Maurice Cook paints a message of unity
by Margaret Dabbs
Sep 21, 2011 | 4572 views | 0 0 comments | 31 31 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Margaret Dabbs
Margaret Dabbs
Over the last 17 years, you might find folk artist Maurice Cook on the road at the Butterbean Festival in Pinson, where cooks vie for first prize in the Butterbean and Cornbread Cooking Contest and children participate in the Greased Pig Contest. Or he might be spending a Saturday under the shade trees at Guthrie Smith Park, where the Fayette Arts Festival is held each year, or a weekend in North Georgia at the Pine Log Arts and Crafts Fair on the campgrounds of the Pine Log United Methodist Church in Rydal. Closer to home, Maurice is also a familiar fixture at the Walker County Arts Alliance’s Art in the Park.

Wherever this humble, soft-spoken gentleman artist is discovered, he is certain to be intently focused on his storytelling paintings with emphatic acrylic colors that pull you in like an unavoidable magnet. But Maurice is always happy to put down his paintbrush and talk about his story, his wonderfully close-knit family, and why people are drawn to his work.

Maurice believes his depictions of small farm cotton fields, multi-colored vivid quilts, weathered clapboard, tin roofed cabins, country churches, and family settings reach out and capture the hearts of his patrons because, “Everybody relates to common, everyday things… You just paint a day in your life.”

Maurice’s life began in Carbon Hill where his father, Cleophus, barbered and was employed as a coal miner before moving to Birmingham to work for ACIPO. Although the family ultimately moved and joined him there, they spent many weekends and every holiday in Carbon Hill for several years. Maurice’s love of Carbon Hill has always tugged at him and he has tried to spend as much time there as he could throughout his life.

Speaking of his father in an almost reverential tone, Maurice explained, “My dad could do anything… He was my hero. If I could be an inch of the man he was, I would be happy.” In his quiet, calm voice, Maurice’s father encouraged his children not to be afraid to find their own paths in the world and to do something they loved. Maurice recalled his father’s words of wisdom. “You can do anything — you’ve just got to want to do it.”

On his way to realizing his niche, Maurice remembers that his mother, Wilda, said he was “always scribbling.” In elementary school, he sat in the back of the class and drew whatever his teacher was reading or talking about. After initially being punished for not paying attention, Maurice’s teacher realized “my work was pretty good” and she gave him the task of creating all her bulletin boards.

Word of his skill went through the school and other teachers as well as school staff called on him when art projects were needed.

Maurice’s varied working life started at 12 after his father taught him how to barber. Within a year, his father gave up barbering and Maurice took on his customers in the small room his father added on to their house. This efficient barbershop included a ping-pong table as well as a barber chair. Later, Maurice was employed at U.S. Pipe and Foundry for five years and Jefferson County Family Court as a Juvenile Detention Officer for 12 years. As a detention officer, he taught art and barbering while attending college and studying criminal justice. Maurice also worked for the Birmingham Fire and Rescue Service, Station No. 16, Avenue I, Ensley, the “busiest station in the state of Alabama,” before switching paths and devoting his working life to his art.

Although he had one art class in the eighth grade and no formal art training beyond that, Maurice does not hesitate to explain the roots of his art. He credits both his parents, as his father drew well and was gifted in the use of his hands. His mother was a seamstress who could take one pattern and make 10 or 12 different sizes from it.

Described by Ester Cook, Maurice’s wife, as “the best dressed woman she had ever seen,” his mother wore her own dress and hat creations. She kept him busy cutting out patterns while she sewed and this activity taught him a basic sense of form.

Essentially a self-taught artist, Maurice smiled as he recalled the quiet days at the fire station when he watched Bob Ross’ “The Joy of Painting” on PBS. Ross’ easy, gentle nature gave Maurice confidence in his own art and Maurice noted, “Bob Ross was the type of person who could make you feel you could do any kind of art. He made it simple, very, very, simple.”

Maurice’s work has a genuine, heartfelt simplicity that speaks a million words to those who see it. Regardless of your background or your age, his unaffected, straightforward scenes of daily life reach out, pull you in, and make you smile as you remember a similar event in your own life. His paternal grandmother dressed up in her pink hat and pink high heels walking up a dirt path to church accompanied by a basset hound (“Mrs. Rawsy”), three children in earnest conversation while reading and writing as a basset hound peers over their shoulders and seems to be reading as well (“Study Session”), three women animatedly talking while under the hair dryers at the beauty shop (“Perm Palace”), and bright quilts along with pristine sheets hanging on the clothesline, coming to life with the breeze while a pie cools in the window of the cottage whose screen door has a tear in the corner (“Hangin’ with the Sheets”) — these paintings reflect Maurice’s philosophy that he is merely painting a day in his life or a day in the life of his family and friends.

A few years ago, Maurice recreated a scene from his wife’s childhood in “Three Sisters.” In this painting, his wife and her two sisters are children, kneeling by the bed, saying their nightly prayers. Their grandmother sat on the bed on her own handmade quilt, reading the Bible while a basset hound slept nearby, a cat napped in the chair, and a mouse scampered across the floor. A painting including Martin Luther King, Jr., President John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy hung on the wall over the bed.

By including those basic, recognizable elements, Maurice simply and concisely told you the story of a family not that different from your own.

Basset hounds play an important role in Maurice’s paintings and have a very special place in his heart. For about 28 years, his family had a pet basset hound named Charlie Brown. Over those years there were four Charlie Browns and Maurice explained why. “I can relate to a basset. Basset hounds look at you just like a person would. They look in your eyes and see how you think and feel.” So Charlie Brown is a part of every one of his paintings in some way — directly or indirectly. For instance, if you do not see him in “Perm Palace,” Maurice will tell you Charlie is asleep outside on the beauty shop’s porch.

Maurice’s Charlie Browns were extremely well-known in his Bluff Park neighborhood in Birmingham. Everybody knew them and children would knock on the door and ask if Charlie Brown could come out to play. Maurice laughed as he added, “In this neighborhood, everybody knew Charlie Brown before they knew me.”

This fact rang true when Maurice was painting at an art show in Fairhope.

One of his neighbors just happened to be there, came over to see his work, and introduced himself as he explained, “I don’t know you, but you live on my street. I do know your dog.”

Josephine, one of Maurice’s contributions to the Walker County Arts Alliance’s 50 Mule Team Public Art Project, flirts with her fans from her courthouse view window in the Alliance’s office. When you meet Josephine, you truly understand the whimsical, joyful, yet rich in depth heart of Maurice Cook.

She flaunts dark red lipstick and hoof polish. While her eye make-up is noteworthy, she also boasts earrings and a hoof bracelet as accessories, and the daisy in her ear draws attention away from the realistic flies which annoy her.

Wearing her finest blanket adorned with one of Maurice’s signature paintings on each side, Josephine is ready for a night on the town or a quiet day at the office in the company of her frequent admirers.

In a world where the exhausting access to never-ending information makes it so easy to see what divides us, Maurice Cook’s refreshing, memorable art gives us the chance to stop, look, and consider what brings us together. Utilizing his honestly powerful folk art, Maurice is a uniter with his basic message — my story is your story, your story is my story, and in this massive, often overwhelming world, we really are not that far apart.

One essential look at his simply expressed ideas effortlessly brings that message home.

Margaret Dabbs is a freelance columnist who resides in Jasper. Her column appears every other Wednesday in the Lifestyles section. Comments and suggestions are welcomed by contacting Dabbs at 387-2890.