Dana Jo Cooley Interview by Ryan Lytle
RL: What artists influence you and you work?
DJC: What I like to call my very early art crush because it felt like that was Sandy Skoglund while I was in school at SCAD. She was making installation art and building these worlds that she would photograph. She created a program at SCAD after I graduated, but I wrote a letter so I could get into the class which was called The Creative Process. It was probably one of the most influential classes I’ve ever experienced. She was incredibly supportive and such a strong influence, truly a natural kind of genius. In my opinion, she was one of the only artist I came across who had figured out how to make installation into a viable art process with a basic format. When I became interested in installation art, my questions were how do you do this? How do you start? I remember one of the things she said, "listen to the world around you", which I still think about all the time. She introduced me to Joseph Cornell with whom I feel such a kindred semblance. Before her it was Katherine Sandoz since I have a degree in illustration. She was my professor who encouraged me to follow a fine arts path. Even just her method of teaching I think is quite brilliant looking back :she would actually work on her own work in front of us. My whole career models after what she taught me. I took a class with her in France called Building an Exhibition Abroad. That class is another one that I would put a little dot on because I still use that process as well. Of course, I would include James Rosenquist because he was a very dear friend of mine, truly a mentor. I came across him back in 2008 because my best friend Charlotte Lee was his archivist. I met him and ended up living on his property for about two years. I was just making art and spending time around him which was absolutely incredible. His philosophy could be summed up with these words, "if you work hard persistently you will be fine." He was really fascinating to me because at the time I was working in miniatures and that was really interesting to him. He liked to use the term "intrinsic" to describe the work he explored in my studio. He always would say, “I think you’re onto something here kid.” I also made him think of Joseph Cornell toward whom he had an endearing attitude. Jim had met him and collected his work. I was fascinated with him(Rosenquist) because he was making giant pieces and playing with objects in a really primitive sort of way. The way he would set up what he was going to paint was almost as magical as the paintings themselves. We worked at opposite ends of the spectrum as far as the scale, but we were aligned like the stars when it came to subject matter. Although he was primarily an oil painter, he created sculptures that often incorporated wild elements like fog machines and mechanical mirrors. F-111, for instance, actually was created with a system that fogs the space it occupies. I love that.
RL: How does technology play into your process and the way you work?
DJC: Technology is a giant force in my work, even though often it may not be evident in the final product. I got my first Apple when I was nine. I had an Apple II e and I’ve pretty much been on a computer ever since. Beyond the traditional illustrative processes with Adobe, I think the more interesting thing to talk about is my work with laser machines. I’ve been working with laser cutting and engraving machines since 2003. The thing that I love the most about technology is that it always references the past, in that it always comes from something you already know. If I’m using technology which is a tool from the future but I’m also using a typewriter which is a thing from the past, then I surely must be coming on the present. I really love reaching in both directions. More recently, I’m so obsessed with grids, windows, and symbols in my work. Where I normally push a truest aesthetic, I’m kind of pushing more toward a futurist aesthetic these days. I’m on the computer so much I feel like I’m growing extra fingers. Everything happens so rapidly, especially now that I’m merging into more performance art oriented things. I’m definitely really into what is happening with technology right now. The newer works that I am working on right now are like the books that I make but I’m putting screens in those now. That was a big move for me. I have dreamed about it for a long time, but finally technology has caught up. Sometimes you have to wait for things.
RL: What is the significance of windows and their related geometry that is repeated throughout your work?
DJC: When I was at in the south of France, at SCAD, there was a program there and I couldn’t really grip onto what I wanted to do because my mind was just kind of blown in a way. We went on a trip to a chapel built by Matisse called the Chapelle du Rosaire de Vence. The chapel was built by artist and it was really fascinating, but what was really fascinating to me was that there was a miniature. At that moment I had a sort of epiphany, it was like a surge of knowing exactly what I should be doing and what I should go toward. When we got back to the campus, in my building an exhibition class I spoke about earlier, I just started copying the windows I saw in the village. What was interesting about the windows in the village was that people were not as private there. So you could kind of look into their windows, not that I was being a creep. I became really interested in the idea of the “inner” and the “outer” and how your view is completely in your own control. As an artist one of my handles that people love is MyWIndowYourView, which is also my mantra. It has become a really powerful message for me. I really am serving up my own viewpoint in a way. So that’s what I went for, that is something I can always go to. All of the chaos from different mediums I want to explore can be focused through that window and it will all make sense. It’s almost like a way for me to home in on something and I never get tired of it.
RL: Can you tell me about your process as a mixed media artist, how do you choose which media to use for each project?
DJC: I have such a huge collection of things at this point that my new way of approaching things is to try to use what I already have. I have so much stuff that people give me or I find. I also pick up things that I see that are interesting. I definitely use a lot of materials that you can buy at any store. There is a lot of repurposing, really just what finds me. The objects gravitate to each other in a way that is kinda beyond me. I am just their guide and handler at this point. I have to set a lot of rules and I have to not have any rules. I basically know myself very well at this point.
RL: Tell me about your experience with the Love Shack Bus Stop?
DJC: I was living in an art gallery that was also a pig farm called the Lowery Gallery. I had built the first Love Shack Bus Stop at SCAD and that was a super pivotal and memorable moment. The guy who owned the gallery Robert Lowery, who was a photographer and a very big advocate for folk art and just an awesome person, had heard about this competition. He came into my studio one day and said, “You gotta do the love shack.” It was already almost designed I just needed to modify some things. The first round I built a miniature and we went all out. Robert was really my cheerleader through that whole thing. I actually was not chosen for the first round of competition, but I got a phone call from the member of the board and they wanted to let me know how much they loved it. They informed me that there would be another competition later on. Several years went by and it was time for me to apply again. This time I was chosen. It was five or six years until the project actually happened, which was kind of maddening. Every time we thought it was going to happen, something would fall through. It was one of the most challenging project of my life honestly. I still have a joy and pain attached to that. It’s one of those things that I look back at like if I could do that, I can do this. When it was finally time to make it happen, I worked with two incredible artists, Jim Buonaccorsi and LeeAnn Mitchell, they were both metal workers. I had never really worked with metal, but they really wanted it to be metal. So I had to enlist some people who knew what they were doing. If I didn’t have them, I don’t know if I could have done it. The other issue with the project was that the budget didn’t reflect the time that had gone by. The price of metal changes every day and by the time we are actually doing it the budget could not even begin to cover the project at all. Fortunately for me, I had these two people who really cared about me and wanted the vision to happen. I was leaving Jimbo’s house one day and I was really kind of frustrated and trying to figure out how we were going to do this, when I saw one of his sculptures in his yard. I looked at the structure and thought, that looks like half of what we need. It was a structure sort of like a little building. So I turned around, went back and said what is going on with that thing. We ended up modifying Jimbo’s sculpture into the project. We worked on it for three months. It was every day, all day. It was one of the hardest working projects I have ever done. It is weird to drive by and see it, a part of me can’t believe it is mine. It is really emotional for me. It also really deterred me from public art. I think being a public artist is one of the most challenging avenues you can go down because you are no longer just an artist, you become an interpreter. You are having to communicate to people who are so far from your world. You are working with engineers and architects, and those people get you, but you are also working with city council members and members of boards. There are a lot of rules to make something accessible as public art. I just think it is really challenging to be creative within all of those rules. I still love the idea of putting art out into the world, but I like the idea of doing it on my own terms. I’m really glad that is was hard though because I think it is really important to figure out what you don’t want to do as well, so you can focus on what you do want to do. I don’t want to be negative because there are a lot of people doing really great things and it takes a lot of really committed people to make it happen.
RL: Can you explain what you are doing with performance art and set design?
DJC: I started working with bands in 2010. It began with the Dave Matthews Band, I made 52,000 magnets for the fan club, in thirty days. What is crazy is that that was easier than the bus stop. After that, I fell into music and I have been with it ever since. I’ve gone deep, I’m going deeper by the minute. The first band that I worked with directly was Of Montreal, they brought me in as a prop master. They were on a huge tour with two tour busses. There was a little over twenty people on that tour, performers, costume designers, full theatrical. I was so in my element. My friend Thayer Sarrano had joined the band and she brought me into that world. They were looking for someone who was an artist who could also do performance work and who could also get along with people. The vision of Of Montreal comes straight from David Barnes, who is a huge influence on me now. So, here I am creating these crazy props and my job as prop master is to keep these things going. I have attachments to these pieces because I helped to build them. By the third show I was on stage with gold wings and a gold bikini. When I joined Of Montreal Kishi Bashi joined at the same time. We had started to get to know each other and he had let me listen to his first album 151a. We would talk on the tour about how we should work together. I think he felt like we had a similar kind of aesthetic of the paradox of beauty and despair. When he put up an album and it started getting momentum I went with him. I went with him because he was best giving me the opportunity to be like David for him. I was able to create another piece of this performance based on my own ideas. I’ve been working with him ever since, I still work with Of Montreal whenever I have the chance though. When I was working with Kishi Bashi I began to explore the performance art aspect of his shows and he would let me. He would basically let me do whatever I wanted. Getting that sort of trust with people is so incredible. It’s hard to find that trust in the world so it is a sort of treasure. I was experimenting with lighting pieces with an overhead projector that would often times be these performance pieces with grids. Then I was also doing subtle things like wearing a sequin jacket and carrying a disco ball with a certain motion. It was a really dark and understated character; I feel like that’s really important. The two elements have to balance each other. With Of Montreal, the energy of the music and the energy of the theater is very matched. With Kishi Bashi I wanted to match his energy. It’s very ethereal with classical undertones. I try to be very subtle and shadowy. We would always talk about pushing the notions of art and music being two different things. We live in this progressive futuristic era, but when it comes to where you go for music and where you go for art we are still so traditional.
It’s not perfect, but its true.