The following is excerpted from “The Difference Makers” by Marc Adams. Since 1993, Adams has invited hundreds of the best craftspeople to teach at his woodworking school in Franklin, Ind., which has grown to become the country’s (if not the world’s) largest. Every year, Adams has expanded the school and brought in a different mix of new instructors and veteran ones. As a result, he has figured out who is the best. He’s seen their work. He’s seen them at work. This excerpt features Michael Cooper – craftsman, sculptor, and inventor of impossible things.
Michael Cooper has been fooling around with wood and metalworking since he was a kid and has never stopped. He has a degree in commercial art from San Jose State College (now San Jose State University) and an M.F.A. in sculpture from the University of California, Berkeley. He has taught drawing, 3D design, furniture design and sculpture at several California colleges for 34 years. He is a superb teacher who is revered by students and colleagues alike, but in 2005 he decided to shift from teaching to totally focusing on his artwork.
He has won numerous awards and grants throughout the years, including a Fellowship in Sculpture awarded by the American Academy in Rome (Italy), and a Craftsmen’s Fellowship Grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. In 1993, he was presented with the President’s Award for Outstanding Service at De Anza College. His work is on display at several museums and public displays, including the Art Gallery of Western Australia, the Oakland Museum of California, Queen Victoria Museum & Art Gallery, and the Sam and Alfreda Maloof Foundation for Arts and Crafts. His work has been featured in books, magazines and newspapers around the world.
Recently the Museum of Craft and Design in San Francisco did a retrospective on Michael’s work titled “A Sculptural Odyssey, 1968-2011.” This led to a book written about his life as a teacher, artist and sculptor. Michael is a master at bending wood and adding odd bits and pieces together to make unique sculptures that are collected by patrons around the world.
On the Professional Side
Michael’s biggest initial career transition was deciding to leave the commercial art profession and switch to making sculptures in the late 1960s. He wasn’t sure what direction his new vocation would take, but he was excited about the prospects.
He returned to San Jose State College and began working on his Master of Fine Arts. There Michael met instructor Sam Richardson, who encouraged him to start checking out gallery shows in the San Francisco area. These shows featured all kinds of art, including sculpture. Although Michael knew little about contemporary sculpture, the more shows he attended the more he developed a passion for creating three-dimensional objects.
San Jose State College had a large art department in the mid-1960s, and new materials and processes were being explored, including fiberglass, polyfoam and lacquer. During that time, John Battenberg and Fletcher Benton, both commercially successful artists, joined the faculty. Fletcher eventually became a mentor to Michael and gave him the encouragement to continue to pursue his sculptural work. But the real awakening came when a friend paid Michael’s way to the Los Angeles milestone exhibition “American Sculpture of the Sixties,” a national survey of the best contemporary sculpture at that time. This exhibition opened Michael’s eyes to what was possible in contemporary sculpture and encouraged him to explore areas that were unknown.
“I am, for the most part, self-taught,” he says. “I had always been good with exploring new techniques but needed direction in the area of theme. I found what I needed in kinetic sculpture.”
His early works used a variety of materials including wood, aluminum, steel, motors, magnets, gearing and electrical components. In 1969, Michael finished his Master of Fine Arts degree at U.C. Berkeley and immediately began teaching art classes at Foothill College while continuing to make and show his own works, which were mostly kinetic sculptures.
In 1975, Michael shifted gears from kinetic sculpture to working exclusively with wood using bent lamination techniques as a form of sculpture. That year he made three pieces: “Captain’s Chair,” “Soapbox Racer” and “Music Stand.” His work was well received, which inspired Michael to continue to explore wood laminations with organic forms.
In 1976, he started the “Gun Series,” and in 1977 was subsequently given a Society for the Encouragement of the Contemporary Arts (SECA) Award, which included a one-person show at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. One of the best things to happen during that hectic year of preparing for the San Francisco show was that he met his soon-to-be wife, Gayle Stetter.
The late 1970s were exciting times for Michael. After the SECA award, he received a monetary grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. In 1979, he was awarded a fellowship from the Crafts Council of Australia. This grant was titled “Craftsman in Industry” and led to Michael creating sculpture in two furniture factories, as well as lecturing at various colleges, crafts and industry groups.
Following the Australian grant, Michael traveled to Rome on a fellowship at the American Academy in Rome. Here he was given a year to explore his work among other fellows and the historic art of Italy.
Though Michael was a big part of the San Francisco Bay area art scene, his sales were always sporadic. Fortunately, that is where teaching became handy to help support his work. In 1977, he left Foothill College for De Anza College in Cupertino, Calif. There he taught sculpture, drawing, 3D design and furniture design. Teaching became a rewarding career, and for 35 years he enjoyed his connection with his students. In 1981, he married Gayle, and the two moved to Sebastopol, Calif.
In 1986, Michael and Gayle bought an 81⁄2-acre slice of heaven with meadows, trees and a seasonal creek, with the thought of someday building and living on that property. The first building was Michael’s new studio. For the next 21⁄2 years they camped on the property while they designed and built the house. At first there was no water, electricity or sealed roof. In time they ran water lines and electrical, and sealed the roof.
Before they moved into their new house, Michael began exploring sculpture that included the human figure. “This was a huge departure for me and was spurred on by my time at the American Academy in Rome and the historic art on location,” he says. This new type of sculpture led Michael to build a room-sized 3D replicator. Although this huge machine didn’t achieve the final perfect finish, it did remove a lot of the excess material before the final finesse could take place in his work.
In 1993, Michael’s father died of a heart attack, which devastated him. This eventually led to a huge diversion in his work. “I stopped making art after my father’s death and bought a rough 1933 Ford pickup. I had been interested in hot rods since I was very young. I started modifying the basic body, and what had seemed a simple project soon became another art project.” He called the rebuilt pickup truck “Tubester.” The hot rod endeavor was just what he needed. Michael considers that project to be an epiphany in the overall artistic direction of his work by incorporating metal fabrication and machining, and a return to drawing and designing on paper.
The making of Tubester also involved the magazine Street Rodder, which documented the project through 20 construction articles. It took 81⁄2 years to complete the project, and since 2001 the Tubester has been shown extensively. This was the project that led to more commissions that continue to help fund his ongoing work.
In 2008, Michael received a Windgate Fellowship Grant through the Museum of Craft and Design in San Francisco. The project Michael pursued was a survey of his sculpture during a 40-year period. Select pieces from his body of work have traveled to the Bellevue Arts Museum in Bellevue, Wash., the Fuller Craft Museum in Brockton, Mass., and the Museum of Craft and Design in San Francisco for the final showing.
In 2016, Michael was selected to be an American Craft Council Master Fellow, which is an artist’s dream award. Michael continues to build and design in Sebastopol, Calif.
On the Personal Side
I have seen a real live planetary transport machine, I’m sure of it. Because it’s the only way Michael Cooper can get back and forth to whatever planet he comes from. He is way too talented, innovative, creative, skillful, original, crazy, witty and flat-out ingenious to come from anywhere on earth – except California. Oh guess what, he’s from the middle of that state.
When you consider his vast body of work, it becomes easy to forget that he had a real job of teaching and his sculptural work was a side line. From 1969 to 2004, he taught full time at the college level. He is a superb teacher, admired by students, respected by his colleagues and one of the crowning jewels for MASW. His first workshop was the summer of 2008, when he co-taught a class on bending wood. He arrived a few days early to unload about 50 pounds of air grinding tools along with several examples of his work. It was also the first time I had ever met someone from another planet; surprisingly he looked like any other earthling.
Afraid he might vaporize students, I decided to be on hand for his first day of lecturing, just in case I needed to contact the Men in Black. His first demo was to take hundreds of veneer strips, put glue between each layer, and then twist them into some alien shape. The next day when he removed the clamps every piece fell on the floor – the glue failed. Turns out the glue we had purchased had an inaccurate date label, which made for a great teachable moment. This also proved that he really is human.
Since then, Michael has taught several workshops at MASW and no matter what other workshops are taking place, he always steals the show. Not because he has the kind of personality that sucks the wind out of the building, but because his method of work is so mesmerizing it just begs an audience. I once asked him about how he prepares for a lecture and he told me that he first tries to calm his stomach. It turns out he gets nervous when he lectures. Imagine that a man of his talent, who has made his living as a teacher, still finds intimidation in standing in front of a group – proof again that he is human.
John Lavine, former editor of Woodwork Magazine, once wrote “surveying a roomful of Michael Cooper’s sculpture, a viewer can easily be overwhelmed by the riotous profusion of materials and shapes. But after your eyes have settled on any of the myriad of details in this work, the question that inevitably follows is: How did he do that?” The answer is simple: He’s a master of any material he touches. Metals, plastics, woods and any variety of found objects are like clay in his hands, capable of any shape he desires.
Yes, he is a genius “maker” with skill unlimited. His work is deeply complex and sometimes dysfunctional. Often it seeks to make a social statement; other times it reflects the life of growing up in the California hot-rod culture. His work involves impeccable craftsmanship, both technically and conceptually, and woodworkers everywhere are in awe of his skill. Both Michael Hosaluk and Michael Fortune have posters of Michael Cooper’s work hanging in their shops. That says something.
I’ve had the pleasure to get to know Michael on a personal basis. He is a soft-spoken pacifist who loves to make things that cause us to think. Michael says, “For adults, I would like them to look at a piece and enjoy trying to figure it out: OK, what does this do?” And: “Oh, I see. This does that.” When looking at his work, which spans nearly 50 years, it’s easy to see how he continues to push himself both through his skill and his designs. It’s like he is in competition with himself, always trying to outperform his last work. That drive keeps him young at heart and always on the move (from one planet to the next).
– Marc Adams