On a mild, late winter day, Joyce Coco and I met for an interview over coffee and pastry at the Source in RINO.
May I ask you your age?
I'll be 80 in August. [Then, with laughter] I aspire to emulate Alice Neel and paint myself naked in a chair when I turn 80.
How long have you lived in Denver?
Tell me about your early years.
I am the oldest of eight children. I was born in Taylor, Texas, near Austin. We were reared in the country on a farm. We chopped and picked cotton. We picked field corn, ate it ourselves if picked at the right time, otherwise we fed it to the livestock.
We were poor. We didn't know it because there was always food to eat. My father started out as a sharecropper. We moved maybe four or five times. Eventually he bought some land. Life was very difficult at this time and I was anxious to leave.
When I was 17 I decided to go to nursing school in Austin. I loved the connection with people, however I had no feel for the sciences - none at all. On a double date I met Al Coco. He was in the air force, stationed in San Antonio. We married at 18 and 19. Al was truly the life of the party - he could turn a gold dress green...
Al decided to go into law. He went to the University of Texas and got a degree in psychology. He then went to law school in San Antonio and graduate school at he University of Washington. We adopted two boys in San Antonio.
What was your exposure to art in the early part of your life?
There was no art in my home growing up. My parents did not really know of it and so they did not encourage it! My sister [also an artist, Billye Otten] lived with Al and me. She took art in high school and I was intrigued by the work she brought home.
When Al was studying law I had the opportunity to provide tours of the college and the city to a visiting lawyer from Mexico. This man was very knowledgeable about art. He knew about paintings. He had met Picasso. I was very impressed with the worldliness of this man. I would say I was really introduced to art by my mid-twenties. It was a world I knew nothing about yet I wanted to pursue it.
How did you do that?
Through these early years I worked as a dental assistant. In my spare time I would take art classes when I could. When we lived in Houston I took private art lessons. The teacher was mean. Still, I was further drawn to it. When we moved to Denver I took classes from Harold Wolfenburg. He was a great painter and a bad teacher. I decided to do some research and I discovered the teacher, Edith Niblo at the Emily Griffith Opportunity School. I studied with Edith for ten years. She taught me everything I know about color. We did so many color studies. She loved Picasso and Cezanne. She was a great teacher, and she truly was my mentor.
Eventually I enrolled at D.U. to study art. I received an art degree with honors in 1986. Al taught there so I had a scholarship. School was relatively inexpensive. I really did not like the painting instructors so I studied other media including lithography with Gordon Mansell (my those stones were heavy...) and some sculpture. I made installations of furniture with life-size plaster figures, from wood armatures wrapped in chicken wire. Tables were very important to me as a form and, I suppose, as a symbol. The table is the center of so much, good and bad...
Please tell me a bit about your artistic process.
I would say I am primarily an oil painter. Very seldom do I do preparatory sketches. I paint on stretched canvas and lately, large wood boards. This I do because I have had some trouble with the paintings on canvas cracking, probably because I apply the paint very heavily with a palette knife.
When I had my first studio at 2550 Walnut Street I painted many abstract landscapes.
That was a great studio building - filled with artists (thanks to the owner, the architect Paul Nash). When I showed Al my first abstract painting he reacted very negatively. It wasn't until we attended the Rothko retrospective at the Guggenheim that he came around.
Later on I did a whole series of paintings focused on the figure. That was perhaps my best work. It was very emotional. The color was happy, the subject matter was sad.
I like to work in the square format, maybe 36" or 48". From my Jungian therapy I know that squares too, are an important symbol, I think of completion?
Very rarely do I approach a canvas with a preconceived idea. Usually I start in the lower right corner and I just go at it. It is hard to say when a painting is done; maybe they are never done - just abandoned.
The focus of my art changes. It has been abstract. It will be again. Now I am working on paintings of flowers, like peonies and red poppies and more. There is little time and so much I want to say. I am so happy to have the time in my life to consistently paint.
Any final thoughts?
It is difficult for me to talk about my work publicly. I want the viewer to do their on work. If I paint it, why talk about it? The creative process has a mind of its own. I am the instrument holding the brush.