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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, Texas. 
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 Albuquerque, New
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 call 410-466-9696