Art, and all that jazz

By Sarah Brown
Of The New Era/Lebanon Local

Jazz is a developed taste, and it’s not going to be for everybody. The same goes for abstract art.

So says Molly Cook, an abstract expressionist artist and lover of jazz who recently moved to Sweet Home this past December.

Originally from La Grande, Cook spent much of her life living in places like Manhattan, Maine, Portland, San Diego and Mexico before returning to Oregon a couple years ago. It was her partner, Michael Gutierrez, who discovered Sweet Home.

It didn’t take long for Cook to also develop a taste for the city. She immediately took to Foster Lake – which reminded her of Wallowa Lake, which sits a short drive from her hometown – and, she noted, “The A&W is the finest on the planet.”

She also noticed that the city seems to be undergoing changes, and Cook decided she wanted to be part of them.

“I’d like to see what I can contribute to Sweet Home,” she said. “The economy needs to change and it needs to be better, but I’d really like to see it done thoughtfully so that it maintains that small-town character that we (all) like.”

Art on display gets a little attention by its creator as Molly Cook straightens a slighlty crooked canvas on the wall at City Hall.

And so she extended her thanks to Diane Gerson and the Sweet Home Oregon Coalition for Artistic and Scholastic Enrichment (SHOCASE), which is hosting her art show, “The Colors of Jazz,” at City Hall (3225 Main St.) until September, with a “meet the artist” reception from 5 to 7 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 5.

Jazz plays a prominent role both in Cook’s life and artwork. She grew up listening to the musical style through her parents’ influence, and even studied jazz vocal until the day she realized she didn’t want to sing publicly.

“I’m not afraid to paint,” she said, “but to get up and perform and sing jazz in public was more than I was ready for.”

So, instead, she treats herself to watching live jazz shows and christens her paintings 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 Brazilian-jazz-inspired, and another, “Birdland,” is a nod to Birdland Jazz Club in New York.

For Cook, abstract art is like jazz. It’s about improvisation, freedom and “winging it,” she said. She starts with a color and allows it to lead her somewhere like a story until she lands on the final result. The process always includes several layers of paint, strokes that will never be seen. Then she names the piece based on her response to what’s on the canvas.

“It’s the colors that tell me what the name of the painting is,” Cook said.

Take, for example, one of her favorites, “Doxy,” named after one of her favorite songs. The canvas highlights warm colors while presenting a bold display of black.

“I just love the song and somehow the colors just came together, and as soon as I got those colors, I said, ‘That’s it, that’s Doxy.'”

Molly Cook, right, poses with her grandmother, Ruth Larson, in this undated photo. Provided photo

It was her grandmother, Ruth Larson, who bought Cook her first paint set when she was about 9 years old.

“She got that (painting) was really important to me, somehow,” Cook said. “I was born at home and my grandmother delivered 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 that stuck with her. For a period of time, though, Cook focused her education on writing, and to this day maintains a website of her musings, http://www.artulips.wordpress.com, a title that is a tribute to her grandmother, “whose beautiful flower gardens were among my first experiences of color.”

But as she studied writing, she came to a realization: Every time she moved, there was one thing she always held on to.

“I realized the one thing I never gave up was a box of art supplies,” she said.

So she paid attention to that subconscious desire to hang on to art and began molding herself into the artist she is today. Cook studied at Maine College of Art and in workshops in Massachusetts, Oregon and Washington. Later, she studied art and art history at Oregon State University while working as the arts writer 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 speckled with a little bit of paint and a light yellow felt hat, the 84-year-old revealed one of her favorite personal quotes: Color is an animal that wags its own tail. It means that color is the boss, she said.

“Everything follows from color. When I begin a painting, it starts with color and goes 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 palette knives, but never brushes, which are too precise, she said. It’s the hardware tools and colors that express her improvisational style. It’s the layers and layers, the textures that build up, that make the process fascinating for her.

“Skylark,” by Molly Cook

“Being an artist is interesting, exciting, fun, challenging, rewarding and a little bit expensive,” 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 this fall in Sweet Home through Linn-Benton Community College. She has a published novel, “Listen,” and a one-woman play, “On Our Way to Somewhere.”

“I take my painting, my writing and the music seriously,” Cook said, “but I take life as it comes with a sense of humor.”