Wednesday, November 14, 2012

"Draw Near" to Susan Cofer at the High

Posted By on Wed, Nov 14, 2012 at 3:26 PM

DRAWING NEAR: If I already knew where the drawing was going, Id lose interest in it, says Atlanta artist Susan Cofer. I like it better when its teaching me rather than my trying to force it into something. Cofers exhibition Draw Near is at Atlantas High Museum through February 10.
  • Courtesy Susan Cofer/High Museum
  • DRAWING NEAR: "If I already knew where the drawing was going, I'd lose interest in it," says Atlanta artist Susan Cofer. "I like it better when it's teaching me rather than my trying to force it into something." Cofer's exhibition "Draw Near" is at Atlanta's High Museum through February 10.
When Susan Cofer was a student in the early 1960s, she asked a favorite art teacher, the one who had taught her how to build a frame, to paint a fresco, to mix egg tempura paint, and so much more, which of his female students he thought would make it in the art world. "None of you," he answered. "You'll all get married and have children."

Cofer did get married and have children shortly after college, but she also resolutely remained an artist. "Maybe it was resistance to that thought," she says. "I wanted to make art .. It was hard to do the things that were expected of a woman and then to have this other side that was almost totally interior. It was like a separate life."

The exhibition of the Atlanta artist's work currently at the High Museum through February 10 shows the results of Cofer's determination to live that separate, quiet, contemplative life in spite of the expectations pulling her in other directions. In her drawings on paper, Cofer captures organic forms in fine, layered, vertical lines that suggest the repetitive patterns of the natural world: cells, seeds, trees, rivers, and skin. "I love it where there's a little gap between things," she says. "I love it where there's that tension between big massive forms that don't quite touch... It's something I want to say over and over again. You see it in nature, where there's that tension. It seems to me politically, philosophically, that's where the action is."

NEARER STILL: Cofer grew up at a time when there were few women artists as role models.
  • Carl Cofer
  • NEARER STILL: Cofer grew up at a time when there were few women artists as role models.
Although her first love as a young artist was egg tempura, as a young mother, Cofer quickly turned to drawing on paper with wax-based pencils. "The children kept getting in my paints," she explains. "So I started drawing. I could do it late at night, I could do it between carpools, between whatever I had to do with the other side of my life."

Even with some of the practical problems solved by shifting from paint to drawing, building a career as an artist was still never easy. Promotion, sales, and creating a name for herself never quite fit with the life that was expected of her. An Atlanta gallery owner David Heath in the 1970s suggested Cofer focus primarily on building up a body of work, not worrying whether it sold or not. "I took that to heart," she says.

The exhibition, which encompasses many phases in the work she's quietly built up over the years, also represents a sort of home-coming. Cofer grew up in the Garden Hills neighborhood, and as a young girl her first encounters with art-making occurred at the home of the prominent philanthropic Atlanta family the Highs, now the site of the High Museum, where Mrs. High once taught art classes. "I was thrown out of ballet because I had a few positions of my own, piano I was bust, I fell off the horse," she says. "I remember mother finally bringing me to Mrs. High's house which had been converted into a school. I walked into the space, and I just felt so at home. I thought: This is what I do."

She was later among the earliest volunteers at what was then called the High's Junior Activities Center, teaching young people about art. "It was my first toe into the High Museum as a member of the community," she says. "Since then, I've always been involved with what was being exhibited and seeing what I could steal from those images. I've been connected to the High for a long time."

As a young woman, Cofer attended the women's liberal arts college Hollins in Roanoke, Virginia. "You could only major in art history because they didn't think women would ever be artists," she says. "I had a wonderful art history teacher. She used a book by a woman, Helen Gardner's Art Through the Ages. And get this: There was not one woman in it. There wasn't a whole lot of hope. My professors didn't offer much hope. Even the textbooks didn't offer much hope. The battle was believing I could be an artist. That was what I had to keep telling myself: just keep doing it."

Cofer's exhibit at the High shows that, by keeping quietly at it, such battles are ultimately won.

Atlanta-based artist Susan Cofer speaks about her work at the High Museum on Thursday, November 15, at 7 p.m. in Hill Auditorium. Her exhibition runs through February 10, 2013. For more information, visit the High.

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