Interview with Sculptor Terry Cook

Interview with Sculptor Terry Cook

On July 16, 2019 the Happy Valley Rotating Sculpture Garden Program unveiled six new sculptures outside of City Hall. Joined by City Council and art enthusiasts, residents toured the installations and met program artists, who were present to share their stories and artistic inspiration.

Want to know more about the artists? We do, too! Read on to learn more about Troutdale artist, Terry Cook, and his sculpture, FOTIZO.

So, Terry, tell me about yourself.

TC: Born in Bozeman, Montana mid-20th century, when I graduated from high school, I decided that Bozeman was a fine place to be from (unlike it is today where it is known to be a great place to be).  So, like all impulsive young people discontented with their hometown, I emigrated to Oregon to attend the University of Oregon, run track and hopefully, acquire an employable skill.

My first college decision: what do I want to be when I grow up—i.e. what will I major in? I chose pre-law. A sensible decision but not very dramatic. Before the first term was over, it dawned on me that there must be more to this college stuff than reading books and writing papers. I wanted to do things, make stuff, work with my hands. Was there a college degree for that?

A friend encouraged me to take a painting class and while my artistic abilities at the time were underwhelming, I found I loved the creative process. This class didn’t transform me into a Van Gogh, but it did challenge me to look at things differently—to see options where I had seen none before. Was life a problem to be solved or a mystery to be lived? I chose the latter. I was making stuff, working with my hands and having fun. If this was an employable skill, I was all in.

From this first introduction to formal art training, I went on to study jewelry making and sculpture and discovered that while I loved the idea of law and knew it was sensible, fine art was drawing me into its mystery. But that was just the first of my discoveries—not the only nor the last.

Over the next two years, I learned two life lessons (well, at least two): 1) creativity is part of human DNA in one form or another. Whether literary, musical, performing, graphic or any number of other creative arts, when the creativity switch is flipped, we excite something in us that feels at home. Our creative expression, I believe, is neither accidental nor evolutionary—it’s how we are created, reflecting a Creator God who made us in His image. Like Him, we too are creators. As one looks around, His creativity is as obvious as it is profound. When we express our own creativity, it reflects this profundity. When we create, we find ourselves “at home”, sometimes frustrated but nevertheless satisfied that in some way just feels right. A mystery.

And 2) there’s a reason that “struggling” usually precedes the word “artist”.

Loving the creative arts but wondering if I could make it a paying career, I slowly and pensively came to believe that fame and fortune may only arrive posthumously. But I wanted to create. So, I looked for another way to stay in that world and make a living before dying. While fine art was unrestricted, free flowing, sometimes amorphous and messy, it was nevertheless satisfying to the soul. But it was also inherently unpredictable. Architecture as a profession would be much more likely to provide a reasonably well-paying future, but it seemed too controlled, too restrictive and too buttoned down for me. Where was the middle ground?

A teammate on the track team suggested that I look at a course of study to which he’d recently been introduced–Landscape Architecture. Now that sounded interesting, a marriage of the freedom found in nature and the deliberateness of design inherent to architecture. It seemed to be a way to combine the free expression of art, working with soil and plants and making places of beauty without most of the restrictions accompanying building design. It also hinted at a higher likelihood of employment than as that of a young sculptor.

Decision made—if they would have a late comer into a relatively structured curriculum. Fortunately, since I was coming (albeit late) into the department from the design/artistic side instead of the engineering side, I was admitted despite starting mid-year. Apparently, the department was looking to move the field of study towards greater emphasis on design than the more practical but equally boring engineering field of its predecessors. One more lesson learned: timing is important to success.

Acquiring a degree in landscape architecture was step one in a satisfying career in the landscape design and construction profession, and one in which I was indeed able to make a living before dying. Immediately out of college (and foolishly I add) I started a landscape design/build company taking on numerous projects throughout the Pacific Northwest from 1973-1982. The landscape profession culminated in a grand finale assignment to turn part of the desert outside Riyadh, Saudi Arabia into a garden at the King Khaled International Airport (KKIA), 1982-1985. When built by the Bechtel Company, KKIA was the largest airport in the world, created whole cloth out of nothing but barren desert.

The numbers were a bit overwhelming for a young man from Oregon: from zero to 450 employees, a workforce of mostly Third Country Nationals (TCN) consisting of Philipino, Pakistani, Egyptian and half a dozen other Middle Eastern and African nationalities; a supervisory staff of 15 British and Americans and me as the project manager. 600 Date Palm trees all over 20’ tall, tens of thousands flowering plants and shrubs, over 100 miles of electrical cable for 600+ electric irrigation valves accompanied by about 100,000 cubic yards of soil to make and install, the project was indeed significant. But, while transforming the desert into a garden was extremely satisfying, new creative endeavors were calling.

After returning to the States in 1985 I took the next step in my creativity journey by developing real estate. In development, I was able to influence all stages of the design cycle from site selection to structure, combining both art and architecture with my landscape background to create livable places. From site planning to historic building rehabilitation, single family homes to condos and apartments, my development career spanned the next 32 years as new mysteries were experienced and occasionally solved. Throughout my development career I never lost sight of my first love of sculpture though, always looking for the opportunity to create beauty in the environments in which we live.

After my introduction to the creative arts in that initial painting class at the UO, I returned in 2017 to my first love of sculpture, making stuff with my hands full time in my studio, designed and built to add beauty to our world with accompanying smiles from those who see it. This story is just beginning…

 Not a short bio, but hopefully entertaining

What is your earliest memory about art or creating art?

 TC: Being bored in a church service one Sunday when I was about 10, I used the comment cards in the pew to draw pictures. I realized right then that to make something recognizable let alone beautiful, was not as easy as it looked. But I wanted to be able to do that.

 When did you know that you wanted to become a professional artist?

TC: I grew up thinking artists were cool—in a weird sort of way—but hardly ‘professional’. I assumed those ranks were reserved for doctors and dentists, architects, lawyers—people that generally possessed oversized egos but undersized ability to create stuff. I knew (or thought I did) that all artists started out struggling—the standard story of the person that moved to Hollywood to become a star only to work as a waiter or waitress for 10 years waiting to be discovered. I didn’t connect the concept of professionalism (earning a living) with art until well into my landscape profession when I saw that sculptors had a real role to play in creating mystery (how DID she do that?) and beauty. Then I discovered the internationally renowned Chihuly and local artists like Rip Caswell…and, well, that settled it. There was such a thing as a contemporary, living, professional artist. Even so, there aren’t many Chihulys and Caswells out there.

What themes or concepts inspire your artistic style?

TC: While studying landscape architecture, I discovered a Brazilian artist, Roberto Burle Marx, who frequently painted his landscapes before he built them. While he is known as a landscape architect, he was also a painter, print maker, ecologist, naturalist, artist and musician. His designs of parks and gardens made him world-famous, and he was accredited with having introduced modernist landscape architecture to Brazil. His Copacabana Beach promenade design inspired a vision of seamlessly weaving art into the landscape, creating parks as a natural canvas for sculpture, painting the landscape with plants and structure for me. My interpretation of that seamlessness extends to my sculptures whose best setting is not a gallery but a garden.

How has your artistic style changed over time?

TC: There is insufficient time in life to learn everything there is to learn in order to create beauty. Consequently, I’ve limited my style to creating with metal, realizing that once one learns how to melt steel, there’s little he/she can’t do…with a vision. Incorporating light with metal and wood is a direction I am pursuing as it combines the best of natural and man-made elements in aesthetic and challenging ways. My goal is always a creation that elicits a smile, a “that’s cool” response that provides a moment of shalom—even if only momentary contentment or peace in an otherwise discontented and disturbed world.

One of your sculptures, FOTIZO, is currently on display at City Hall as part of the 2019-2021 City Hall Sculpture Garden program. FOTIZO abstractly depicts three flowers towering over a cluster of sheet metal leaves. Can you tell me more about the inspiration behind FOTIZO?

TC: This goes back a while. A ‘sketch problem’ was assigned to students in a landscape design class at Oregon to create a flower garden. Simple enough, but with only two days to do it, the purpose was as much to gauge how students were thinking, approaching the problem as much as how skilled each was in creating it. Solutions varied from tightly designed foam cutout flower gardens in a residential setting to outsized and abstract creations. Since flowers are meant to be seen—an attractant to those whose mission is to pollinate—I settled on highly visible flowers—big and bright, very visible. I used 4’-6’ long thin dowels as stems and mounted 12” to 18” blooms made of brightly colored paper that when mounted to the dowels, tended to wave with even the lightest air movement. The piece was not to scale and nothing in nature mimicked it, (except possibly the Gunnera plant, a.k.a. the Dinosaur plant) but you couldn’t miss it walking down the hall. Had I known of the Gunnera at the time, I would have made an even larger flower…opportunity lost.

The concept of outsized plants has for years intrigued me. Imagine the succulent Aloe Vera leaf crossed with the graceful Lilly of the Valley that supports a multi-petal flower that’s a cross between a dinner plate Dahlia and a Black-Eyed Susan–in larger than life scale: that’s Fotizo. It mimics organic elements of flowers and trees but created in the permanence of steel. To skip the big words, I combined flowers.

Throughout my career, a commonly requested attribute for the gardens I designed was “beauty with low to no maintenance”…a beautifully manicured garden that grows very slowly, always stays green, needs little water or fertilizer with a carpet of grass that rarely needs mowing—perfect beauty with low maintenance. The difficulty of course is that if it’s living, which most gardens are at least intended to be, these attributes are mutually exclusive. Life is messy.

While I was unable to design an entire garden to the ideal of low to no maintenance, I discovered how to make the most low-maintenance plants of all. Fotizo: the ultimate in low maintenance garden design.

FOTIZO has a hidden design feature: all three flowers light up! Your sculpture is capable of drawing power from solar energy, batteries and conventional electrical outlets. Is there a significance to your use of lighting elements in sculptural art?

TC: Well-designed gardens are those that delight by day and intrigue by night. Art in the garden likewise can and should be accessible and enjoyed by day as well as by night. What if art could perform double duty—aesthetically pleasing and surprising by day, functional by night? Fotizo was designed with that in mind. How one uses light can either enhance or detract from the experience.

Surprise is a second element of good garden design. Paths meandering through a garden can be straight and predictable or serpentine and unpredictable but, in both instances, surprise enhances the experience. Interesting pathway lighting is a high priority for enjoying the garden at night.  With the number of events and meetings held at the Happy Valley City Hall after sunset, providing light for the walk and simultaneously illuminating the sculpture would make Fotizo serendipitously beneficial.

The chance to incorporate light into the sculpture was an opportunity not to be missed. The piece was designed to provide surprise resulting from a light that is activated by a motion detector when activated. A 5-watt, stainless steel light fixture makes up the bud in the center of the flower which when lit, reflects on the flower petals through a diffuser in front. The diffuser is rounded with a highly polished concave side to reflect light back onto the bloom while the convex side is patterned, and heat colored to provide imagery of the center bud of a flower while hiding the light fixture behind. Each of the three blooms are similarly built and are attached to a 1” steel tube stem inside of which are run wires from the controller located in the base. Fotizo was intended to provide visual interest by day and surprise illumination by night, an element of surprise with function–no mushroom lights!

Fotizo can be powered in three different ways. One is through direct 110v power through extension cord or hard wired into the base from power run from the building. There is a power controller and transformer in the base that converts 110V line voltage to 12V low voltage power for the lights. A second means is using a rechargeable 12V battery also contained in the base. The battery can be removed and recharged when it is depleted. The third option is to use a single solar cell mounted anywhere in the garden that daily recharges the battery. All power related equipment fits in the base of the sculpture and is accessed through a cover plate in back for easy servicing. The solar cell option eliminates the need to remove and recharge the battery.

FOTIZO was first submitted to the Sculpture Garden in the form of concept art, meaning that it had not yet been constructed. How long did it take to design and fabricate FOTIZO? Did you have an artistic process?

TC: Longer than I would have liked. A few setbacks along the way and the need for advice on self-contained, solar energy producing systems and equipment somewhat complicated the process. But since learning is always a deliberate intention in my work, I wildly succeeded thanks to multiple opportunities.

The design process was relatively fast—not counting think time. Once I had a clear vision of what I wanted, the design was laid out in a few hours work. Then came the engineering—figuring out how to build it so it could be transported in multiple pieces, easily handled and reassembled on site. Preceding the construction of Fotizo, I had designed and developed a system of rods and sleeves that allowed my smaller sculptures to be built in components, put in boxes for shipping and reassembled quickly at their destination (no tools required). I applied this system to Fotizo which worked perfectly.

With the “how to” settled, patterns were made for the leaves and flower blooms, and each were cut out of sheet metal and square tubing respectively. The leaves were rolled to shape, heat treated for the desired bronze finish, reinforced with steel rod and welded onto the central core. The bloom petals were cut from 2” and 4” square tubes, ground to the desired finish and assembled around the stainless-steel light fixture using a jig made to help with consistency in shape and size. Stems were then cut, shaped and heat treated to a bronze finish and sealed with clearcoat. The blooms were powder coated with clearcoat after being assembled. Total fabrication of the entire piece took 180 hours, of which about 15-20% of the time was a redo or a re-engineering of something just built. As is said, if you think education is expensive, try ignorance…which was available in abundance at the start but reduced to a trickle by the end.

Then there was the electrical…but thanks to expert help, this ended up being relatively understandable and accomplished in just a few hours.

What message do you hope to convey to Happy Valley residents with your work? What reaction do you hope to receive?

TC: The message I hope to convey is real straight forward: Beauty can be found in art; it need not be an expression of angst or anger or political animosity. It’s OK to simply enjoy looking at art, appreciate how it’s made, its scale and scope and be contented with the smile it brings to your face. If its existence pleases or intrigues you, mission accomplished.

I hope Fotizo will elicit a sense of whimsy and appreciation, a love for the piece. As mentioned earlier, a “wow—that’s beautiful” would be a great reaction. If it isn’t, don’t tell anybody–call me.

What advice would you give to an aspiring artist?

TC: Remember, there’s history behind the “struggling artist” concept for good reason. Making good art can be a bit like a golf game. Every once and a while you hit a real golf shot—an eagle or a birdie. And it makes you want to do it again. But for the uncommitted, that fantastic golf shot happens only rarely. So, commit yourself to your passion, dream big, get to work, learn something new on every project and never quit! Even if you need to step away for a time, let your love draw you back.

King Solomon said: “Do you see a man skilled in his work? He will stand before kings; He will not stand before obscure men.” This is true, and not just metaphorically. My experience in Saudi Arabia gave me firsthand experience with it. Of the assignments I had, three were most interesting: 1) design a garden for a prince whose palace in Taif was adjacent to his father’s, the King; 2) design and install a pool surround in a royal palace in Jubail; and 3) landscape both the interior and exterior of the Royal Palace at the international airport (KKIA) in Riyadh. In the latter case, I was blessed to experience Solomon’s wisdom as I saw my work stand in the Royal Terminal before King Fahad.

Every artist gets frustrated from time to time—always happens when creating something from nothing. When it happens don’t be surprised. Take a break, then go back to work. Don’t give up. Change things up, experiment. Try a new idea. And don’t be afraid to take on a new challenge, something you haven’t mastered yet. Above all else, work toward understanding that success is loving what you and doing what you love. The rest is just fluff.

All this will either develop your skills and character or destroy you. Embrace the former, reject the later.

Do you find benefit in municipal art programs? Why or why not?

TC: Yes.

Another of many life lessons learned working in public-private partnerships is that the role of the municipality can be exponentially expanded in its influence if two simple concepts are taken to heart. It takes just four words to define these two ideas. However, if everyone working in the public sector embraced them, watch–remarkable things will be accomplished.

  1. Create Opportunities

Case in point is Happy Valley’s Sculpture Park. Inviting artists to create and display their work in a public location provides a certain legitimacy to the work and consequently is a rare opportunity for new artists. The artist must rise or fall on his/her own merits, but the public agency in this case provides a canvas, a stage on which the artist can bring ideas to life. That is significant and should be encouraged and embraced by everyone. Opportunity guarantees no outcome; it simply provides a chance or possibility for a recipient. It’s why an opportunity is such a terrible thing to waste. What other opportunities could a city, state or nation create for its people if it decided to?

  1. Remove Obstacles

With every opportunity come hurdles to overcome. If it weren’t so, if an opportunity had no roadblocks or problems to solve, it would be a right, something guaranteed. There is no such thing as guaranteed outcomes with opportunities, just possibilities. With every opportunity there will be forces seeking to control, reduce or even eliminate it. In my opinion, the BEST thing a public body can do after creating an opportunity is to run interference to insure it’s not lost or worst yet, stolen.

Happy Valley’s support of public art is a significant opportunity not just for the artists but for the community as well. We all get to visit a living gallery—a garden in which art is equaled only by the environment in which it is displayed. What is better than that?

Thank you for making this opportunity available. I’m grateful to be a part of it.

The City thanks Mr. Cook for his contribution to the Sculpture Garden. FOTIZO has been on exhibit at City Hall since July 2019 and will remain through June 2021. For questions and purchasing inquiries, please contact Jaimie Huff, 503-783-3828, [email protected]. 

To see more art by Terry Cook, visit his webpage at  https://cookdevelopment.com/metal-sculptures/


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