Life in our Foothills November 2023 – A welder forging art – Joe Cooper

Published 1:00 pm Thursday, November 16, 2023

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Joe Cooper will tell you that he’s just a welder, but if you look at his work you understand that he’s truly an artist who uses welding to create beauty. 

“It’s exciting to see that flame, that bright, bright flame and all this metal melting,” says Cooper. 

Cupola light fixtures made by Cooper

Cooper first experienced that excitement as a teenager in 1968 working a summer job at a metal fabrication company where his father also worked in their hometown of Jackson, Mississippi. After graduating from high school, he went to Georgia Tech in Atlanta and got a degree in industrial engineering. During an internship, he had the chance to travel across Europe and became interested in different cultures, especially their art and crafts. After graduation he accepted a job at the world’s largest manufacturer of welding equipment and supplies but as a sales representative and not a welder.

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“I was so excited by the diversity I had seen in my travels in Europe and frustrated by my own lack of knowledge about this whole incredible world we live in that I gave my parents the bad news that I was going to quit my job for this world-class company and I was going to be in graduate school in anthropology,” recalls Cooper. “That was going to complete my education so I could get on with the rest of my life because I didn’t feel like my engineering degree was sufficient for that.”

Cooper with one of his light fixtures

Cooper did his graduate work at Tulane University studying world cultures and human evolution. He worked welding jobs on the side at a shipyard, petrochemical plants and on oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico. While living in New Orleans he met several metal artists who sold their welded artwork at local galleries.

“I didn’t have Internet or television, I wasn’t married and didn’t have kids so I had the time and wanted to start making artistic things using welding,” says Cooper. “I was trying to work on my ability to make leaves, and fountains and panels and candlesticks using welding.”

Cooper working in the metal shop at TACS

In 1983 Cooper apprenticed with metal artist Lee Robertson at his studio in Missouri. 

“He developed the copper textured bronze process and expanded it in so many wonderful, high-level ways,” says Cooper. 

Cooper incorporated Robertson’s process into his own work making large-scale lighting fixtures and lanterns, sculptures and other pieces. In 1986 he took a job at Arthur Silverman’s sculpture studio in New Orleans, which not only earned him a paycheck but also allowed him to continue to learn and hone his craft working with an accomplished sculptor. 

Cooper’s bronze Morris atop Tryon clocktower

In 1993 Cooper moved from New Orleans to Sarasota, Florida and resumed his work as an independent metal artist. A friend selling real estate in the resort community of Kiawah Island in South Carolina introduced him to some architects looking for custom fixtures for the homes they were building.

“Instead of putting things in galleries hoping that somebody, someday will walk by and buy them I started finding out that you could get a commission to do something for these architects,” says Cooper. “What they wanted mostly was lighting fixtures because they were building these incredibly high-end houses for people who had traveled all over the world and they didn’t want the ordinary things that you could buy in a lighting fixture store. If other people had one like it, they didn’t want it. They wanted custom made and they could afford it.”

Cooper teaching at TACS

In 1997 Cooper moved to western North Carolina and continued to do custom metal work on commission for the architects on Kiawah and later launched a website to advertise his work on-line. In 2003 he settled in Tryon and as the demand for his commissioned work increased, he teamed up with local metal artists Bill Ratterree, Patti Peake and Jared Scott to help him meet the demands of his customers. 

“They don’t want one lighting fixture to go by the front door, they want two by the front door, three by the side door, four on the patio and then they want a chandelier in the lobby and a bigger one in the main room and there’s a deadline,” says Cooper. 

A “flower” chandelier made by Cooper

Cooper says his business took a hit after the housing recession and after marrying his wife Cathy Brettman in 2012 he decided it was time to move on from running his own business. In 2014 he took a job making custom lighting fixtures for the Heirloom Companies near Campobello which works with architects, designers and homeowners to provide high-end custom lighting fixtures and other décor for homes and businesses. 

Cooper working in the metal shop at TACS

Cooper spends some of his off time serving on the Polk County Appearance Commission and teaching his copper textured bronze technique at the Tryon Arts and Crafts School, which he believes is the only place where it’s being taught. He hopes to pass on a passion that has brought so much joy, not only to him, but also to the people who see his work. 

A light fixture and plaque Cooper made outside the metal shop at TACS

“If the work is successful, it grabs your attention, maybe for just a moment or a second or maybe even longer, but all of the sudden you’re noticing something,” says Cooper. “That’s what I want them to get out of it, to notice. It makes my face smile.”

A “branch” chandelier made by Cooper