When visitors walk into the Colored Musicians Club on Broadway, one of the first sights that catches their attention is an eye-popping mural by William Y. Cooper.
The bold and energetic painting, which shows a melange of jazz musicians melting into one another against a backdrop of swirling color, is almost loud enough to hear. The 2011 piece is one of dozens of instantly recognizable Cooper paintings and murals that dot the city, brightening the beige sides of buildings, adding a sense of rhythm to high school corridors and spicing up museum collections.
It was also one of his last.
Cooper, whose colorful work influenced a generation of students and aspiring artists, died Friday morning in his home on Ellicott Street. He was 82. He had suffered from a series of strokes in recent years, according to Buffalo Arts Studio curator Shirley Verrico.
Cooper was a fixture at Buffalo Arts Studio, where he maintained a studio since 1995 and served as a mentor to hundreds of young artists in training. He is best known for his bold and colorful paintings, which incorporated elements of African and African American history, culture and contemporary life with a freehanded painting style that seemed to pulsate with energy.
Many of Cooper’s murals, 40 of which he helped to create as part of Buffalo Arts Studio’s student-based mural project, remain on view throughout the city. His most recent major commission, a collaboration with Jennifer Fuentes and James Cooper III, adorns the side of a parking garage on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus. He has painted many portraits of leaders in the local and national African-American communities, including one of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. that hangs in Canisius College’s Andrew L. Bouwhuis Library.
His paintings are also in the collections of the Castellani Art Museum and the Burchfield Penney Art Center.
“He was generous with his talent as well as his time. He was a mentor to so many young people,” Verrico said. “We had people from the community that came by to see him daily.”
Cooper, a Buffalo native, earned his bachelor of fine arts degree from the University at Buffalo in 1975 and later worked as an art teacher in Buffalo’s public schools as well as with Buffalo Arts Studio and the education department of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. For 15 years, he owned and operated Bora Sanaa Enterprises, a store specializing in African art, antiques and artifacts.
The influence of African culture was everywhere apparent in Cooper’s work, which drew heavily on his many trips to West Africa and fused the culture of the African continent with images and personalities from 20th- and 21st-century Buffalo. In a statement, Cooper called himself “an Afrocentric artist whose world view is rooted in an African frame of reference,” going on to call his work “a fusion of two cultures: my American experience and my African heritage.”
Through community events, mural projects and countless private meetings with students, he also worked to spread that influence to the next generation.
“Many times, kids understand a lot more than they can articulate about their surroundings. They end up acting out rather than expressing themselves in some kind of way,” Cooper told The Buffalo News in 2009. “I want to make them feel that they are not ‘at risk’ kids, that they have something of value. And if they don’t have that now, they can develop it with the help of an adult.”
For Joanna Angie, the former Buffalo Arts Studio director who worked alongside Cooper for decades, his contributions reach far into the city’s arts community and beyond.
“He was a great role model and he mentored a lot of students over the years. He worked on something like 40 murals with me,” she said. “He always had a long line of steady visitors to his studio.”
One of those visitors was Malani Williams, now a sculptor living in New York City, who credits Cooper with influencing her artistic career. “I learned from him, about the life of being an artist,” she said. “He was very kind, open-minded, patient. He did a lot in life, so he had a lot to draw from, and he was a great storyteller. He was very encouraging of just taking chances and continuing to do my craft no matter what.”
Cooper is survived by his wife, Glendora Johnson-Cooper; four sons, Michael Stubbs, Yancy Cooper, Joel Cooper and Juan King; a daughter, Sharelle Hennigan; and three grandchildren.
Funeral and memorial services are being planned.