She listened nonstop to news of the deluge on the radio, and watched images of the drowned on television. While the tragedies were washing over her, she'd look out the window of her little house.
"My backyard is the desert, in the Tucson Mountains," she says. Her windows frame a view of lush Sonoran saguaros, prickly pear and mesquite. Bobcats scamper across the porch. Deer linger just beyond. "I was seeing the deer outside, and I was drawing the deer but hearing all the news about Katrina."
Somehow in that season of death, it was the animals that moved her.
"These creatures, when you watch them long enough, a stillness descends," she explains. "I got a strange sense of the eternal, behind the events of the day that were so terrible."
The deer became key elements in a series of paintings that explore the relationship between the timeless and the fleeting. The deer, painted in oil or acrylic or alkyd (an oil paint with a vinyl base), are seen through windows, floating in architectural spaces. The deer, Cooper says, represent the idea of the eternal, and the human constructions stand in for the temporal.
But the paintings are not meant as stories. Instead, they're "objects of contemplation."
Inspired by nature, the deer paintings will be on view this weekend in an über-urban space, the Lucky Street Studios, in the arts Warehouse District. Cooper paints her meditative pieces in a gritty studio in the building at 529 N. Ninth Ave., at Sixth Street, hard by the railroad tracks (403-4042). She's one of more than 150 Tucson artists who will open their studios to the public on both Saturday and Sunday afternoons, as part of the Tucson Pima Art Council's Open Studio Tour.
"I'll have several of the deer paintings and an installation that's a work in progress," Cooper says. "I might be painting"--many of the artists do demos for their visitors--"but last time, so many people came, I didn't get a chance." And, naturally, she adds, "I'll have food out."
The self-guided tour covers studios all over Tucson and beyond. The northernmost artists, sculptor Aureleo Rosano and painters Angela Rose and Rebecca Bushner, work out of a studio at 2550 W. Moore Road, beyond Tangerine Road (297-3606). The most southerly artist, painter Mary Argueta, is technically in Vail, at 16781 S. Sycamore Ridge Trail (886-5999).
Lucky Street is as good of a place as any to start the tour. It's centrally located, just west of downtown, and visitors get a big bang for their buck: It's a group building where as many as a half-dozen artists, including a woodworker, a filmmaker and a silkscreener, ply their arts. Plus, it's just across a dirt parking lot from the Citizens Art Studios, 44 W. Sixth St., where another cluster of artists labor in their separate studios.
The Citizens "building is really interesting, with about 10 interesting artists," says Laurel Hansen (628-7786), who's been painting her "dreamlike" paintings there for about seven years. She used to be in a small room but recently switched to a "new and more voluptuous space, about 10 by 12 feet."
The Tucson Weekly's own Rand Carlson toils away on his tin collages at Citizens, alongside mixed-media artist Tony Rosano and painters Erika Atwood, Joe Hatton and Hansen. (Citizens also houses BICAS, the nonprofit bicycle-salvage operation, in its basement.)
Hansen says her multimedia works on paper and Masonite draw on "elements from all over the world, from the Middle East, India and other places, and, of course, the light and the desert here."
The painting "Tears From the Earth" is a desert scene, but it could as easily be the Sahara as the Sonoran. A woman's face lies across the bottom of the small piece, and beyond her, a pink-gold stretch of sand lies under a blue sky. "There are elements of otherworldliness and of everyday life."
A hop and a skip away, the Seventh Avenue Arts District Studios, 549 N. Seventh Ave., house a host of cultural workers, from photographer Kathryn Wilde to printmaker Mary Lou Williams to mixed-media artist Maurice Sevigny, dean of the UA's College of Fine Arts. (Another batch of group studios is north of Grant Road: The Geronimo Artists Collective, 2627 N. Geronimo Ave., 628-8180, features ceramicist Joy Holdread and fiber artist Jacqueline Bland. Fiber-artist-turned-painter Barbara Brandel is in a group space at 232 E. Limberlost Drive, 529-3361.)
The poor old Steinfeld Warehouse, at Sixth Street and the railroad tracks, is starting to look like a derelict building, Cooper says, with weeds taking over. For years, it housed a thriving mix of painters, poets, publishers and woodworkers, but the city evicted them last year. The artists scattered, with a good chunk alighting at the Ninth Street Studios, south of Tucson Magnet High.
Now some key refugees from Steinfeld have moved again, in a quest for larger space. Painter Cynthia Miller and her husband, Charles Alexander, poet and publisher of Chax Press, departed for 411 N. Seventh Ave., No. 103, near Seventh Street (275-4331).
But the Ninth Street Studios, 650 E. Ninth St., are still going strong, says newcomer Andrea Kashanipour, and emerging artists are taking advantage of the open studios left behind.
"The space has been subdivided into tiny spaces, and about 12 artists are in there," she says, including a ceramicist, a sculptor, a weaver and multiple painters. The Ninth Streeters have also invited a team of visiting artists to set up shop on the sidewalk outside. Food and drink alike are on the menu.
Painter Kashanipour has had some gallery luck of late. She just closed a show at Bohemia and has two pieces at Holy Joe Studio on Stone Avenue. In her day job, she teaches art at Painted Sky Elementary in the Amphi School District, seeing 600 kids a week, though thankfully not all at the same time. As of last summer, she snagged a studio on Ninth Street as a refuge to do her own work.
"I paint a lot of figurative stuff, females, mostly, in acrylic, on wood and canvas. And I have a line of toys, magnetic paintings where you move the toys around."
From Cooper to Kashanipour, the studio tour showcases old hands alongside new faces. If Kashanipour is fresh on the scene, Cooper, the deer painter, has been here 18 years, moving here shortly after the day in New York when she looked on a map and picked Tucson for its two blue rivers.
"I just needed to get away from New York for a year, and I saw these two blue lines. I thought they were rivers."
She arrived and found that the only streams in Tucson have long since gone bone-dry. What she'd seen on the map were highways. No matter.
"I fell in love with the desert, and I've been here ever since."