Profile - Dana Jo Cooley

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Meet Dana Jo Cooley

The Woman Behind the B-52's Savannah Love Shack




Cheers went up from the overflowing crowd when Dana Jo Cooley's installation, The Love Shack, was presented the Best Alumni Work Award at SCAD's "We Hear You Georgia" exhibit. But few knew what had transpired during the preceeding year ...

In the Fall of 2002, on a drive to Nice from Lacoste, France, where she was spending her penultimate quarter at SCAD, artist Dana Jo Cooley stopped at the village of Vence to visit the Matisse Chapel. This exquisite, small chapel was designed and decorated from 1947 to 1951 by the 20th Century master, Matisse, near the end of his life.

Awed by, and nearly breathless from, the exquisitely designed work that incorporated so many of the master's talents, from painting to sculpture to stained glass to carving, Cooley had "My Epiphany".

"I knew then," she says in her soft, whispery Tennessee drawl, "with a burst of euphoria, that what I wanted to do with my life, with my art, was everything ... to do Installation Art."

Early in 2003, during her last quarter at SCAD, one of her professors mentioned an illustration department project in which the students could illustrate the songs, music -- anything connected with the artists who'd been inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame.

"At first, I didn't think anything of it. I'd be graduated and long gone from SCAD by the following January of 2004, when the show took place." Besides, her heart was in Athens, now, where she and her long-time boyfriend were living while he attended the University of Georgia. She stayed in Savannah during the week to attend classes, and commuted to Athens every weekend. It was a tough schedule for a woman already taking an extra-heavy class load in order to graduate early.

Then her professor mentioned that the B-52's were among the inductees. The minute Cooley heard, 'B-52's', she recalls now, "I saw, clear as could be, The Love Shack!"

"I'll build it, design it, and decorate it, as Matisse did his chapel." Down to the last stick of furniture, every nail and screw and carving.

And so, on the long Friday and Sunday drives to and from Athens, she searched for an old shack from the 60's or earlier to serve as inspiration. And a few trips later, she found it, not far from the birthplace of the B-52's themselves in Athens.

Cooley photographed the shack from all angles. She measured it. Pondered it. Visions of its interior danced in her head. The door would incorporate ideas from the door of Matisse's Chapel.

The walls would be emblazoned with the carved names of love-struck couples. A vintage sofa covered in old, age-softened fabric. Chairs, a table, love letters perhaps.

Then there was the question of where to build this shack. Some friends wondered how on earth this delicate looking young woman was going to build it. Dana Jo Cooley was not a building contractor. She wasn't a carpenter. Even Matisse had begun with an existing chapel.

Obstacles, however, don't deter Cooley; they invigorate her. She'd studied architecture in high school; she'd grown up in a handy-man filled family. She knew how to wield a hammer; and power tools didn't scare her a bit.

It quickly became obvious that the only place large enough to build the shack was in her grandfather's barn back in her childhood hometown of Whitwell, Tennessee.

Construction of the shack took nearly a year of days worked long into the night, but finally, late in November, the shack, primarily built of poplar, was finished, and the artist plunged into the interior, which is filled with the accoutrements of love, from the 1960's sofa and chair, to the names of loving couples carved into the walls. Love letters tell tales of romance.

Hanging from the peaked ceiling are "the birds, the bees, the flowers, the trees, and the moon up above," all designed and fashioned by Dana Jo Cooley.

She painted a blushing Mona Lisa.

A paddle labeled "love hurts" was added, and a feather on a stick for tickling. One wall is papered; another has shelves, which house love potions, books about love, a spin the bottle game. A heart shaped dartboard hangs from the front door.

A lamp is fashioned from a shapely leg.

Rafters across the roof are hung with a clothesline, tied in symbolic love knots, from which dangle tokens left behind ... underwear, keys, socks.

Roots of the shack go back to Cooley's childhood. From the time she was five years old, Cooley knew she wanted to be an artist. She drew daily, and devoured books on art and images of art whenever and wherever she could. In the third grade, her school offered a class in painting, which she joyously took. But the little school in Whitwell offered little more in her chosen field and finally she settled for a correspondence course in painting.

She loved doll houses, which she would build and decorate and fill with tiny figures. "I still love doll houses," she says now. "You have complete control over the whole little world of the house."

In her junior year of high school, she got the chance to take advanced art classes at Chattanooga State College. These simply reinforced her passion.

Then, she took a trip to Savannah with her mother. Cooley remembers, "I fell in love with SCAD and with Savannah." Her parents told her that somehow, if that were what she really wanted, they would find a way for her to go there.

Shortly thereafter, she won a full scholarship to SCAD. "That was a momentous day," she says.

Cooley majored in illustration, thinking it was the sensible path to a career after college. "But I loved everything," she says, "and took classes in it all ... sculpture, metal work, jewelry design, ceramics, painting in oil, acrylics, watercolors. Pen and ink drawings, charcoals, you name it. It was all wonderful.

"But I was getting nervous. I didn't want to confine myself to illustration in some corporate office with no time for anything else. But I still didn't know what I really wanted to do instead."

Then, in the fall of 2002, there was the Chapel. And her Epiphany. And now, for the B-52's and everyone who wishes to see it, there is The Love Shack, and the award. Dana Jo is phasing into her next project --- which, for the moment, remains a secret.

© Cima Star

-- photos by Brian White










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