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American Studies Today On-line James Fowler Cooper Exhibition - Observations of Life, Labor and Landscape in the South Carolina Low-Country

As one of a number of events marking the official opening of the American Studies Resource Centre at Liverpool John Moores University, an exhibition of James Fowler Cooper’s prints was held at the Aldham Robarts Learning Resource Centre during March of 1998. Stephen C Kenny, of the Liverpool John Moores University writes about the background.

Contrary to two decades of scholarly scepticism, the South persists. In memory and myth, in histories and fiction, in cinema and in song -- the South attracts and repels, enchants and intoxicates, but, above all else, the South continues to demand our attention. What makes this region, this idea, this culture, those people and their history so different, so fascinating, so deserving of our time is sometimes difficult to express. However, as Eudora Welty has so often written in explanation of Southerners and the appeal of Southern writers, it all keeps coming back to a sense of place; ‘Not simply in the historical or philosophical connotation of the word, but in the sensory thing, the experienced world of sight and sound and smell, in its earth and water and sky and in its seasons.’ It is this same ‘sense of place,’ an intimate knowledge of the world of the South Carolina low-country in the 1930’s and 1940’s, that informs and illuminates the work of Southern artist James Fowler Cooper.

The exhibition project began life at the University of South Carolina in September 1994, with the printing of a limited edition of ‘re-strikes’ from James Fowler Cooper’s original plates (some of which had remained hidden in the family’s barn for many years). Professor Boyd Saunders of the University of South Carolina Art Department and Jeanne-Marie Kenny - with the permission of the Cooper family - were commissioned by Duncan Connelly (a gallery owner and fine art dealer in Atlanta, Georgia) to work on the plates using a press owned and previously employed by Cooper himself. In July of 1996, the prints were exhibited at the School of Media, Critical and Creative Arts. This marked not only the announcement of a joint venture between LJMU and LCC to relocate the American Studies Resource Centre at the Aldham Robarts LRC, but was also the first time that Cooper’s work had gained an audience in the United Kingdom.

Cooper was born May 21, 1907, in Williamsburg County, South Carolina. His family ran a farming business and were active in the Presbyterian church. The artist’s childhood years were spent going to school in the town of nearby Kingstree, studying violin, reading and becoming immersed in the day to day life of the farm. At age seventeen Cooper entered the University of South Carolina. Here he took a double major in English and Latin (graduating in 1928 with a Bachelor of Arts), and sang in the university chorus during his leisure-time. More importantly, he also studied art. He was one of the first students to receive a certificate in art from the University, in a program begun in 1925 by Miss Katherine B. Heyward.

After graduating in 1928 Cooper went to New York to study at the Art Student’s League, as many aspiring young artists of that day were doing. He took courses with George Bridgman and Boardman Robinson (cartoonist, illustrator, mural painter - a contemporary of Robert Henri, George Luks and John Sloan of the Ash-Can School). New York was very accessible in 1929, even to a person of modest means, and Cooper soaked the city up and thoroughly enjoyed it. He lived at the old West Side YMCA and worked at various odd jobs he could find.

Cooper left New York in 1930. His mother, who had been made a semi-invalid with a heart condition since 1923, asked him to come and manage her portion of the business. To his surprise, when he arrived at home he was not welcomed into the business and his mother smilingly said, ‘You can’t farm, Jimmy.’ He did stay at home, however, and got a job in a small bank in Kingstree. He also found he had plenty of free time and began to sketch his surroundings, most especially the people he saw passing through the window. He also spent much time out at Pawley’s Island, which features strongly in his work.

It was around this period that Cooper became interested in etching. Etching was attracting considerable attention in Charleston at that time, largely through the efforts of the Charleston Etching Club and Alfred Hutty, who taught for the Carolina Art Association in Charleston every winter and spent his summers working in his studio at Woodstock, New York. Cooper, although influenced by this milieu, was largely a self-taught printmaker. His first etching, ‘Small Plowman’ in 1930/31 was indeed unusually small, even for a miniature. It was about the size of a postage stamp and depicted a farmer following a plough being pulled by a large team of mules.

In 1932, Cooper’s mother died after a severe heart attack and he finally took over her position as manager of the family farm. He immediately set about revitalising the business, which had slowly fallen into a state of disrepair and neglect. He read extensively and immersed himself in the latest methods of plant propagation and soil conservation. The primary crops on the Cooper farm were cotton and tobacco. Large amounts of corn were also grown and used as feed for herds of cattle and the hogs. Whatever time was left, the bachelor farmer devoted to his etchings, which he printed on an imported rag paper called Tovil, using an ink that he mixed himself.

Cooper exhibited for the first time in 1936, in a show entitled ‘Southern Printmakers’ in Birmingham, Alabama. This was followed by a number of further group and solo shows in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s, perhaps the highlight of which was the inclusion of a print in the New York World’s Fair exhibit of 1939.

The overwhelming majority of James Fowler Cooper’s portfolio of prints record scenes of life, labour and landscape in a low-country South-Carolina just before the advent of American involvement in the Second World War. Cooper’s images of this region antedate the major-growth of commercial and industrial enterprises in the state and the accompanying changes wrought by the Southern region’s rapid transition to a prosperous ‘Sunbelt’ economy. By contrast, the world of James Fowler Cooper was an agrarian world, where the daily rhythms were less subject to the tyranny of the clock and the freneticism of the city, but, despite this relative repose, still harboured its own full measure of mystery, tragedy and joy.

Much of what Cooper chose to record of the low-country landscape has thankfully been preserved. For example, Charleston and Georgetown’s beautiful churches have survived Civil War, periods of neglect and more recently Hurricane Hugo, remaining central to our sense of the ‘Southern mystique’. Cooper exploits this special ‘sense of place’ in his portrayals of ‘Prince George Winyah’ and ‘St. Philip’s Church’, giving us both light and shade, the glorious and the gothic, a hint of the dual character of the always ambivalent South. Similarly, the magisterial and legendary ‘Live Oak’, with silver-grey trailing wisps of Spanish moss (and hints of both romance and danger) still thrives in the same locations Cooper visited in the 1930’s and ‘40’s. While the plantation houses (seen, for example in ‘Longlands’) and town-houses of the low-country, now form the bed-rock of the region’s tourist appeal.

Old Man

Old Man

Click on the picture to view a full size version

As with other (albeit briefly) expatriate Southerners of his generation (a certain William Faulkner springs to mind), James Fowler Cooper had to leave the South in order to be able to see it clearly and to see it for the distinctive place it surely was, in contrast to the great metropolis of New York (see ‘The Goldfish Bowl’) where he’d undertaken study at the Art Student’s League. Cooper returned to the South in 1930, the same year that the Twelve Southerners published I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition. His subsequent career as a farmer and artist demonstrate the best qualities of the Southern pastoral tradition championed by the Nashville Agrarians in their anti-industrial manifesto. Cooper eschewed the perils of fame and fortune (‘drinking bouts and literary teas’) and the lure of the city dollar, for a life as a community artist (long before the term became commodified). His values mirror the religious humanistic values of the Twelve Southerners, but unlike them he doesn’t offer such offence on the question of race. Although some might suggest his portrayals of African-Americans occasionally come too close to popular stereotypes (see, ‘Old Man’ and ‘12.30’), it seems fairer to focus on his sincere effort to document the dignity of labour in the black community (see, for example, Tobacco Stringers,’ ‘Threshing Peas’ and ‘Shrimpers’). Indeed, much of Cooper’s work (see, for example, Daddy John’s Place,’ ‘Passed Over,’ Deep South,’ and ‘Back Street, Charleston’) has a documentary honesty that recalls Walker Evans’ Depression-era photographs of the Southern region.

The Tobacco Stringers

The Tobacco Stringers

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During the years of World War Two and its aftermath, Cooper continued to exhibit his work in regional and national print shows, but with diminishing frequency. Farming and a family (Cooper married in 1941 and two children followed in 1944 and 1946) occupied more of his time. The epitome of the Agrarian artist, Cooper continued to farm his own land throughout his life and died of a heart attack in 1968.

In presenting this selection of Cooper’s etchings for exhibition, it is hoped that these painstakingly crafted prints will find a new audience, appreciative not only of the artist’s technical mastery of his medium, but also of his truthful eye and thoughtful celebration of a place and its people.

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