Celeste Cooning settles in at her worn work table in the Tashiro Kaplan Artist Lofts for what will be a long night — at 1:30 p.m.
Her company: her handmade templates, her trusty X-Acto knife #11, a couple dozen yards of white Tyvek and the radio, currently tuned in to KEXP.
In fewer than 24 hours, the Seattle artist needs to finish transforming the Tyvek — woven from high-density fibers, the material is hard to tear but easy to cut — into the backdrop for a wedding at Benaroya Hall. The two 10-foot-wide panels have been in the works since spring, but like many of Cooning’s projects, this backdrop will culminate in a down-to-the-wire production night.
Cooning’s backdrops are tapestry-meets-paper snowflake — and they range from small projects to 2010’s ”Celebrations” installation at Occidental Park, which was suspended 30 feet in the air and spanned 70 feet wide. Her work combines airy, elegant shapes with the toughness of Tyvek. She usually works in white because it picks up nuances of light and shadow, which is what her work is about, she says.
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Responsible for the huge backdrops at City Hall weddings the day same-sex marriage became legal in Washington state, Cooning also creates pieces for storefronts, celebrations and city parks. One of her new projects is a piece for the John Ritter Foundation, which focuses on aortic disease education and research.
She’s venturing beyond lightweight materials: With the help of fabricators, Cooning transferred her designs to metal this fall for her first permanent public installation, “Bounty,” at Jackson Park Golf Course’s perimeter trail. The park’s trail moves in and out of wooded areas, and Cooning views her installation as a threshold for the trail. It is a single supporting arch with a lacy, frondlike “bloom” at the top.
Cooning’s installation at Occidental Park is another departure: She performed her cut-paper technique on sailboat sails. Titled “Ichi Mi San,” Japanese for “one-two-three,” it is based on triangles, which are a popular motif in Japanese art.
Motivated by making
As a self-described maker, Cooning’s process is about turning anxiety into joy. The age-old debate of makers — who extend the DIY ethic through technology — is man vs. machine, which is especially relevant today, she says.
Cooning draws patterns on graph paper and scans the finished motifs into a computer so she can print them at different sizes. She traces the templates onto Tyvek, then painstakingly hand-cuts each and every omission. She redraws, recuts and fine-tunes down to the last minute. This level of refining isn’t possible with a machine.
“I don’t think people are as connected to making as they used to be,” Cooning says.
Cooning’s attachment to her work does not end when she finishes making it. She likes to install her work herself, so she can fuss and finesse until the final moment.
As a child, Cooning was interested in performing arts. She didn’t take her first visual-arts class until her senior year of high school, but was “always making things” growing up. She earned undergraduate degrees in painting and history at Indiana University, and a master of fine arts in painting at the University of Washington.
She was looking to define her process during a drawing marathon at the UW when, driven by an interest in pattern, she thought to experiment with cut paper.
Because it was a new way of working, there were no rules, she says; that meant she got to make up her craft as she went along.
Living with art
Cooning believes the purpose of public art is to bring people the unexpected.
Public installations bridge the gap between people and art with an approachable format; stumbling upon a public art installation can take people out of their own heads and into a brighter mental place, she says.
Fellow visual artist Kristen Donnelly, whose work also transitioned from painting to cut-paper, first met Cooning at Indiana University.
“As an artist I noticed how honest she was about her work: it’s successes and failure,” Donnelly says. “She was proud of her accomplishments but always the first to admit that she wanted to work harder and do more, try something new, take things one step further.
“Even though she talks a mile a minute, you can always tell a part of her is silently watching her surroundings, taking in every detail and reflecting,” Donnelly says.
Hannah Leone: 206-464-2299 or firstname.lastname@example.org.