Humans of the Keweenaw: Interview with Cynthia Cote
"As a kid, I remember spending time sitting under a huge lilac bush in our yard creating little environments out of sticks and cardboard and found treasures. I still work like that."
This is the second in a series of planned interviews highlighting humans in Houghton and Keweenaw Counties who are working to improve our community’s quality of life.
Interview conducted on 7/1/17 by Kyle Krym
All artwork courtesy of Cynthia Cote
All photos courtesy of Kyle Krym
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I’ve always been an artist. There was never any question. I grew up in a family where the yearning to be creative, to make things with our hands was understood. I felt like we were an unusual lot, my parents, siblings, and I. Even my play was different. It was solitary, just like artists working in their studios. Artists tend to work alone. That’s what it takes to get ideas to materialize.
As a kid, I remember spending time sitting under a huge lilac bush in our yard creating little environments out of sticks and cardboard and found treasures. I still work like that. I work with little bits of paper memorabilia—old photos, correspondence, postage stamps, old books. I’m captivated by old and seemingly useless castoff pieces and finding the treasure, the story, and the importance of these little pieces that were left behind.
What can we learn from the old and seemingly useless objects in our lives?
I think there is a preciousness to most things. Even those things that don’t *seem* very precious can spark questions or cause wonder. There’s a texture of humanity in the things we keep. I like worn pieces of paper and old letters because they harbor a lot of feelings. Even if there isn’t much interesting going on in the words, they’re still ink to paper. Someone cared enough to take the time.
I did a series called “Lost Relatives” that stemmed from using old photographs. When I came to the Copper Country 25 years ago, I was captivated by photographs I found in secondhand stores. I wondered, “Who were these people?” They are all of our relatives, but their stories, their names are lost. They symbolize what we can’t know about the people who came before us.
We’re going to have less and less of that. People aren’t keeping shoe boxes of old photos anymore. Young people don’t know about printing photos. More and more we are living electronic lives. I wonder what the evidence of our existence and our lives will be in the future.
You aren’t originally from the Copper Country?
I consider myself a local but I grew up downstate in Eaton Rapids just outside of Lansing. “The only Eaton Rapids on Earth”.
My folks were from L’Anse and Chassell. After my dad came back from WWII, they were part of the exodus that went to Detroit looking for work. As a young child I remember coming up to the Copper Country to visit family, but my parents never moved back. The Copper Country left its imprint on me.
When I came up 25 years ago, I felt like I was coming back to my roots. I stumbled upon the Omphale Gallery in Calumet, which was owned by a collective. The door was open and folks were there working on the site painting the walls. They invited me to a meeting that night and I decided I wanted to live here. Before I left I made an offer on an abandoned house. I had no job but this seemed like a great place for an artist to live.
Why is it a great place for artists?
The natural beauty, of course, but also the low cost of living. Pretty much those things, Lake Superior, the magnificent rocky outcroppings, and the history. I was really struck by the intense history here. The region supported so many people and was the nesting place for people coming from Europe. It wasn’t the glory that captivated me, but the strife and what we can be proud of: workers unionizing, how copper changed the country, and the diverse ethnic groups and how they settled in and made this place what it is today.
What work did you end up finding here?
I moved here and shortly after had an interview for a “project director”. The Copper Country Community Arts Council was working with a small seed grant from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs to revitalize downtown Hancock, and I was being interviewed for a job that was going to be ten hours a week managing a gallery space. For me, that sounded sweet, like a piece of cake.
But it was never ten hours a week—it was ten hours a day. That was my choice because I saw there was a lot of work to be done. Someone putting the time in to make it happen and do the outreach. At the time, there weren’t any community based art venues, and it was known that a lot of artists lived here. We wanted to open the doors and be a resource to help local artists develop professionally and to have the opportunity to show and sell their work.
At the beginning, people would walk in and ask what is this? What happened to the shoe store? A lot of people had never been inside a gallery. Some thought it was a pilot project, but that was never in my head. I knew we were going to do this, which was me being both stubborn and passionate. A lot of others helped and shared my passion. I asked everyone who came in what they wanted their art center to look like. I felt that was important because it was funded by taxpayer dollars and matched by the community, so I thought everyone should have a say.
Within a month after we opened, we started offering classes for kids and with the help of high school students we designated space for the youth gallery, so it was becoming a full arts center almost immediately. 25 years later, I’m still here patching walls…and getting ready to install our 295th Kerredge Gallery exhibit.
Do you have any personal art project horror stories?
I do! I think I was only 17 and I was offered a job by a body shop to paint murals on a truck. I thought at the time (and still do) that I could do anything, so I said, “Yeah, I can do that!” This woman had brought her boyfriend’s cherry red truck into the shop and, to surprise him for his birthday, had commissioned two murals on either side of the truck of a deer standing in the woods. I had no idea what I was doing; it was awful. I could draw but I knew nothing about airbrush or car paint. I still have the visual in my mind of a childlike deer with stick-like legs. In my mind the whole scenario was a disaster. I wasn’t there when she picked up the truck. Who knows, maybe her boyfriend loved it. But I seriously doubt it.
So, that was the worst thing that ever happened. Good thing is it happened when I was 17. I still had a whole future ahead of me. And I still think I can do anything.
How does art improve the quality of life in the Copper Country?
Oh, that’s a gigantic question! I think artists are charged with telling *the* story. Their story, our story, the collective story of this place. A person can tell a lot about a place by what kind of art they see and whether it’s varied or experimental or homogenous. The fact we have this wonderful array of art here proves the richness and diversity of this place, its people, and their vision. Artists have the ability to tell their stories in their own way, and we support that.
How boring would life be if we didn’t see art in front of us? I love the idea of public art because it puts art in front of people who aren’t expecting it. You enter a gallery or museum expecting to see art, but walking down the street or in a coffee shop, while you may not anticipate it, it enhances your experience. It gives you something new to consider.
It’s also important to our development as humans to explore our creativity and have that aspect of learning supported. It encourages us to see things differently and express ourselves, which leads to healthier happier living. And as far as child development, the arts reinforce brain power, support analytical thinking, and sometimes is the only means of communication we have.
What advice do you have for young artists in our community?
It’s not an easy path. I hear parents say they don’t want their kids to go in to art, that they don’t want them to struggle so much. But if it’s your calling, there’s not much you can do about it. You can ignore it, but you’ll be missing an important part of who you are.
People think that if you’re an artist you just make something and it’s fun, but it’s really, really hard work. If you don’t put in the time, your art won’t transcend the ordinary. You need to develop your voice. You have to work to understand your materials and what your abilities are. Like an instrument, you need to keep practicing.
I gave a gallery talk a few years ago at Finlandia University where I said I was born into a family of artists and I felt a little ripped off, like I didn’t have a choice. (I used to fantasize about being a librarian.) Someone in the audience responded, “Well, it could have been worse.” Very true. I could have had a more straightforward life, but it wouldn’t have been as interesting. That’s why I’m still here.
The Community Arts Center is a resource for artists, young and old, emerging or firmly established. From time to time I hear from our past students. They bring their kids here. We have a new board member who was a student here when she was six. A lot of those early, early students have careers in art now. I like to think we had a little something to do with that just by being here.
For more information on the Copper Country Community Arts Center, please visit their Facebook page or their website www.coppercountryarts.com/. Donations can be made through the CCCAC Endowment at Keweenaw Community Foundation by visiting http://keweenawcommunityfoundation.org/funds/copper-country-community-arts-council/.
Through philanthropic services, strategic investments and community leadership, Keweenaw Community Foundation helps people support the causes they care about, now and for generations to come. For more information on Keweenaw Community Foundation and how to give, visit its website at www.keweenawgives.org.