What We All Deserve

January 16, 2018

By Julia Norton

I have always been a sucker for a big smelly art school. Not the bad kind of smelly, but the lovely lingering turpentine, wood dust, and plaster kind of stink that characterizes this sort of institution. Especially within the rare and special variety of art school that has seen it all. The Cooper Union Foundation Building is such a place, and then some. 

When I first walked through the front doors on day one of the summer artist-in-residence program I immediately felt the history, creativity, and hard work seeping through the walls and up in the air. Continuing up to my new studio for the next month on the 6th floor, I walked into a narrow hallway, made a left, and then was greeted with an overwhelming amount of light and space: the most I’ve seen from any studio building I’ve visited in all of New York City. The overhead windows poured generously into the space a rich, golden light that touched everything inside. There were no dark corners, no windowless coffins, just a democratic studio space where every inch felt magical. It was one of those moments in my career that you savor with all your might. I breathed in deeply that beautiful art school-stink, and sighed out “I’ve made it, I’m home, and I don’t want to ever leave.”

Unfortunately, by nature of the residency and the fact that these paradisiacal spaces belong to the students of Cooper Union as they have for centuries, I did eventually have to leave in a month’s time. After that blissful moment came an almost urgent sense of panic. “I have a month, only a month to make the most of this.” I sprang into action, making lists, hauling in supplies, borrowing funds, and making work. All residency experiences are unique. With some you take the time and space you need to regroup and hash out what matters to you. With some you experiment, maybe making no work at all, but trying out an unfamiliar or brand-new process that may take time to fine tune. I knew from the get-go that this one would be different. I came in with a very specific project in mind, a list of deadlines, and one main goal: to use the opportunity to push myself as far as I could possibly handle. In the end I came out with a project that I felt very proud of and could never have accomplished otherwise. In the beginning I had no idea whether I would eventually feel this way, or whether I would crash and burn, but regardless, one thing was for sure: I was not wasting this space.

In addition to this experience, two factors were also crucial in my enjoyment in and gratitude for this residency, the first being the location, the second, the company. The joy that came from actually working in Manhattan was not lost on me (for the record, I am a born and raised New Yorker and have never once had a studio on the island). I was also able to bring people to my studio on a more frequent basis than ever before. Mentors, colleagues, peers, friends, family were able to come visit on their lunch breaks, or after work. With my past studios located in the far reaches of Brooklyn this has proved to be much more difficult.

As for the company, it should first be stated that I am also a teacher, and have had the most experience working with teens. On occasion, while working away in my studio, one of the teens from the concurrent Summer Intensive program would pop their head around the corner of my studio wall. This was not unwelcome to me, and I found them all to be inquisitive, brave, and open minded. It was a pleasure to work next door to them, and I hope they felt the same. The artist talk that came with the final exhibition of my program as well as theirs provided even richer opportunities to talk to the teens, and gave some of the quieter ones the gusto to come out of their shells further. Its communication like this provided by the chances to connect with youth that reminds me why I am a teacher, and I wish these sorts of meetings happened more often outside the classroom.

Another note on the company: I was also lucky enough to have a studio adjacent to the three other residents in the program; Tammy Kiku Logan, Kate Starbuck Elliot, and Florine Demosthene - all incredibly strong and dedicated artists, whose work I admire immensely. Their presence made the program feel both fun and professional. Working alongside them was a privilege. 

If I were to lodge one complaint about the Cooper Union Summer Residency Program it would be that it does not last forever. It was hard to leave, but in a way also grounding. The studios… sigh… the studios were built with such a time-honored consideration for the arts; for their value and out of respect for the importance of educating and nurturing young or emerging artists… Something a bit harder to find these days. I remember repeating to myself a sort of mantra on the last day of the residency, looking out on the emptied out studio space: “This is how it should be, and this is what we all deserve.”

  • Founded by inventor, industrialist and philanthropist Peter Cooper in 1859, The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art offers education in art, architecture and engineering, as well as courses in the humanities and social sciences.

  • “My feelings, my desires, my hopes, embrace humanity throughout the world,” Peter Cooper proclaimed in a speech in 1853. He looked forward to a time when, “knowledge shall cover the earth as waters cover the great deep.”

  • From its beginnings, Cooper Union was a unique institution, dedicated to founder Peter Cooper's proposition that education is the key not only to personal prosperity but to civic virtue and harmony.

  • Peter Cooper wanted his graduates to acquire the technical mastery and entrepreneurial skills, enrich their intellects and spark their creativity, and develop a sense of social justice that would translate into action.