Cool Factor 10: The Art and Performances of C. Ryder Cooley

Reconstruction. Exit Art, NYC. April 2007
C. Ryder Cooley: Reconstruction. Exit Art, NYC. April 2007

C. Ryder Cooley is a multidisciplary artist who focuses on issues of gender, animals, body and sustainability. Her haunting and ethereal works are reminicent of dreamlike fairy tales, combining the cool aesthetics of modern technology with a delicate, handmade touch.

We caught up with her recently and she graciously agreed to answer some of our questions:

You’re currently finishing up Animalia, an animation and book project with collaborator Bart Woodstrup based on your multimedia performance project. How is that going?

I’m so excited about the Animalia animation! Bart and I have been working for over a year on the project. It’s been challenging because Bart relocated to Chicago, so we’ve been working from a distance, but we are nearly done, and the movie will be having a Capital District premiere (alongside an all new Animalia-2 performance) at Proctors Theater in Schenectady in July, 2011! What a fantastic place to present this work, I am so honored and thrilled! The animation is a very unique project. The animated drawings, story and music are all based on the multi-media Animalia-1 performance. Doesn’t it usually work in reverse? A book later becomes a movie or a play? Well, I tend to do everything backwards. As I began making drawings for the animation, I decided to also make a book. Thus, the animation has become an illustrated book, which I’m trying to get printed/published.

And you used Kickstarter and reached your goal for funding the project! That must have been gratifying. Were you surprised at the response you got?

We launched our Kickstarter campaign in September to try to raise money to finish the project, and it’s been going really well. We have until October 15 to get funding/support, so please go to our Kickstarter page and support the project! There are many rewards for our supporters, and every dollar helps. Thank you!

You have a show coming up at the Hudson Opera House in Hudson this weekend. Can you give us any details on what to expect? What will it be like?

If you haven’t been in the second floor theater of the Hudson Opera House you must come. This installation-performance, Faunal Respirations, will be infused with phantasmal sounds and images. The historic opera-theater is hauntingly beautiful with incredible acoustics, and the space is rarely open for public events. The installation will be on view Friday – Monday, October 8-11, from 12noon-5pm. A musical performance will unfold Saturday evening, October 9 between 6:30-9pm, with special guest Lady Moon. Please come and go during this durational tableau with singing saw, video, sound and taxidermical resurrections (an extinct goat, brought back to life for seven minutes in 2009 is resurrected as a chimeric performance character.)

Can you walk us through the thought process involved in putting together a show that combines so many artistic disciplines, such as Animalia? I mean, where did you start? How did it come about and then evolve into the finished work? How long did it take to put together?

It’s not easy to be a tactilist in world of the virtual and the aftershock of minimalism. I’m sure many of your readers know what I’m talking about. My work is physical and material, and there are so many layers: drawings, props, garments, projections, choreography, sound, stories…it is like a quilted winter coat. By overwhelming the senses with seeds and threads, I hope to tap into a pre-modern warmth. There is a sun and a moon in my work.

Todd Chandler on banjo and C. Ryder Cooley on singing saw performing in Animalia @ Proctors Theatre,Schenectady, 2008
Todd Chandler on banjo and C. Ryder Cooley on singing saw performing in Animalia @ Proctors Theatre, Schenectady, 2008

Animalia is the most epic project that I’ve endeavored to create. Animalia is a multi-media performance that combines music (accordion, singing saw & strings) with movement, projections and aerial-trapeze. Animalia is also a fairytale, which tells the story a girl who is disenchanted with the world and wishes she could fly. When she becomes an antlered deer-creature, she achieves flying powers and enters an ethereal world of hybrid creatures. This project came together as my MFA thesis at RPI in Troy. Graduate school provided me with the time and recourses to combine all the aspects of my work into one epic manifesto. Animalia is an epic project which would benefit from a producer because it’s exhausting to do everything yourself. My background is in visual art, so I don’t know much about the theater world, but nonetheless, I’m forging ahead by working on the new Animalia-2 performance, which is focused on extinction. I’m looking for sustainable ways to produce this project as well as for venues, so please contact me if you have any suggestions and stay tuned for more fairytales from the ghostworld, coming soon via Animalia-2.

How did you learn to play musical saw?

I was playing a show at City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco circa 2003 with my former band, The Darklings, and there was an amazing saw player, Enzo Garcia, who also played that night. I introduced myself after the show and asked Enzo to teach me the saw. He even built me the wooden handle that I use today. The saw I play was designed by Charlie Blacklock in Alameda, CA. I’m not sure if he’s still around or if his saws are available, but I highly recommend them if you can get your hands on one. I’m sure Enzo is still playing musical saw somewhere, too, so please look him up, he is incredible! Thank you, Enzo!

While we’re on the subject of learning, how exactly does one learn how to work on a trapeze? Isn’t it dangerous? Was it scary?

It took a severe bout of Albany depression/desperation for me approach the trapeze. I guess I can thank Albany, and my wonderful friend Marina, for inspiring me to defy gravity. I’ve always been too clumsy and in my head to imagine performing aeriels, but when I landed in Albany after so many years in San Francisco, I needed something radical to make me feel alive again. I’ve mostly learned by trial and error, through observation and via collaboration. I’m not a professionally trained aerialist. I’m a folk aerialist. Most of the movement I do is simple and not particularly dangerous (though I do like to perform in unusual places). I’ve developed my own odd-ball style, which is both clumsy and elegant. Working with my body in such a physical way has been transformative and empowering. I’ve learned to trust myself and to appreciate my body in new ways.

Works by C. Ryder Cooley: Toadstool (left) and Poppy
Works by C. Ryder Cooley: Toadstool (left) and Poppy

You have a unique, instantly recognizable artistic style in your drawings, your performances, and your music that conveys a steady confidence in your work. You have such a sure hand. Do you ever have doubts about your work? If so, how do you overcome them?

My work is an extension of myself, so I don’t really have doubts about the work itself. However, I do have struggles, I get frustrated and tormented when I don’t like what I’m making. Usually I end up cutting things up physically or metaphorically, and stitching them back together until I create a collage that feels somehow poignant. Part of the excitement and beauty of making work is sharing it with an audience, and I care deeply about my viewers, yet I have a difficult time figuring out how to propell my work into the world. This is further complicated by the fact that I make so many different things, I don’t make a single marketable product. I struggle with the practicalities, the capitalism. This is not our world, yet we try to make the best of it.

You’re living and working in Hudson now. How did you end up there? What’s your favorite aspect of Hudson?

I really just washed up in Hudson. I was stringing myself along with a series of artists residencies and shows on the road, and just when I was at the end of my rope, Hudson took me in. Time and Space Limited gave me artist housing, and I work at an amazing music shop. There are many creative people in Hudson, and it’s diverse in multiple ways, which is quite a relief. The radical new community radio station, WGXC, just launched. Also, I live right across the street from Club Helsinki where there is great music, entertainment, food, dancing and even yoga.

C. Ryder Cooley: Feather Infirmary (photo by Todd Chandler)
C. Ryder Cooley: Feather Infirmary (photo by Todd Chandler)

If you had to choose between art and music, which would you choose? If you couldn’t do either one, what would you do? What are you passionate about?

A psychic friend once told me that in another life I was a nurse on a boat. I care passionately about ecology and all animal creatures. I’m a pacifist and a socialist, I believe in social justice and growing food and media activism and education. Sometimes I feel rotten about being an artist. I could be doing so much more in the world. But, the art I do is partially a survival mechanism. I work from my heart, and without art and music I don’t know if I’d be able to bear this world.

What advice would you give an aspiring artist/musician?

This advice is especially for women artmakers: people will respect you more if you take risks, push limits and advocate for what you need to make your work as powerful as possible. You will not lose your elegance if you communicate directly to realize your creative visions. People want to see good work. Take the steps you need to make the best work possible while practicing acts of generosity along the way. Remember to support other artists/musicians, especially those who are are working with limited recourses/privileges. We need to support each other and not fall prey to the competitiveness of capitalism.

Serenades for Factories and Mills in an empty factory behind MASS MoCA (photo by Sharon Bass)
C. Ryder Cooley: Serenades for Factories and Mills in an empty factory behind MASS MoCA (photo by Sharon Bass)

Did you have a little run-in with the law in North Adams?

I did have a couple of run-ins with the law in North Adams during an artist residency at Contempory Artists Center in 2006. First, the police nearly arrested me during a performance in which I ventured to play accordion atop a train scaffold. Apparently it was private property. I was wearing a decrepit gown with drapes of pigeon feathers and an antlered bonnet, which the authorities did not find amusing. Then, MASS MoCA security ousted me from a subsequent serenade in the museum courtyard. Apparently I was disrupting the peace, or something. These performances were intended to be poetic interactions with architecture and public space, they were not meant to be provocations. The project was a disenchanting reminder of how privatized our “public” and artistic/creative spaces are.

What other projects do you have planned for the coming year?

My labor of love in 2011 will be Animalia-2, which I am calling a performance, but really it is a larger body of work and research about extinction, eco-mythology and diversity. There are drawings and songs already completed as part of this project. Ultimately, I would love to have an exhibition and a performance all at once, but we shall see what the new leaf brings. Please come to the Hudson Opera House October 8-11 to experience the seedlings of this work.

I currently have work up at an amazing new space called (HI)STORY LABOR(ATORY) at 624 Warren St. in downtown Hudson next to the park, and I hope to continue working with that space. The space is occupied by a healing arts practice, a series of exquisite hand-made garments and a collection of obscure art and artifacts.

Fall Harbor
C. Ryder Cooley performing with Fall Harbor

Also, my band Fall Harbor (musical collaboration with Todd Chandler) released an exciting new album called “Meet Me at the Water” this summer, and we’ll be performing songs from the album at Club Helsinki Hudson in Hudson on Monday, October 25 at 8pm. Admission is free, and the club is fabulous! Please join us!

Previously: Live: Fall Harbor @ Dennis Herbert’s Folk Art Gallery, 7/18/10.

Fall Harbor’s new CD, “Meet Me At The Water,” is available here.

Catch Ryder performing at these upcoming shows:

Faunal Respirations Installation /Performance @ Hudson Opera House. Installation: Friday-Monday, October 8-11, 12noon-5pm. Performance: Saturday, October 9, 6:30-9pm. 327 Warren St., Hudson. FREE.

Fall Harbor @ Club Helsinki Hudson, Monday, October 25, 8pm. 405 Columbia St., Hudson. FREE.

(HI)STORY LABoR(ATORY) artwork on view through October. 624 Warren St. Hudson. Open Thursday-Sunday, 11am-6pm.

Ryder Cooley: Riverbird Serenade (photo by Kate Bae)
Ryder Cooley: Riverbird Serenade (photo by Kate Bae)

  1. Matt Mac Haffie says

    I guess it takes a multidisciplary artist to so insightfully get inside the mind of another. Ryder Cooley is fascinating, her work other worldly!. Thanks for the look inside and the update.

  2. Bowtie says

    Really great piece. Gives some, but not all, of the many dimensions of Ryder Cooley. Her commitment is total and sets a bar pretty high for those coming up after her. Keep at it and don’t worry that the police don’t “get it”.

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