By Craig Stocks / Photography by Craig Stocks
Most artists know that they’re an artist from a very young age, but that wasn’t the case for Pekin, Illinois sculptor and installation artist Eric Cooney. He was always mechanically inclined and he enjoyed problem-solving and “figuring things out.” But it wasn’t until a discussion with his future wife, artist Nikole Cooney, that he began to realize that he really was an artist.
Eric enlisted in the Marine Corps as soon as he graduated from Pekin High School. Many of his family members had military experience, but none had been in the Marines. He hadn’t had much of a social life in school, instead spending his time working and doing chores. When the recruiter asked him, “Do you want to challenge yourself, or just take the easy way?” he knew he was ready for a challenge. After six years in the Marines, the military became as much a part of who he is as is his Christian faith.
While in the Marines, Eric took an interest in photography when a friend told him, “You’ll be traveling a lot and you need to take lots of pictures to remember all the places.” He was serious enough to take lots of photos, and began to develop an artistic eye, seeing compositions and abstract patterns, but he never really thought of himself as anything more than a photography enthusiast.
That started to change when he shared some of his photos with Nikole. She immediately recognized that he had artistic talent. While traveling as friends on a church mission trip to Haiti, he described an idea he had for arranging white stakes in his front yard in a way so that if you knelt down at just the right spot, the gaps between the stakes would form a cross. She recalls telling him, “You’re an artist and you don’t even know it.” Eric gives Nikole a lot of the credit for his development as an artist. “Once I met Nikole,” he said, “she saw some of my photos and she really encouraged me to develop it. Until I met her, I didn’t have any kind of a clue about art.”
Later, with some encouragement from the “church ladies” Eric and Nikole became a couple, and then married. Eric’s journey to becoming a sculptor began when Nikole encouraged him to come to a Sunday night clay class at the Contemporary Art Center. Eric was immediately hooked, saying, “I realized that my mechanical abilities went well with the art. I didn’t know there were rules, so I just did whatever came to mind.” Along with doing abstract photography, he expanded his skills working with clay and Preston Jackson introduced him to working with steel. Soon he left photography behind and focused on sculpture. “I found sculpture a lot more satisfying,” he said. “I can get my message across more clearly. Once I started with sculpture that was it.”
Eric’s sculptures always start with the message he wants to communicate. He thinks about “what would be going through my head, and how can I make it tangible.” Many times his ideas come to him during church services, so he’ll “make a quick note of it and get back to listening to the sermon.”
His current work-in-progress is a good example. “At church, we’re always talking about the need to pray for our troops,” he said. “But, how does that work? The enemy isn’t going to just lay down their arms and walk away, but God can make a bullet miss by a fraction of an inch. Then, I saw the door in a junk pile and the idea came to me to make the message tangible.” To start, Eric painted the door in a desert camouflage color and riddled it with bullet holes. He’ll then place a bullet in each hole, with each bullet wrapped in a small prayer.
In spite of the shows and awards he’s received, it’s taken Eric quite a while to be able to comfortably call himself an artist. “I didn’t really feel like an artist until after my work was accepted for a show in Chicago. They didn’t know who I was, I just submitted and they accepted. I feel validated now.” He continued, “It’s the one thing I’ve found that I feel that I’m truly meant to do. I get the feeling of peace, purpose and a connection with God. No matter what problems there are, when I’m sculpting art, all of that just goes away.”
For more information, visit Eric’s website at www.cooneystudios.com or visit his page on Facebook. You can also see Eric’s work at the Contemporary Art Center and visit his studio during CIAO First-Friday events.