In this episode of “The Welcome Table,” literary journalism students Sydney Charles and Tatum Larsen interview Bridget R. Cooks, associate professor of African American studies and art history.
Tatum Larsen (0:10–0:12): Hi guys, this is Tatum.
Sydney Charles (0:12–0:13): And Sydney.
Larsen (0:13–0:42): And welcome to another episode of “The Welcome Table.” Today we are joined by Professor Bridget R. Cooks. Professor Bridget R. Cooks is an associate professor in the Department of African American Studies and the Department of Art History. Cooks’ interests include: Black visual culture, museum criticism, film, feminist theory and post-colonial theory. We’re so excited to be joined by Professor Cooks today. How are you?
Bridget R. Cooks (0:43–0:45): I am doing ok. Yeah. How are you both?
Charles (0:45–0:46): Doing great.
Larsen (0:46–0:47): Doing well.
Charles (0:47–0:49): I love the hair.
Cooks (0:49–0:55): Thank you. Trying to keep it lively during COVID.
Charles (0:55–1:31): So we’re going to do a little show and tell, right? This week, I’m going to go first. So I brought — let’s try to put it close to the camera — so it’s a Lord of the Rings candle. I know; I just have to say it — Lord of the Rings is the best series next to Harry Potter in my opinion. I love it so much. I’ve been reading the books since I was literally 8 and my mom’s a huge fan. Everybody in my family is a huge fan. I just love Lord of the Rings. So I just thought of this little candle because it’s reminiscent of my love for the series.
Cooks (1:31–1:33): That is awesome.
Charles (1:34–1:35): Thank you.
Cooks (1:36–1:42): I will show you my Wonder Woman Pez dispenser.
Larsen (1:42–1:43): Love that.
Charles (1:43–1:44): Oh, ok.
Cooks (1:44–2:12): I have a lot of Wonder Woman stuff because I just like the the spirit of being a “Wonder Woman” and I think that I am, but also from the series on TV with Lynda Carter; that was something I grew up with. That was a series that I really liked. But I have a lot of Wonder Woman stuff that just kind of keeps me inspired, so yes, it’s all about fantasy.
Charles (2:12–2:16): Oh, nice. How do feel about the newer movies?
Cooks (2:17–2:56): You know I saw one and I thought it was fine. I mean, I think I have nostalgia for the original series because that’s what I’m familiar with. But I love seeing so many strong, powerful women in a narrative that really let them be the protagonists and let them be independent from men and also have a strong sense of sisterhood community, which I believe in very deeply. So, yeah, that I liked and I like action movies and the fantasy is fun.
Charles (2:56–3:43): Yeah, that is awesome. I want to talk about you growing up because you already mentioned it. We had the privilege of watching your interview with another interview subject of ours, her name is Professor Tiffany Willoughby-Herard. Everyone knows her; she’s amazing. In that interview, you explained how you grew up in Los Angeles, right? And you grew up in this era of busing when you went to school. And then when you also went to UCI, there was this culture shift, you know, graffiti, no graffiti. It was like sirens, no sirens. And I was just really inspired by that conversation because I’m from Los Angeles as well. I know the city. I know of the culture you speak of. And I wanted to ask, what was that like for you to change from two different environments, from one that’s so drastically different to the other?
Cooks (3:44–5:17): Yeah, you know, I had a lot of different emotions about it. I mean, in some ways, certainly I was homesick and feeling alienated. And it was hard for me to sleep because it was so quiet; it made me anxious. It was like, why is it so quiet? Something’s going to happen. So part of me also felt like being away from home was an opportunity for me to learn about other places. And that was exciting to me.
I did spend a lot of time with my friends from home and they would call Irvine vacation land because it was like, “Look swimming pools and no bars on the windows. Who are these people?” So I also was able to find a community of people, particularly people in the art department, because I came as an art major who also felt alienated. And, you know, we were from different places in California, different places from around the country and really across the world and we all felt a little bit odd being here. So, I think we were able to create a community here that it wasn’t like Irvine, but it was kind of our own relationships in our own bubble that let us feel supported and welcome.
Charles (5:17–5:28): Does that go along with some advice that you would give to other people of color in a similar situation going through that process?
Cooks (5:29–7:02): Yeah, absolutely. You know, when I went to high school, I went to this school that’s known as the “zoo school.” I went to North Hollywood High School and it was a magnet school around zoological sciences. And I had been trained as a veterinarian since fourth grade and I was a vet tech. By the time I graduated high school and we were all kind of, now we use the term Black weirdo, which I love that term because it makes sense to me. But yeah, we were largely people from my neighborhood and other neighborhoods who were interested in animals who in some ways enjoyed being with animals more than people. We were each independent and unique. I think coming to UCI, I found people who also felt unique and kind of different no matter where they were. And that’s important. It’s important to maintain who you know you are. I think I was a fully formed adult when I was 16. At that point, I really was who I am now. And of course, I’ve had a lot more experience since then. But I was an adult by the time I graduated from high school and came to UCI, so it was good to be able to know who you are and to meet other people who knew who they were too and knew they didn’t fit in with a mainstream culture.
Larsen (7:02–7:26): It’s super important to have that sense of community and I think Sydney and I can relate to that in a way as well because the population, the ratio of Black students to other Black students is very small on campus so finding each other in these creative spaces and being able to lean on each other, is super, super important. Glad I found my Syd.
Charles (7:26–7:43): Yeah, it’s really nice finding someone who really thinks like you, who understands what struggles you’re going through and things like that. On that note, what advice would you give your younger self going through that same process of culturally assimilating?
Cooks (7:43–9:18): I was always proud of the culture that I was a part of and I was a part of multiple cultures. I mean, I was part of Black culture, absolutely. But I was also part of a kind of artistic culture. There was music culture, music scenes that I was interested into. So I wasn’t going to assimilate and give any of that up. I will say that I had to adapt to my situation as a student and figure out how to navigate that. And part of that is about code-switching. And I certainly figured out how to do that in college.
Which is really to know where you are and how to read the room and how to sort of be, which aspect of you to sort of present in different places, knowing that we are all complicated people. I think now I’m too tired to code-switch. I saw that on a t-shirt and I was like, “I totally need that t-shirt.” This is who I am. I’m not I’m not code-switching anymore. Like, this is what you get. This is who I am.
So anyway, advice to my younger self would be to have more confidence to trust who I thought I was right because I was right. I think I’ve always been a pretty good reader of other people, so I would tell my younger self to trust that also.
Larsen (9:18–9:33): That’s so cool. That’s good to have a sense of yourself so young. I feel like, you said you became an adult when you were 16; I feel like I’m still a child. I hope I get to the point of adulthood very soon, hopefully.
Cooks (9:33–9:56): Yeah, well you know you get older and you realize how much you already knew. But maybe and the time is different for everyone. People have different realizations at different times and people never grow up, you know? But I think I was right back then; I’m still right.
Charles (9:56–10:05): That is awesome to have that sense of like validation.
Larsen (10:06–10:25): Kind of like we discussed in your introduction, your interests really intersect with your passion for art and then also your research of Blackness and Black culture. We wanted to ask you, why are you interested in that intersection and how did you figure out that those intersect for you?
Cooks (10:25–14:38): Yeah, that’s a great question. And there’s an easy answer. I had been trained to be a veterinarian and I was a vet tech and then it was time to go to college. So, you know, there is one college, one university, and in each state where you can get your doctorate in veterinary medicine. So for California, it’s UC Davis. And I wanted to stop competing with my colleagues as a student.
We were all going to be competing to get our D.V.M.s and work in California. And I felt that I had been a little programmed. And you know, I went to an oceanography elementary school. Starting early on, I was trained to work with animals. And when I was 16, I decided, what if I try something else? Like, I wonder if there’s something else that maybe I’m interested in.
So I came to UCI as an art major. I bought the biggest canvas I could afford and realized I didn’t really know anything about the history of painting. So I started taking art history classes. I got totally seduced by all of the stories of Vincent Van Gogh cutting off his ear and giving it to a prostitute. I was like, who are these people? How did that even happen and how did he become a successful artist instead of, a homeless person, which he kind of was both.
Anyway, I loved it and I loved my professor Anna Gonosová, who retired from UCI. And then I quickly realized that there weren’t any African-American artists being taught in my classes and we had some visiting faculty in my senior year that showed me some African-American feminist filmmakers. I was really interested in that. I was working with Pat Ward Williams, who is a great artist at UCI. I had also had some communication with Ed Burrell, who’s another great artist who is at UCI.
And I just felt like there is a space in the field for my contribution if I can do something about African American artists. The great artist Daniel J. Martinez, who still at UCI, told me that the field needed me, they needed writers, they needed critics of color. Just saying that had a big impact on me. It was kind of a vote of confidence that there would be space for me and that he thought I could do the work.
So it was it was that group of experiences that really made me want to go to graduate school. I didn’t know what graduate school was in a very basic way. I knew that when I applied to colleges, there was UCLA, UC Riverside, Yale, what have you. I thought graduate schools were like a totally different set of universities I had never heard of. I didn’t understand that graduate schools were part of universities. So I was like not connected to any kind of pipeline that would help me figure it out.
I was able to talk to some staff actually at UCI that were like, “No, no, no, let me help you figure it out.” And so that was a big transition to just figuring out I’m going to be a graduate student and where do I do that? And so I went to University of Rochester. They had a new program called Visual and Cultural Studies, where they were very open to sort of non-traditional art histories. And so I was excited about going there and being part of creating a new art history focused on African American artists.
Charles (14:38–14:45): Beautiful, beautiful. How would you describe your art? Just like in a couple of words.
Cooks (14:45–14:48): My art, like as an artist?
Larsen (14:48–14:50): Is that your art behind you?
Cooks (14:51–16:25): Oh, my gosh. You are so sweet. This is — it’s a kind of mash up or mix up or remix, I guess, of a painting by Jeff Donaldson called Wives of Shango. I’ll show you what the actual painting looks like. This is the original painting. This painting was shown in an exhibition called Soul of a Nation that focused on Black artists in the ’60s, ’70s and early ’80s. And it opened at The Tate but then it came to the Broad Museum in downtown L.A. and Professor Frank Wilderson and I were commissioned to create this daylong symposium around the show. So, we were involved in the presentation of the show as a whole. And these were street banners that were hanging from the light posts in L.A. So you can see I kind of remix them so it looks like they’re kissing or talking or there’s some kind of sisterhood going on, which to me was really powerful instead of having them facing opposite directions. But not my art. My art — I can’t say that I’m an artist. I do make art. But artists work full time on their craft. But I do enjoy painting and photography.
Larsen (16:26–16:31): Well, if you remixed that, I mean, that’s art, that looks really good.
Cooks (16:31–16:42): Well, thank you. Yeah, I can curate right. I can like mix things up and arrange things. I can claim that as a curator but yeah.
Charles (16:43–16:52): In that sense, who in your life do you most look at when you’re drawing inspiration for these curating projects that you’ve taken on? And why do you draw inspiration from them?
Cooks (16:53–19:54): Yeah, there are so many incredible women who are fantastic curators and scholars, so I’ll name two, but we could do a whole hour on them. So, my main mentor in the field is Deborah Willis and she’s head of photography and imaging at NYU in the Tisch School. She is the reason I’m in the game. When I went to graduate school and I went to the art library to get all the books on Black artists, they were all written by her. And she gave me a job working with her at the Smithsonian for a place then called the National African American Museum Project. And that became the National African-American Museum of History and Culture. But we worked together to present that first show with a team of other people at the Smithsonian to try to prove to the nation that there was enough public interest to really establish a museum dedicated to African American people. So she has curated countless shows. I couldn’t even name all of them off the bat. And she’s a scholar. She’s a professor. I mean, she’s incredible.
The other person I’ll mention is Dr. Kelly Jones. She’s at Columbia University. She is such an inspiration also. And I think that Deborah Willis and Kelly Jones would name each other as inspirations. She’s written several books. She’s a professor. She’s a scholar. She’s a curator. And she’s written several books, but one in particular, I’ll mention, which is about Black artists and the L.A. art scene in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s called South of Pico, which is where most Black people in L.A. live, right? You’re south of Pico or north of Wilshire and that’s one way that we understand like people’s class in L.A. and it’s a fantastic book that’s won numerous awards. She is a dogged researcher. She brings people out to the world by doing the primary research. And I’m so inspired by the relationships she can cultivate with artists and then with museums to present the work in a way that it really should be seen. So I will name them.
Larsen (19:55–20:05): That’s such important work too, because, I mean, I haven’t really delved too deep into the art history world. I took one art history class, but the only Black artist-
Cooks (10:05–20:07): Take my classes!
Larsen (10:07–20:08): I want to.
Cooks (20:08–20:11): I’m right here, yeah!
Larsen (20:11–20:45): I’ll try to. I really will. I’ll be a super senior for you. I’ll try to, but yeah, I took one art history class back when I was in community college and the only Black artist we learned about was Basquiat and that was it. That’s like cool, but I think it’s so important that you and then your other inspirations and friends put together these shows to show people like there is a place for all of these Black artists and it’s important to see them and their work.
Charles (20:45–20:58): Because when you go to museums and you’re seeing all this beautiful art, it’s kind of like where am I at? Where’s my history too?
Larsen (20:30–21:21): So, our next question is kind of off topic, but on the same topic. But do you agree with the phrase that art starts at imitation and ends at innovation? And then if so, who do you take inspiration from and how does their work manifest within your own work?
Cooks (21:21–23:59): Yeah, I like that quotation, I think that makes sense to me. I don’t know if all artists would agree that that’s their process, but I think that there’s a logic to it.
I think in terms of the history of training in art school, historically in America, you were trained to copy and to get a sense of the different styles and brush strokes, let’s say, for painting to sort of master that. And then you’re left to figure out what is, you know, what do you do now? As a scholar, you also are trained in different methodologies and you read important theorists and kind of mimic their approach and criticize it.
But then for your dissertation, you have to create something new. So, I would say people that have inspired me in terms of imitation and then innovation or artists that inspire me. I will name, there’s two artists: Clyfford Still is my favorite painter, and he is or he was a great abstract expressionist and his paintings to me are emotional landscapes. He was incredibly gifted with the use of color and movement in his work. There’s something about his work that I as an individual just respond to. I feel like they’re overwhelming and there’s something really powerful about them.
I’d say my next favorite painter is Mary Corse. She’s someone who is active, living in Los Angeles and her paintings move. They are engaging, your body activates them, they are reflective, inspired in terms of technique by the light of car headlights on the white dividing lines on the freeway. And so she was able to use those reflective beads and create these really incredible compositions that illuminate.
Charles (23:59–24:00): Wow.
Cooks (24:00–24:54): And so there’s something about Mary Corse’s work that I physically respond to. The other artist who really inspires me is Titus Kaphar, who is a very famous artist, a young artist who’s working. He’s very good at the remix. He’s very good at allowing viewers to look at a historical past, particularly of the U.S. and a Black future to help us understand things about the past that maybe weren’t taught in schools. And I am really inspired by the ways that he is able to using different strategies, sort of to get to the heart of the matter and some of the contradictions and complex complexities of race in America.
Larsen (24:54–25:04): Did all those interests and all the inspiration that you had, did that all culminate within your book project? Is that something that inspired you within that process?
Cooks(25:04–26:35): Well, you know that book was inspired by research, looking into the archives of different museums and meetings with artists and talking to them and Black curators and scholars.
I, like Titus, am very interested in art history and institutional history. Titus made this really gorgeous painting and named it after my book, so I think he’s been inspired by my writing also and writing that book was important to make a contribution, to make it very accessible for people to know the history of African American people and American Art Museums. So I knew that through my research and writing, I could at least offer that as a basis for people to then think about what is our current relationship as Black people to museums and ideas of beauty and aesthetics.
So and then since then, I think the artists that I’ve mentioned, all three of them, have been just very influential in my own sense of joy and critical thinking, I think all three of them in different ways have contributed to that, even beyond the book.
Charles (26:36–26:52): How long did that take? What did the process what are the first steps look like to begin this process for this project? Was it something that was long planned? Did you have like a specific moment when you were like, “Oh, this is what I want to do”? Probably not; nobody does that, but you know, what was that like?
Cooks (26:53–27:58): Well, the first book, it did take a lot of very long time. I’m a very slow writer, and it was based loosely on my dissertation so that you write while you’re in graduate school. And then after that, I really had to reconceptualize the dissertation for a book, and that meant I needed to write most of it new. So I would say honestly, after the dissertation, it probably took me like four years to write that.
Yeah, it took a long time and that’s because I worked full time. So I wasn’t at home working on it every day or in a library, working on it every day. I had a job. My first career was working in museums. Being a professor is my second career. So I’ve always done multiple things. So it’s never been a full time writer.
Larsen (27:59–28:08): We also wanted to talk about your latest exhibit with the UCI Black Alumni chapter, the Black Index Art exhibition,
Charles (28:08–28:09): Which is amazing.
Larsen (28:09–28:16): Can you talk a little bit about that? Yeah, we just wanted to know, like, how did that get started? How did that collaboration start?
Cooks (28:16–31:11): I’m delighted to talk about the show. The Black Alumni Chapter has been very supportive and excited for the exhibition to come to campus. It will also travel to New York and make multiple stops along the way. So the Ford Foundation has financially really made it possible for me to do this show. I’ve also gotten funding from across campus, the UCI Confronting Extremism program, different humanities, Humanities Center, Illuminations. It’s been very helpful.
The Black Index started as a personal political idea, but it came from my difficulty in processing the normality of Black death, it came with the experience of seeing so many Black people murdered. So many with such regularity, that I was no longer to remember their names or the circumstances of their death. And that was very troubling and depressing to me. So, that’s the core of it. And then when I was looking at art and I rarely go to museums and galleries, I was finding that there were other people, artists through their artwork, that seemed to also be struggling with the normality of Black death and a sense that there is no justice when someone is murdered, even if the person is caught and prosecuted. There’s still no justice. You know, you’re still left with that loss.
So the short of it, it can be much longer. But the short of it is the Black Index has six artists in the exhibition who are all dealing with these themes of loss and memory and concerning African American people. And so this show is, for me, a very validating community building presentation in which you can see how artists are trying to process this death, address Black suffering, and also help the rest of us who are dealing with those issues feel like we’re not alone, that we’re all in it, and that there is so much beauty and resilience in Blackness that needs to be recognized and seen. That’s that’s what the show is really about.
Charles (31:12–31:31): Wow. I’m getting goosebumps. Because it’s so powerful, especially in today’s climate. I know you were talking about this project in your book like a while ago probably. You have to curate all these things together. So it’s just so prevalent, especially right now.
Cooks (31:32–31:52): Thank you. Thank you for saying that. Part of the problem is that this show will always be relevant, as far as I can tell, you know. And so I think that is part of the significance of the project. So there’ll be an exhibition and then there’ll also be a publication.
Larsen (31:52–32:07): Yeah, but having those conversations and like acknowledging that significance is one of the first steps we can take towards, you know, hopefully making some sort of steps towards a positive direction,
Charles (32:07–32:40): Especially through art, right? I think that is just so beautiful and so unique. Art is healing for sure. Because you’ve had such an amazing journey where you had your B.A from UCI. You’re just an amazing person, right? I think anybody would be lucky to talk to you and look at look at your work and examine the steps that you’ve taken. And so I wanted to ask, what is some advice that you give to other Black artists looking to create a book, maybe looking to curate or just involve themselves in this community?
Cooks (32:40–32:46): Yeah, do it and talk to me.
Charles (32:46–32:48): Two steps!
Larsen (32:48–32:50): That’s it.
Cooks (32:50–35:07): I can help and I can say that because I’ve had great mentors. So I think that, it’s not like the path is wide open and you can just walk down the path and it’s already all set for you, it’s not. But there are people who have done it. The work is very important and it can happen. I think one of the things I love about being Black is to me, Blackness is everything. We can’t be reduced. We are who we are, and we’re so many things that you are making Black art, you are a Black artist. For some people when they say that they’re trying to narrow you down. For me, those terms, I understand how they’ve been used against us in terms of repressing the fullness and diversity of who we are. To me, when people use those terms, I’m aware of that restriction, but I’m also aware that that means unlimited, you know?
So many future curators and artists, Black curators and artists will be, what my parents call and I call now, of course, a Negro first. You know, like we’re still in a situation where there’s been barriers in every direction and there’s still so many opportunities that we have to make for ourselves. So yeah, advice. Do it. Talk to me. I won’t tell you don’t be scared. Be scared and do it anyway.
Don’t let that get in your way. Trust your vision. And also, I feel like I have to say this because we’re living in such an unkind world, like also be kind to people, to artists, to yourself and to people who are not there yet with your vision and and just make it happen.
Charles (35:07–35:27): Yeah, it’s really good advice. And then to conclude, we wanted to ask a little bit about your role as an associate professor at UCI. What are some of the most pertinent goals you’ve accomplished in your opinion? And are there still milestones that you’d like to achieve as a mentor for students?
Cooks (35:26–38:03): I have had many, many students. I’ve been here for 13 years. I’ve had thousands of undergraduates and less graduate students. But I’ve still had a lot of graduate students. I usually have more than many of my colleagues in art history, so mentoring is really important.
I think if you want a good mentor, you should be a good mentee. Keep on top of your schedule. Time management is a struggle for everyone, but really pay attention to it. Do your best to respect your time and and other people’s time.
I think I’ve written over 40 articles in my career, I’m really proud of the exhibition and catalogue essays that I’ve written. I’m proud that people ask me to write for different projects that they’re doing. That’s always an honor. When students approach you and say, we want to interview you, that’s an honor. I mean, those are things that I feel are accomplishments because I’ve never met either of you before, but you reached out to me and that’s meaningful to me.
That curating has been really important. The Grafton Tyler Brown show I did of the only Black artist working in the West in the 19th century. And then that Ernie Barnes show that I did last year at CAAM, the California African American Museum. I’m really proud of that show. And finishing a book now called Norman Rockwell, The Civil Rights Paintings, and I’m really excited about that work, it’s really a criticism of the limits of white liberalism in the arts. It’s a really wonderful opportunity to think closely and deeply about these really incredible paintings that Norman Rockwell made in the 1960s that show how he was trying to deal with the civil rights movement and a sense of what he could do to try to make the world a safer place. Now, all of that’s really fascinating to me, so I will be proud of that when that’s finished.
Larsen (38:03–38:05): I’m so excited to read that. That’s awesome.
Charles(38:05–38:16): I’m so excited about everything that you just said. And thank you for being here today and thank you for taking time out of your incredibly busy schedule. This is an awesome conversation
Cooks (38:16–38:19): I feel the same way. Thanks so much for reaching out.
Charles (38:21–38:24): Thank you guys for watching this episode of “The Welcome Table.” This has been Sydney.
Larsen (38:25–38:26): And Tatum.
Charles (38:26–38:27): And we’ll see you guys next time!
Watch all episodes of “The Welcome Table with Sydney and Tatum” here.