Obituary: Floyd Cooper

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Award-winning author-illustrator Floyd Cooper, widely lauded for his evocative and luminous paintings depicting the African American experience, died on Friday, July 16, after being ill with cancer, in Easton, Pa. He was 65.

Cooper was born January 8, 1956 in Tulsa, Okla. In a guest post for ed tech company Mackin’s Books in Bloom series, Cooper revealed that his earliest recollection of creating art was from the age of three. “I plucked a piece of gypsum board from a scrap heap left by my Dad who was perched on a ladder, working on building our house,” he wrote. “I used that chalky piece of wallboard to scratch little shapes onto the side of my Dad’s house.”

Cooper described an unsettled childhood in Tulsa following his parents’ divorce that involved attending all 11 elementary schools in the city at various times. “With each new school, I quickly learned the currency of my art,” he wrote. “I would seek out the art teacher and ‘buy’ myself a new friend with my artwork.” His teachers’ encouragement during his school years led Cooper to continue honing his art skills and it paid off. At the end of high school, he was awarded an art scholarship to the University of Oklahoma, from which he graduated with a B.F.A. in 1978.

Following college, Cooper worked in advertising and in the greeting card design department at Hallmark Cards in Kansas City, Mo. One of his jobs at the company was to erase and change old greeting cards and he claims that this practice helped him discover his signature art technique, which he called the “subtractive process,” working in what he termed an “oil erasure” medium. “I use erasers to make the images in my paintings,” he told the Brown Bookshelf in 2009. “It’s basically erasing shapes from a background of paint.”

Cooper typically used models for the characters in his artwork and often recruited his two sons and their friends or other family members over the years. “I tend to focus on the humanity of my subjects, the details of expression that add a certain reality to the work,” he told the Brown Bookshelf. “Real faces = real art. That’s the goal anyway.”

Moving on from Hallmark and from Kansas City in 1984, Cooper landed in New York City to pursue illustration work. One of his first tasks upon arriving in New York was to seek out representation and Cooper said that he credited his children’s book career to his first agent, artist representative Libby Ford, who got his portfolio seen at children’s book houses. He initially received some book jacket work, soon followed by his first picture book assignment, for Grandpa’s Face by Eloise Greenfield (Philomel, 1988). That same year, he published The Story of Jackie Robinson, Bravest Man in Baseball by Margaret Davidson (Dell, 1988). From there Cooper’s publishing catalog bloomed, as he illustrated numerous children’s books including Brown Honey in Broomwheat Tea, a poetry collection by Joyce Carol Thomas (HarperCollins, 1993), which earned him the first of three Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor citations. The others were for Meet Danitra Brown by Nikki Grimes (Lothrop, 1994); and I Have Heard of a Land by Joyce Carol Thomas (HarperCollins/Cotler, 1998). He won the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award in 2009 for The Blacker the Berry, another book of poems by Thomas (HarperCollins/Cotler, 2008).

In 1994 Cooper both wrote and illustrated a picture text for the first time, Coming Home: From the Life of Langston Hughes (Philomel). He illustrated many picture book biographies of figures in African American history, including Nelson Mandela, Louis Armstrong, and Serena and Venus Williams, but he told the Brown Bookshelf that he was additionally “quite proud of the diverse cultures represented in my backlist.”

Cooper’s other nonfiction titles include the recent release Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre (Carolrhoda) by Carol Boston Weatherford. For that book, he said he drew upon his grandfather’s recollections of the tragic event to inform his illustrations. In all, Cooper created more than 110 books for young readers. He was a frequent presenter at conferences and workshops around the country where he often demonstrated his art technique. Cooper additionally took on the role of mentor and teacher as a longtime member of the faculty at the Highlights Foundation in Milanville, Pa. Earlier this year the Foundation established the Floyd Cooper Scholarship to provide tuition for an illustrator of color or an Indigenous illustrator to attend a Highlights Foundation course of their choice. A Floyd Cooper “themed” cabin was also made available for on-campus personal retreats at the Foundation and features Cooper’s artwork, photos, and more. Outside of book publishing, Cooper designed a Kwanzaa Forever stamp for the United States Postal Service in 2018.

Patricia Lee Gauch, former editor of Philomel Books, was Cooper’s longtime editor, beginning with his first picture book. She shared this remembrance: “Floyd Cooper was an extraordinary artist. Philomel discovered him as a cover artist and matched him with the great Eloise Greenfield in his first picture book Grandpa’s Face. It was a door opener for Floyd as an artist, but it led to his personal discovery that he could write as well as create art. As author and artist, then, he chose stories that honored and celebrated the individual, from the poet Langston Hughes to the remarkable child with Down Syndrome in Be Good to Eddie Lee by Virginia Fleming. A beloved friend, Floyd was not only an artist and author, he was a man of character, and he brought that unfailingly to his art and work.”

Ellice Lee, senior art director for Viking Books for Young Readers and Philomel Books, said, “Publishing has lost a giant in the passing of Floyd Cooper. The excellence of his work about the Black experience, in both written and illustrative form, has touched young readers and generations of illustrators. His subtractive process added a layer of depth to his paintings that transported one not only into the moment, but also the emotion of that moment—those dreamy, meticulous decisions of erasing that actually added meaning. He was a mentor to many, a master of his craft, and such a delight to collaborate with. He will be sorely missed and his legacy will live on in his beautiful canon of work.”

Author Nikki Grimes, Floyd’s collaborator and friend, paid tribute this way: “Floyd always had a sparkle in his eye, and a warmth that you felt from across the room. He virtually buzzed with energy, all the time. No one was more alive. And then, there’s the work which was stunning, of course, but also continually growing in depth. These last few years, he worked with such intensity, it was as if he knew he was running out of time. Lucky for us, he didn’t waste a minute of it. Each work grew deeper and more powerful than the one before. His recent work on Unspeakable:The Tulsa Race Massacre was breathtaking. Floyd and I often talked about working together again, and I recently emailed him to discuss a new idea. I was excited about the possibility because, in a way, it felt like Floyd was just getting started. I suppose that’s a good note to go out on. He left us all wanting more.”

Kent Brown, former editor-in-chief of Boyds Mills Press and founder of the Highlights Foundation, recalled some favorite memories of Cooper. “Floyd was just a natural teacher. We had him at our writers’ conference in Chautauqua starting in 1993 and he’s been with us ever since. He was very nice to everyone. We would get people who came to our programs and maybe they hadn’t done their homework or been prepared; Floyd encouraged them all. He was terrific with kids. We had him at a family reunion one year where he demonstrated his subtractive art process and the kids were amazed, asking him all sorts of questions. He was spellbinding. We intend to keep working on the scholarship and his legacy. I’ve collected a lot of his art and we have many pieces hanging in our [Highlights Foundation] building. Floyd accomplished a lot in a short time, and I continue to admire him.”

In an essay remembering her friend and collaborator Cooper, author Carole Boston Weatherford wrote: “Floyd added so much to children’s literature by chronicling Black history and celebrating Black joy. His publication credits are too numerous to list. However, I believe that our last collaboration may be his crowning achievement, his most important work. When I was drafting Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre, I asked Floyd to illustrate. He accepted, saying, ‘You know I’m from Tulsa.’ Of course. That is exactly why I thought of him. Because of Floyd’s roots, I knew he would bring passion to the difficult subject. Together, we strove to give voice to the victims and the survivors whose stories were never told and whose losses may never be fully measured.

I did not know—until reading Floyd’s note for the back matter—that his own grandfather survived the 1921 massacre and had shared his recollections with Floyd when he was a boy. Floyd poured Grandpa Williams memories into this work. The resulting art is nothing short of masterful. Only Floyd could have created that searing cover art of a family in flight and in embrace amid the violence. Central to the composition, the younger girl’s eye begs us to believe our eyes and to see racism for the evil that it is. The Tulsa Race Massacre may well be the truth that Floyd Cooper was meant to bring to light; and Unspeakable, the legacy that he was born to leave us all.”

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