Painting in realistic terms

Benny Westcott

Deb Cooley may describe her painting style as realistic, and most viewers would probably attest to that quality in her work. But for Cooley herself, that’s not necessarily the most important thing.

“I tell people I can teach anyone to draw something,” she said. “It’s all how you perceive it. When most people paint or draw or whatever, they think they have to be always realistic. That’s not what art is about. Art is about how you feel.”

And from portraits to nature scenes to wild animals to pets, the Sweet Home native has a lot of feelings to share in her art exhibit, currently on display at Sweet Home City Hall, 3225 Main St.

One piece features ducklings at Odell Lake, based on a photograph Cooley took there after lying in the grass at night waiting for them. Two other works are of Incan children Cooley met while on a tour with National Geographic in 2016.

“I had always wanted to go to Peru since I learned about it and read about Machu Picchu [a 15th century Inca citadel],” she said. “I was just kind of fascinated with the Incas and how they build all of that stuff.

“The kids,” she added, “are something else.”

Other paintings come from closer to home, like the one of Eastern Oregon sandhill cranes. Still others come from a place even closer to Cooley’s heart: her own family. There are paintings of her granddaughter, Loretta; her oldest son, Adam, holding his newborn son, Ryder; and a portrait of daughter in-law Nicole holding her middle child, Finn. “There’s a lot of love in those,” Cooley said of these pieces.

The latter is unique in that where the two subjects end, Cooley lets the paint run down the lower portion.

“I had a small picture of Nicole and Finn, and I just decided I’d do a really different technique and stop the picture and just let the colors run,” she explained. “I had to pour really heavy color to get those darker colors on it. That’s a big risk, when you’ve got the part that you really like done, and you’re going to dump paint on it.”

It’s one of her favorite pieces in the exhibit, “because I was experimenting with the running and having a grand time.”

While Cooley tackles a lot of subjects in her work, she enjoys portraits the most.

“People are fun,” she said, recalling one year when she and her mother, Shirley Crocker, quick-drew portraits of Sweet Home High School’s graduating class. “I like to draw and paint people.”

The 64-year-old’s been painting for as long as she can remember. The third-generation artist’s elders taught her a thing or two about the craft, particularly her mother and grandmother, Myrtle Hufford. And they were good teachers.

“My grandmother is a genius,” Cooley said. “Her stuff is phenomenal.”

She kept painting during her academic years, recalling Barbara Gregory, her high school art teacher, as “very good.” Back then, she worked mostly in oils and acrylics.

Cooley graduated from Sweet Home High School in 1976 and attended Linn Benton Community College through 1978, taking figure-drawing courses.

“That and music [she also participated in jazz choir] kept me from being crazy at college,” she said.

She entered school hoping to launch a career in physical education or something sports-related but decided against it.

“I did two years [of school] and decided I wasn’t going to be a teacher,” she said. “I couldn’t stand the thought of that.”

Instead, she pursued hairdressing, graduating in 1980 from Phagan’s Beauty College in Corvallis. First, she worked at Casa Madrid in Albany, then for Attitudes in Sweet Home for four years. Then, in 1996, she struck out on her own, opening Deb’s Hair Boutique in the current Rio Theatre location on Main Street. It would later become known as Deb’s Hair Boutique & Open Art Studio after Cooley added exhibits.

“I just kind of opened it up and let people come hang their art,” she said.

Deb’s Hair Boutique moved in 2018 to 1223 Main Street, where it remained until Cooley finally hung her scissors up this past June. She still cuts hair now and then with an established clientele.

Cooley kept painting throughout her 43 years as a hairdresser. For the last two decades, she’s focused mostly on watercolors.

“Oils are fun,” she said, “but there’s something about the layering with watercolors.”

Cooley’s work has changed considerably since she started.

“My confidence just grew a ton,” she said, citing her 40s, in particular. “You decide you just really don’t care what anybody else thinks.”

A lifelong learner, Cooley took classes as an adult in Sweet Home as well as Brownsville, Lebanon and Eugene, absorbing different techniques she hadn’t yet explored.

“You can get something from each artist,” she said. “I took a drawing class from a gal. I can draw, but I learned some stuff from her that you forget about if you don’t keep using it or refreshing it. Classes always refresh your brain. I think it’s important to keep doing that.”

She’s fielded a number of requests to teach herself, but she isn’t so sure that’s for her.

“Everyone tells me I should start doing classes, but then you have to be perfect, and you have to have your lessons,” she explained. “I don’t want to do that. I would rather just sit with someone and give them the information to help them.”

Apart from her standard realistic fare, Cooley has also dabbled in abstract pieces.

“I have a few, even though they are not super-abstract,” she said. “It’s the technique. Mostly I do realistic. I try to do abstract, but it’s not in my brain. I’d really have to concentrate to do that. It’s totally a different way of looking at things.”

Cooley sells a lot of her work.

“I get rid of my stuff, otherwise I would have a huge amount,” she said. “Obviously not my family members, but pretty much everything else I’ll sell.”

She added that she “wouldn’t mind doing commissions for people.”

Cooley keeps herself busy in retirement by helping her parents. She and her husband, Scott, have three children: Adam, 42; Logan, 38; and Colton, 34; as well as eight grandchildren. Adam and Logan live in Sweet Home, while Colton resides in Washington. According to their mother, Adam and Logan are “very good” at drawing.

But painting isn’t her only creative outlet: Cooley also enjoys pottery, sculpting, sewing and quilting. She’s a musician, too, playing acoustic guitar and singing in what she described as an adult-alternative style.

Audiences may have seen her at coffee shops and in an Albany theater, as well as in speakeasy concerts with other musicians in peoples’ homes. A number of years ago, she performed with local entertainers at Sweet Home High School.

“I don’t do love songs, although some of them may be construed as that,” she said. “I’ve written and played and recorded,” she said. “It didn’t go anywhere, but I just did it for my own personal gratification.”