Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Celeste Cooning Does the Most Amazing Things with Paper!

Celeste Cooning at CQA August 10 meeting. The large leaf in background is part of an installation at the Theo Chocolate factory in Seattle.
Celeste Cooning's first art supply (at age 3) was a roll of Scotch tape. Her current art supplies include 200-yard rolls of Tyvek and a large (very large) collection of X-Acto knives...and oh, what the Seattle-area artist can do with them! Cooning enthralled the attendees at the Contemporary Quilt Art Association meeting August 10 with views of her amazing cut-paper works that range from a (relatively) simple wall sconce to a massive, multi-panel "wall" that backdropped a huge stage.

Simple paper cut added to sconce

Cooning's large cut-paper stage backdrop (at right) was commissioned by a UW professor for performances in Kane Hall theater.
Celeste worked mostly as a painter of realistic works in gaining her Fine Arts degree at an Indiana university, enjoying portraits and patterns. She moved to Seattle to work for her MFA at the University of Washington, attempted more abstract work, but never felt comfortable with this genre.

A silk dress tossed on her bathroom floor inspired this realistic painting

One of Cooning's final abstract paintings
It was during a week-long drawing marathon that Cooning, bored, had a sudden urge to move on to paper. Her early efforts in this direction--paying attention to surfaces and where the pieces overlapped--are what she terms a seminal bridge to her later work.  She then spent a summer cutting leaves and flowers, enjoying the interplay of light and shadows, and ending with a wall piece that was 15 feet wide.

Her first efforts at cutting paper...

...and the 15-foot-wide results of a summer's cutting!
Continuing in this direction, for her MFA thesis Cooning created a full-wall piece, 20 by 20 feet, that was displayed at the Henry Gallery on the UW campus. Though she started her cutting projects using Strathmore drawing papers, she soon moved on to Tyvek for its resilience and permanence.

20 x 20-foot piece shown at Henry Gallery

Cooning has developed a rental market for many of the pieces she's been creating since she finished school six years ago. One channel for her rentals has been storefronts around the Puget Sound area. Often where a retail space is between tenants, the owner or rental agent wishes to have something nice-looking in the windows. And because the pieces are flexible, between rental uses she can store them either as rolls or folded flat.
A double window installation

Closeup of part of a window installation
Backlighted window installation

Multilayered window installation

Another rental channel for Cooning's pieces grew out of her work for a caterer during her college years. This gave her entree into the area of wedding decorations, and one of her steady sources of business is local wedding planners.
These large, mirror-image panels were used as a backdrop for a wedding in a SODO facility
View of SODO facility with Cooning's panels above and mirror-image panels at far end of aisle
Another of  Cooning's pieces formed a backdrop for a "Marriage of Equality" ceremony when same-sex marriage became legal in Washington state

Cooning calls herself "a maker," a term that's taken on particular meaning these days as part of a resurgence in appreciation for fine hand-craftsmanship. "I'm very process oriented," she says. Working on a 4- by 8-foot table with a self-healing cutting mat, Cooning painstakingly cuts each part of her designs out of rolled Tyvek with an X-Acto knife. Sometimes she will make templates for particular motifs that she knows she will want to repeat. Any marking of designs on the Tyvek is done with a light yellow Sharpie, as marks on this material do not come out. She will use digital editing/design software sometimes for the original pattern design or manipulation, and occasionally has used an overhead projector to get the design onto the Tyvek, but mostly she relies on her own drawing skills.

Although the Tyvek could be colored with the use of house-paint pigments and other materials, the process is quite labor-intensive and Cooning prefers to rely on colored lighting when something more than the basic white is needed.
An idea of what colored lights can do to the white Tyvek in this installation in a public park. Figure at bottom is playing a piano beneath the installation.

Lights add color to the basic white material

Sometimes a surrounding color adds punch to the white material...
...and sometimes the material itself is THE focus--this is a reclaimed sail!

Cooning frequently teaches paper-cutting workshops at public outdoor events, and those taking part can produce some interesting pieces. As these pieces may rightfully be called "sculptures," it's only fitting that one such workshop took place in Seattle Art Museum's Olympic Sculpture Park. The only rule she cautions at these events: "Watch your free hand!"

Paper-cutting fun in the outdoors
A "wrap" produced by one of  Cooning's students
Obviously happy student paper-cutters!

Cooning was among the Northwest artists whose works were selected for the "High Fiber Diet" exhibit at the Bellevue Arts Museum earlier this year, and her huge, multi-layered piece had viewers wondering how she managed to create such depth and intricacy. Light and shadow play huge parts in her works.

Cooning's piece at BAM was something like 9+ feet tall.
Light and shadow, layer upon layer.

Design intricacy throughout many layers

Other public installations have included one displayed in a plexiglass box mounted to a pole as part of a designer's series of street art pieces!
Model for piece to be placed in plexiglass box
Final installation of street-side plex box

A number of Cooning's pieces have been installed in public parks in the Puget Sound area, with most or all supported by 4Culture grants. The Tyek material has proved to be capable of standing up to the elements (it's even hosable if it gets grubby!), and Cooning says there has been little or no vandalism of these installations.
One of her first park installations

Looking up through the installation
A hexagon-design installation in Seattle's Occidental Park
A "chandelier" installed in a Burien city park

Another park "chandelier." The thin strings at the bottom of these chandeliers are strings of small beads.

A commission for Seattle's Theo Chocolates factory had Cooning designing both realistic and fanciful jungle leaves, many of which were produced on Tyvek that was colored on both sides (a costly process, she reports). Visitors touring the factory assemble in a room where the story of chocolate from tree to plate is pictured in a lengthy wall mural, with Cooning's jungle canopy overhead.

Cooning's latest commission, now in progress, is being funded by Seattle's 1% for the Arts and has her quite excited. This is the first time her work will be produced in metal instead of paper! A 2.2 mile trail has recently been developed that encircles the Jackson Park Golf Course in Seattle's north end. Cooning's leafy designs are being water-jet cut from aluminum to be mounted on a "portal" at the beginning of the trail. She is thoroughly enjoying working out the design for this different medium and interacting with the metal-craftsmen as they transform her ideas into a permanent form.

Schematic of portal design for Jackson Park Golf Course trail portal
Details of several parts of the design
A leaf that's been water-jet cut from aluminum sheet

A metalworker attaches a finished leaf to the armature of the Park portal

For more about Cooning and her artworks, go to

Scotch tape is a Trademark of 3M Co.
Tyvek is a Trademark of DuPont Co.
X-Acto is a Trademark of Elmer's Products, Inc.
Sharpie is a Registered Trademark