The Center for the Partially Sighted’s Donor Appreciation Night on Thursday, September 1, 6-9pm BG Gallery 1431 Ocean Ave, Santa Monica.
Vision Loss Does Not Keep This Nonagenarian From Creating Art
By Deidre Strohm
At 96, Sylvia Cooper travels to her studio to work on her art twice a week. The studio is outdoors, under the umbrella of eucalyptus trees, subject to the elements. With her hammer, chisel, rasp and dremel, Sylvia has been uncovering her works of art in alabaster for the last decade. Two of her pieces are featured in the Feel-Sighted exhibit curated by Hannah Kim at the Bleicher Golightly/Gallery in Santa Monica from August 18-September 3. The show features work created by and for the visually impaired. The art and artists showcased invite the audience to experience the art on display on multiple sensory levels, not just through vision. Normally, patrons are forbidden from handling artwork – that is one reason for security at museums. The institutions want to discourage patrons from stealing and from touching the art. Feel- Sighted tears down those boundaries and invites the viewer to connect with art on as many levels as possible in the same way artists work to create their pieces from multiple sensory levels as well.
When Hannah Kim and Airom contacted The Center for the Partially Sighted about the exhibit, they asked if The Center might have any clients who were also artists. Low vision optometrist Dr. Angela Shihady immediately thought of Sylvia Cooper. “Mrs. Cooper has truly been an inspiring patient,” according to Dr. Shihady. When Sylvia first visited the Tarzana office in 2007, she was 92, frustrated and angry because she had lost so much of her vision to macular degeneration that she could no longer read. Macular degeneration, which affects millions of Americans and is the leading cause of blindness in people over the age of 60, occurs when the macula—the central portion of the retina that is important for reading and color vision—becomes damaged. With Dr. Shihady’s assistance, Sylvia was able to use glasses strong enough to again read. Since that time, her vision has deteriorated further, and now even the glasses do not provide much help. Sylvia said she is able to see shapes and some color, but what she sees is blurred and there is no detail to it.
Born on the Lower East side of Manhattan in 1915, Sylvia graduated from high school before she was 15. She took her first job working with a fur merchant for $15 a week. At that time, hers was the only income supporting herself, her parents and her siblings. She never earned a college degree, though she attended Brooklyn College for seven years at night taking only the classes she was interested in. Each night after her class, her father met her at the subway stop, and they would discuss what Sylvia had just learned.
When she was 22, Sylvia met and married her husband, Frank Cooper. After 75 years of marriage, three children, six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, Sylvia and Frank remain devoted to each other. Mr. Cooper began his career at 19 as the secretary to Mr. William Morris, whose personal secretary had just jumped from the office window to her death. Timing is everything in entertainment, and Mr. Cooper set his inner clock to “discover” Frank Sinatra, a maitre d’ at the Rustic Cabin in Hoboken, NJ. The friendship between Cooper and Sinatra spanned decades.
As Mr. Cooper’s business grew, so did his family. The Coopers decided that Encino, CA would be a nice place to raise their children, so Mr. Cooper opened a second office in Los Angeles and began a bi-coastal career. Sylvia focused on raising her children, Martin, Pamela and Jeff, each of whom are driven and successful. Pamela Cooper, who runs The Cooper Company, a talent management and producing company, describes her parents as “amazing” people, loving and devoted to their family. While her father cultivated talent for the entertainment world, Pamela says her mother focused her energy on cultivating her family and peace in the world.
Sylvia Cooper has been kissed by Presidents and has dined with heads of State. She took on peace as a passion and became an inspirational speaker and fundraiser. She was involved in 21 missions to Israel. She put together a sold-out fundraising concert at the Hollywood Bowl with Zubin Mehta conducting, and remembers handing a very large check to Golda Meir, then Prime Minister of Israel. Sylvia asked that the money go specifically for arts and education of children in Israel, but the Prime Minister informed her that “art will come later. Now, this must go to the army.”
Sylvia remains politically active and continues sending letters to the President and her congressional representatives. She does not want guns to be accessible for anyone. Currently, she is focused on bringing our troops home from combat zones in the Middle East.
Though she can no longer drive or read, Sylvia’s vision loss has not prevented her from creating her art. Like Michelangelo who saw “the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free,” Sylvia relies on her alabaster to “speak” to her. Each piece comes from a single stone, which may vary in size and color, and each piece dictates to her what the end result will be. Her choice of alabaster over marble is a practical one – marble is too hard for her to work with using her simple tools. Her love of peace and humanity is embedded within her work. Some of her recent pieces are abstract and representational, and others are figures of mothers and children, women banded together, birds of peace, and the appreciation of the female figure.
In the 1980s when she started exploring her artistic bent, Sylvia began painting with oils and watercolor on canvas. Later, she put her energy into silk screening. Today, at 96, Sylvia Cooper considers herself not just an artist, but a sculptor. She is thrilled to be included in Feel Sighted. “I’m so pleased to be involved in this unique art exhibition…This not only allows us to display incredible works of art, but the public is able to experience art in a whole new way…from the perspective of those who have limited or no sight,” she explained. Mrs. Cooper will attend the opening night of the exhibition on August 18 as well as The Center for the Partially Sighted’s Donor Appreciation Night on Thursday, September 1. A portion of the proceeds from sales at the exhibit will be donated to The Center. For more information about the exhibit, on the services The Center offers, or ways you can help, visit the CPS website at www.low-vision.org or call 310-988-1970.
Deidre Strohm is the Development Manager for The Center for the Partially Sighted. She may be reached at 310-988-1970 x167 or firstname.lastname@example.org.