A trained textile and surface pattern designer, Kim Cooper now works in an expressive pop-art style. We discussed how elements like color and repetition remain important to her as she pushes herself to experiment with new formats and media.
Kim Cooper in her 3rd floor studio at 52 O Street Studios.
Like many artists, Cooper’s career in the arts has taken some twists and turns. Initially, she went to the University of Arizona to study accounting. Realizing that accounting wasn’t a passion of hers, she enrolled in Syracuse University, where she ended up graduating with a BFA in fine arts and surface pattern design. She worked in surface pattern design for a number of years, traveling around the world consulting for hotels to design rugs, wallpaper, and bedding patterns.
Eventually, it was time for a change. After moving to DC four years ago, Cooper reinvented herself and her work took a new direction. Now, instead of creating meticulously hand-painted decorative patterns, she makes paintings and mixed-media pieces in a bold, brightly-colored pop-art style. “The way you look at colors, you know, it changes. I changed the entire look of my house; I got rid of everything and started from scratch. Now it’s a pop-art home,” Cooper reflects about her move to DC.
Her career in surface pattern design leaves a visible legacy on her current work, most notably an urge to repeat elements and strong sense for color. In the wake of being a pattern designer creating repeats for so many years, it was hard to reframe her inner sense for composition. After shifting to fine art, her first painting was of Marie Antoinette- three of them. “I could not figure out how to do just one. It makes me laugh, now,” she shares. Looking back, breaking out of her urge to repeat was one of her first big struggles to overcome.
Hand-painted pattern and corresponding experimental colorways from Cooper's earlier career as a surface pattern designer.
Cooper still often works in multiples, which translates well to her pop-art style. “I love taking one image and thinking, oh let’s create a new colorway; it makes an entirely different new painting, even if it’s the exact same design.”
Cooper’s training also instilled into her an acute sense of patience and attention to detail. Working in a series with the same subject allows her to improve with each piece, creating something more dynamic as the colors evolve and honing the details with every iteration.
When she conceives of paintings now, she still sometimes creates colorways the way a surface pattern designer would, trying out different color combinations with meticulous labels and numbers. This allows her to workshop different palettes and to keep the colors consistent, especially in larger pieces that she works on over multiple sessions.
Pre-mixed and labeled containers of paint in Cooper's studio
By creating the same image in different colorways, Cooper allows her individual viewers to be drawn to a certain painting over another depending on their taste. With her current Rotting Bananas series, the same banana is featured in varying hues with different backgrounds. In this series, she is allowing herself to be a little looser with her process. Instead of meticulously brushing neat lines, she is dripping, splattering, sanding, and layering. “I normally do things so precise and detailed, and I needed a break. This series started because I was just having fun, and now I’m liking how I’m stretching myself.”
Mistakes and accidents can also provide important learning moments. Last year, after making a portrait of Queen Elizabeth, Cooper began to work on a matching one of then-Prince Charles. When the painting wasn't going the way she wanted, frustrated, Cooper covered it in black gesso and turned it into a mixed-media piece.
“I had a professor who always said, ‘stick with the project,’ no matter what. And that’s always been a thing for me, honestly. He would always say when you’re in the middle of it is when you think it’s the worst, and you have to work through it.” Cooper shares about the process of making this piece.
Once Prince Charles, now the painting is a heavily layered Jasper Johns-esque dartboard with collaged book pages. The vague outline of a portrait and the semi-disguised Union Jack in the background are all that's left to betray its original subject to those who are paying attention. Cooper still thinks of it as a portrait of Prince Charles that pairs with her Queen Elizabeth, although now the two take on a slightly more humorous and ironic meaning compared to a standard pair of portraits.
Portraits of then-Prince Charles and Queen Elizabeth in Cooper's Studio
Following the Prince Charles portrait, Cooper continued to experiment with mixed media for a show with Amir Browder at Homme gallery. Titled Life on Mars, the show explored the possibilities of texture with 70's glam-rock inspired hand-sewn patent leather pieces mounted on a wall like canvases, blurring the line between painting and textiles, calling back to her background in design.
Cooper has been in DC for four years now, working out of her sunny third floor studio that she can walk to from her house. She has found the DC arts community to be supportive and welcoming. “Amir [Browder] has been amazing. He was the first person who gave me a chance to show here at 52 O Street. I was very nervous, and he was just great, so I thank him in many ways.“ She has another show with Homme gallery at their 52 O Street Studios space in late September, where she will show new and recent work.
While Cooper likes to experiment with new subjects and new media, her attention to detail and desire to push things to their limits is present in each of her series. She is having fun and doing the unexpected, enjoying the freedom that her work provides her. “I’m not scared of what people think. At one point I was like, ‘Oh gosh, I want everyone to like it,’ but you have to do it for yourself, or it just won’t fly.”