I met Vicki Teague-Cooper in the 1980s, and bought one of her encaustic paintings while photographing her in her Santa Fe studio. She has been making and showing her art for about 35 years.
Primarily a painter, her work has included oil paintings, encaustic paintings, drawings, watercolors installation art, and monoprints. Vicki talked to Making It! about her flowering as a creative artist, about lessons learned, and what inspires a full-time creative life.
Turner Houston: Vicki, you have worked as a pastry chef, a book designer, and what else? How/when did you decide to become a painter full-time? Was it hard to make the decision to survive on income from your art?
Vicki Teague-Cooper: Well, you missed a few ‘careers’ in that list! And I think my answer to this question will be the longest, since I see it as a continuous thread of development, albeit a tangled one.
I have been (in order) a Window Display Designer, a Pastry Chef, a Pop-up Book Designer/Paper Engineer, and a Graphic Designer. As well as a Gardener, a Jewelry maker, and a Beekeeper. But I have ALWAYS been an Artist.
How did I do such huge ‘career’ changes? God knows…but everything I’ve done besides my art was in service of my art—usually to earn money so I could buy art supplies and make art! Most of the time my life has felt like an uncontrolled, convoluted slide down a mountain with no brakes!
Because I was a Studio Art major in college (University of Texas, Austin) and had to work to support myself, I got a job as a Window Display Designer for a while. I then got into baking professionally. I was a Pastry Chef for years after that; it was what I considered my ‘maintenance job,’ to pay the rent & bills and to be able to buy art supplies.
At one point I realized I didn’t want to be an art student anymore, I wanted to an Artist. Period. So I left art school, found a studio in one of the old downtown Austin buildings, and proceeded to see if I could paint on my own ‘schedule’ instead of a ‘class schedule’. Turns out it was the best decision I ever made even though it wasn’t at all easy. Getting up and going to the studio took a real effort, and once I was there, it was lonely! (And, I was also working as a Pastry Chef during this time.)
The First Lesson I had to learn as an Artist was: TO ENJOY BEING ALONE. Let me repeat: ENJOY BEING ALONE.
The Second Lesson was: How to cut myself loose from pre-determined assignments and expectations—to really get out of the box.
Soon after I started my ‘studio artist life,’ my friend/landlady of the 2-story building where I was renting space needed to rent the bottom floor. So another artist friend and I brainstormed and decided to open an Artist’s Cooperative Gallery in that space. Amazingly, it was a real success and continued for over 3 years. (And during this whole time, I worked as a Pastry Chef.)
The Cooperative experience taught me the Third Lesson: The BUSINESS of art has nothing to do with ART! It’s just a means to an end.
The gallery gave my work some exposure, and I started to show elsewhere—both by invitation & by entering competitions. At one point I was included in a show of women artists from the Southwest in New York City. My husband and I went to New York for the opening, and a whole new horizon opened up for me—I felt like I was HOME.
So we went back to Austin, sold everything, saved up money and 9 months later we moved to NYC…
I’m telling you all this so you get the sense of how unplanned and serendipitous my creative life was/is.
“I paint self-portraits because I am the person I know best. I paint my own reality.”–Frida Kahlo
It was during this time in New York when I truly started to feel like an Artist. I was in my late 20’s/early 30’s and starting to feel my creative strength. But I still felt to some degree that heaviness of effort and loneliness in the studio. I had to just learn to fight thru that urge to avoid working. Over time it became easier, though never quite goes away! And just being in New York City, seeing all the other art/artists, gave me a whole new kind of energy.
Fourth Lesson: Exposure to other artists and creativity in ANY form is fundamental, essential nourishment. This is especially true because artists are mostly alone while making art.
It was then that I made the leap to being a painter full-time—not so much as a single great leap but rather a gradual stepping off. I was lucky to be in the right place, at the right time. The art world was booming. I got into shows, soon had gallery representation, and starting selling my huge paintings regularly. So for the first time, I didn’t have to have a ‘day job’! It was so liberating but SCARY—I knew how fickle this world could be. But I just kept going.
“To create one’s world in any of the arts takes courage.”
Over 8 years while living in the East Village, I had 3 one-person shows, multiple group shows, had great reviews in Artforum & Art in America, and sold lots of work. And the whole time, I just put one foot in front of the other, never having any grand plan—riding the roller coaster as best I could.
Next Lesson: Maintain focus on MAKING THE ART. It is easy to get distracted by all the extraneous aspects of this world—and lose track of WHY you make art.
That’s how I began to feel, losing track of why I made art. On a trip to Santa Fe over Christmas, my husband and I both realized we needed to get out of New York City and live in OPEN SKY. Seeing all the clean clear open space and the horizon was like a tonic—an energizing punch that I had to pay attention to. It was like I hadn’t really been breathing in a while, and suddenly there was oxygen! We packed up and moved out west in 1992.
In Santa Fe, I went ‘underground’ to some degree, distancing myself from the business of art, so I could reconnect with WHY I was making art—not making art for the next show or a collector. When I’m really ‘in the zone’ while working, I have a sense of something akin to serenity—I lose the sense of time and body, and my focus is absolute—only this moment, brush to linen, pencil to paper… It is, for me, the same as meditation.
And this is the Most Important Lesson I learned in my long journey: Make art for yourself! It will be your most authentic work!
“The pictures were painted directly through me without preliminary drawings and with great power.” — Hilma af Klint
TH:. I said you were a painter, but you do 3-D work, jewelry, and home and garden design, don’t you? Do your different media “talk to each other,” or do you make a conscious gear-shift from one media to the other?
VT-C: Yeah, I kinda wander all over the place when it comes to media. Partly because I don’t want to get bored, but mostly because the ideas that come to me require different materials. My artwork includes oil painting, drawing, watercolor, encaustics, printmaking, 3-D installations.
Then, I’m also a Garden Addict. Gardening is like slow sculpture, taking shape and evolving over years. I also became a Graphic Designer, setting up a design studio of one, being my own boss—again to make money in service of my art. I found that Graphic Design was a whole new creative experience—always collaborative.
All of these creative paths definitely inform each other, and there is a distinctive thread running through everything I make… The only ‘gear-shift’ I make is with the media itself—from oil paint to the computer to the garden seem to be huge shifts, but I think the work that comes out has the same essence.
TH: Do you have any routines or processes that you follow regularly that keep your creative spirit fed?
VT-C: I am always searching for new things to learn—a new painting medium, a new tool, a new process, beekeeping, reading, making jewelry, etc…
I think I have a restless mind, so learning something new cleans out the cobwebs and re-wires my mental patterns. Always learning something new is really important, I think.
In the studio, I frequently have to jump-start myself because of those feelings I mentioned before—restlessness and loneliness in there by myself. (Though now after all these years, that uncomfortable time is, thankfully, very momentary!)
When those kind of feelings emerge, I just start playing with my materials, or maybe just going through and sorting tubes of paint by color, testing different pencils on scraps of paper, looking through my collections of leaves, twigs, etc. All this done with nothing in mind, just letting my thoughts wander. Before long, I find myself focusing and staring a new piece, or going back to work on an unfinished piece.
I think the most important thing I learned in these struggles, is not to think about the finished ‘product’. Just focus on the process. Fall in love with the process. Maybe this is the hardest lesson of all.
TH: What bit of advice would you give someone who wants to make “something,” but is at sea on how to start?
VT-C: I would say, “Just think about what gives you real joy.”
Is it colors? Maybe just buy some cheap poster paint and do some finger coloring—just to experience the feeling of it.
Is it shapes? You can buy inexpensive pre-packaged clay at art/hobby stores to play with—and I mean really play—just squeeze it into weird shapes to see what it does.
Is it textures? Gather up some stuff with different textures/surfaces from around your house/yard and start gluing it all together on a piece of cardboard.
And don’t worry about how it turns out!
Visiting galleries, craft shows, any place where you can see things that others have created can also be a great guide. Pay attention to the things that instantly get you excited. Maybe that’s where you need to start…
Mostly give yourself PERMISSION and TIME to daydream, let your mind just wander. In today’s world this is one of the hardest things to do—but it is absolutely critical to creativity.
Vicki Teague-Cooper’s (Brief) Bio:
I grew up as an Army brat, but my parents were both from Texas, so lived my late elementary school and teenage years in Texas. I came of age in the late 60’s and quickly joined the tribe of hippies, where freedom and creativity ruled! I went to the University of Texas at Austin, as a Studio Art major. My husband and I lived in Austin for 14 years, then moved to New York where we lived for 8 years, then moved to Santa Fe, NM, where we have been for the last 26 years.
I am definitely a Crazy Cat Lady, having had many cats over the years. We currently have 3 kitties named Bijou, Jinx, and Jezebel. I am a garden freak, so we have lots of garden space that includes a koi pond. Beekeeping is my newest obsession—got our first hive last summer. Bees are my new gurus.
My husband Steve and I have been together for 47 years (we actually met and dated in high school). We are truly soulmates and I feel so grateful for our partnership.
On my social media, I describe myself as a Tibetan Buddhist Animist GreenWitch Artist. I think that pretty much sums me up.