by Nanci Race
photos by Julie McCarthy
Berkshire County artist Janet
Cooper recycles memorabilia into art and craft. In the 1980s Cooper turned a
rusty bottle cap collection into a unique bottle cap jewelry business that sold
jewelry to stores, galleries, and museum shops throughout the United States,
Europe, and Asia. During those years she accumulated a million vintage bottle
caps, thousands of tobacco tags, and hundreds of vintage tin cans. Four years
ago Cooper sold the bottle cap business to Rhonda Khulman and Chris Ake in Austin,
Cooper has worked
in clay and taught clay for many years. Her latest project is a series of assemblages
titled "Ebay Constructs. " Her work has been showcased in the Museum
shops of the Museum of American Folk Art, the Museum of Contemporary Crafts,
the Society of Arts and Crafts, Boston, Massachusetts, and Lost and Found in
Princeton, New Jersey. Her work has also been featured in The Art of the Tin
Can by Bobby Hassen, The Metal Craft Book by Kilby and Morganthal, Shell _Chic
by Marlene Marshall, and Handbags by Barbara Haggerty. Cooper recently enjoyed
curating a show of handbags and bats made from recycled materials at Spencertown
Academy in Spencertown, New York. She also for the past four years began enjoying
being a vendor at the Brimfleld Flea Market in Brimfield Massachusetts.
Nanci Race: You mentioned that your
memorabilia art is connected with recreating your roots in some way?
Janet Cooper: I didn't feel a connection with my roots as I was growing up in
suburbia. Yet I was always closely connected to my grandparents. I was the first
grandchild on either side. It is this connection with my grandparents and their
past that I am, in a sense, trying to and expand upon-this sense of intrigue
and connection with the sensibilities of the past.
NR: Let's talk about your love of
fabric. You seem to be a very tactile person because of your use of various
textures in your work. What does looking at the fabric, using the fabric, touching
the fabric, what sense does that give you?
JC: I never thought about this before. I would say it's a harmony and sensuality.
A visual painting does the same thing. It's very exciting. Anything woven, the
warp and the weft together, the colors, the patterns, the textures... I find
both stimulating and satisfying. What people get from paintings I get from the
hues of fabric and patterns. I can show you some of the rag rugs I have. They're
just so beautiful. They're abstract paintings with the patina of footsteps.
NR: Where do you find the rugs?
JC: I found most of them at Brimfield. I've been going there for 20 years. For
years I went as a buyer-to decorate my house, to decorate myself, to decorate
my daughter and a couple of years ago I said, "I want to be a minimalist."
So I started selling off possessions. I discovered that it's easier to buy than
sell. I started "setting up" there. It was very exciting because if
there's one thing better than buying, it's selling.
NR: What constitutes a successful
week at Brimfield?
JC: I talked to a lot of people there. I gave out my website a lot. I have postcards
that I gave out. It's amazing the number of people that go there. So I always
end up talking to dozens of people who are graphic book designers, culinary
cooks, writers, fashion designers,-there's an amazing number of people who come
there to buy and get ideas...from all over the United States.
NR: So you would say that the networking
contributes to the success of the weekend.
JC: It's part of it (laughs). The actual success of the week is selling. It's
the whole package.
NR: You recently curated a show at
Spencertown Academy-an exhibit of hats and purses made from recycled goods.
Do you have plans for a future show?
JC: I'd eventually like to do something in fiber arts. The show I just curated
was easy-indeed effortless and fun...and yet another show would be more effortless
and more fun...(perhaps). Years ago I was the art director at a settlement house
in NYC and would curate shows there. I would be interested in work that uses
memorabilia-vintage fabrics and artifacts to make statements about memory and
past times, photographic, and other graphic images. I also think about a three-dimensional
self-portrait exhibit. Another idea-interest I have is in recycled works for
the home (as opposed to personal adornment)...such as a candelabra of plumbing
parts, stemware from glass bottles, tables from wooden game boards, rags turned
into textiles, artifacts of second hand hardware. I would also love to exhibit
the handful of different collections I still hold on to (women's sewing work,
tobacco tags vintage tin cans, and lithographed dolls for example.
NR: Where do you go from here?
JC: All my work is very tiny. I don't mean the tin jewelry, I mean all the other
things - the dolls and assemblages. For awhile I've really been thinking of
doing some large-scale pieces. I want to go back to clay and form really big
heads with fabric bodies. I am currently showing dolls and doll assemblages
at the Oxoxo Gallery in Stone Harbor, New Jersey. The show is titled "artists
play dolls" and October 1 It will travel to their Baltimore Gallery until
November 19. In August I visited my daughter, Maddie Futterman in Jackson, Wyoming
and I did the Art Fair show there. I also sell my work at Lost and Found Gallery
in Princeton, New Jersey.
NR: You actually taught clay sculpture.
How long did you do that?
JC: At least 15 years. I stopped back in '84. I did one big clay installation
and I haven't done anything since then in clay. I want to go back to that to
do combinations of clay and vintage fabrics.
NR: You said that your design idea
formed during the process of creating. Do you enjoy the process more than the
product or do enjoy them both equally?
JC: The process. Absolutely. I am excited when I see something taking shape.
If you have a preconceived idea, it seldom comes out that way. I enjoy my work.
And living with it around me. The most interesting work is that which I am currently
doing or plan to do in the future.
NR: Your future plans include a book?
JC: Yes. A book about recycled handbags. I have files and files. When you have
your antennae out for information it just comes to you in buckets. My bottle
cap bag is a recycled bag and was written up in a beautiful handbag book by
Barbara Haggerty that was published last year. I have over 50 vintage handbags.
I must have a collection of 25 plus recycled handbags. It's a subject close
to my heart and interest. I love handbags that are comfortable and workable
but what I love best of all are pockets (laughs). Which historically were the
very first handbags.
NR: Where did you acquire this particular
handbag made completely out of cigarette packs?
JC: Probably Brimfield. I have more than eight of them here. What was very interesting
was that I had an old craft magazine from the '40s with detailed instructions
on how to make this bag. I teach a class on junky handbags. I teach them how
to make a bottle cap handbag and I give instructions on how to make all these
other types of handbags as well as junk jewelry Handbags have been my interest
even before I started making bags for myself.
NR: Your house is so open and filled
with light and you have a beautiful flower garden surrounding the house. Does
your love of nature influence your work?
JC: No. Not at all. I get so much pleasure from looking at my garden. It's like
looking at a piece of fabric or a watercolor
NR: What do you want people to know
about you and your work?
JC: To be open to the idea that there are materials other than paint, paper,
and clay that can be used in "artistic expression." Sometimes it's
filtered back to me that someone said my work is scary. And for someone to say
something that is seemingly negative, I say, "Good." Because my work
is evoking a reaction. And they are reacting to my work in ways they might not
be aware of.
Janet Cooper will be teaching a class
in "recycled handbags and junk jewelry making" at Art Universe in
Mexico, June 10 to 12. Information can be found by email
To learn more about Janet and her art, visit her website at www.janet.cooperdesigns.com.
For more information about the show at Oxoxo Gallery in Stone Harbor, New Jersey