and Mark Myers seemed to be riding a wave that made them fairly successful at the time.”
Cooper notes that a lot of art galleries have disappeared from the Seattle area in the last decade, like the Kirsten Gallery, where he showed his work for some 35 years. There is a lot of conjecture by art dealers that younger people just aren’t buying art like people did in years past. The prohibitive cost of commercial real estate in Seattle is also a factor. Some dealers have theorized that the tiny size of apartments people live in now leave little room for artwork.
There are not many artists who can work both ends of the business, the creative end and the marketing end. The two aspects are usually mutually exclusive. Cooper’s advice to younger artists, “Keep your day job.”
AVOCATION and VOCATION as an ARTIST
While there are challenges to being an artist, it has allowed space and time for Cooper’s vocation as an artist to be integrated with his avocation, his passion for boats and the sea.
Cooper often took the opportunity to go out on the boats he loved to paint and has sailed thousands of miles on the waters of Alaska or running through the Inside Passage. He has made hundreds of photos that were later used as reference for his artwork. “One of my greatest joys is getting out to sea in Alaska with a few old friends for a long trip on a slow boat. It’s just the sea and the sky. Time is suspended. Night and day are meaningless.”
Cooper was a witness to the last days of the wooden boat era. By the 1970’s, wooden boats were no longer being built as commercial fishing vessels. They are fading away now. The old boats are getting tired. Even the most stoutly built vessels are succumbing to the ravages of saltwater and rot. The costs of maintaining or repairing an old wooden boat are steep. It is growing more and more difficult to even find shipwrights who know how to work on wooden boats, though there are a few. Every year more of the old boats are lost at sea or abandoned on some forgotten tide flat. “A lot of the boats that I knew and worked on or painted have either sunk or rotted away,” he adds. “It’s all fading into the past. It’s a piece of the old Seattle that, like so much of what was, is going away. The fishing industry, along with the lumbermen and the ship builders made Seattle what it is.”
Cooper thinks that the work of his that will likely stand the test of time are the paintings that document the Northwest fishing scene. “In fifty years they may discover a cache of paintings by some artist who left a trove of fishing pictures in an attic somewhere but there are none that I am aware of.” He adds,” I hope that someone in the future will be able to appreciate my work for what it was, an accurate portrayal of a unique time and place by someone who was there. That’s all an artist can ask.”
You can view Cooper Hart’s marine watercolors at the upcoming Vintage Watercolorists of Washington show at Sunnyshore Studio:
- Saturdays, March 9, 16, 23 and 30
- 10am – 5pm
- Artist Reception, Saturday, March 9, 3-5pm
- 2803 SE Camano Drive, Camano Island, Washington
Sunnyshore Studio is hosting this Vintage show in partnership with the Northwest Watercolor Society, one of the premier watercolor societies in the US.