By Sarah Brown
Of The New Era/Lebanon Local
Jazz is a developed taste, and it won’t be for everyone. The same goes for abstract art.
So says Molly Cook, an abstract expressionist artist and jazz lover who moved into Sweet Home last December.
Originally from La Grande, Cook spent much of her life in places like Manhattan, Maine, Portland, San Diego and Mexico before returning to Oregon a few years ago. It was her partner Michael Gutierrez who discovered Sweet Home.
It didn’t take long for Cook to get a taste for the city, too. She immediately relocated to Foster Lake — which reminded her of Wallowa Lake, which is a short drive from her hometown — and remarked, “The A&W is the best on the planet.”
She also noted that the city seemed to be changing, and Cook decided she wanted to be a part of it.
“I’d love to see what I can contribute to Sweet Home,” she said. “The economy needs to change and it needs to get better, but I’d really like to see this done wisely so that it retains that small-town character that we (all) like.”
And so she thanked Diane Gerson and the Sweet Home Oregon Coalition for Artistic and Scholastic Enrichment (SHOCASE), which is hosting their art exhibition, The Colors of Jazz, at City Hall (3225 Main St.) through September. with “meet the artist” reception on Friday, August 5, from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.
Jazz plays a prominent role in both Cook’s life and his artistic work. She grew up with the style of music influenced by her parents and even studied jazz singing until she realized she didn’t want to sing in public.
“I’m not afraid to paint,” she said, “but getting up and performing jazz and singing in public was more than I was ready for.”
So she treats herself to live jazz shows instead and baptizes her pictures with jazzy song titles like “Diminuendo and Crescendo”, “BeBop Spoken Here” or “Jazz Me Blues”. Two of her paintings on display, ‘Manhã de Carnaval’ and ‘Samba de Orfeu’, are inspired by Brazilian jazz, and another, ‘Birdland’, is a nod to the Birdland Jazz Club in New York.
For Cook, abstract art is like jazz. It’s about improvisation, freedom and “inspiring,” she said. She starts with one color and, like a story, lets it guide her somewhere until she arrives at the end result. The process always involves multiple layers of paint, strokes that will never be seen. She then names the piece based on her reaction to what’s on the screen.
“It’s the colors that tell me what the painting is called,” Cook said.
Take one of her favorites, for example, “Doxy,” named after one of her favorite songs. The canvas emphasizes warm colors while presenting a bold representation of black.
“I just love the song and somehow the colors just came together and as soon as I had those colors I was like, ‘This is it, this is Doxy.'”
It was her grandmother, Ruth Larson, who bought Cook her first painting set when she was about 9 years old.
“She kind of understood that (painting) is really important to me,” Cook said. “I was born at home and my grandmother released me into the world, so we were very close.”
Larson was a gardener, a creative woman who loved flowers and beauty and color, Cook said, and it stuck with her. For a time, however, Cook focused her education on writing, and to this day maintains a website of her thoughts, http://www.artulips.wordpress.com, a title that pays homage to her grandmother, “whose beautiful flower gardens belonged to my first color experiences.”
But as she delved into writing, she came to a realization: Every time she moved, there was one thing she was always holding on to.
“I realized that I would never go without a box of art supplies,” she said.
So she paid attention to this unconscious desire to hold on to art and began to shape herself into the artist she is today. Cook studied at the Maine College of Art and workshops in Massachusetts, Oregon and Washington. She later studied art and art history at Oregon State University and worked as an art journalist for the Corvallis Gazette Times. Cook has held art shows in California and Oregon.
Wearing her favorite pair of pink Converse high tops, a black top with a little color and a bright yellow felt hat, the 84-year-old revealed one of her personal favorite quotes: Color is an animal that wags its own tail. It means color is boss, she said.
“Everything comes from the colour. When I start an image, I start with color and go from there, and when the colors feel right, when the layers feel right, when the ‘music’ feels right, I stop.”
Her tools include scrapers, rollers, squeegees, spray bottles and spatulas, but never brushes, which are too precise, she said. It’s the hardware tools and colors that express their improvisational style. It’s the layers and layers, the textures that build up, that make the process fascinating for her.
“Being an artist is interesting, exciting, fun, challenging, rewarding and a little pricey,” Cook quipped.
She has two children, four grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
In her other life, as she likes to say, Cook is a writing coach and will be teaching poetry and essay writing classes at Sweet Home this fall through Linn-Benton Community College. She has published a novel, Listen, and a one-woman play, On Our Way to Somewhere.
“I take my painting, writing and music seriously,” Cook said, “but I take life as it comes with a sense of humor.”