DALLAS — Artistry and creativity are hallmarks of the Cooks family and have for many decades. Now, LaShonda Cooks and her father, Gary, have teamed up to put their originality on display in their first exhibit together at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Cathedral.
“Right before he retired, I noticed he was coming home with some of his drawings,” said LaShonda. “It was my first time seeing some of his work and his creations. I kind of encouraged him and said ‘Dad, these are great. If you get 100 since they were all pretty small drawings, we can get you a show by yourself’. So, he just kept going, and he kept creating.”
For over 30 years, Gary taught art at schools in Dallas. He provided a space for his students to experiment with various art forms.
“I kind of got away from my art as an art teacher,” said Gary. “My emphasis was on making sure that I was helping my students to learn and when I taught art, I taught at an elementary school. I was fortunate enough to have materials where I could teach kids, like how they (professors) taught me at the college level. I did some ceramics, some weaving, paintings and drawings.”
Admitting that he was never the type to show off his work, Gary said the opportunity to showcase his pieces alongside his daughter brought him joy.
“The experience with LaShonda was overwhelmingly supportive and I really appreciate the fact that she invited me to share that space with her,” he said. “She has really taken it to another level. I look back on my family and I have grandparents on both sides who were self-taught artists.”
In a family full of creatives, LaShonda grew up drawing. But it wasn’t until college that she took her craft seriously.
“It was a really good escape for me when I was studying business in school,” she said. “We had a really good ceramics studio on campus and I would go in there and decompress. That’s when I kind of learned my painting style.”
As time went on, she realized was working with the “generational creativity and generational gift” passed down to her.
“When you’re younger, you think that you’re just doing stuff of your own volition or your own strength,” she said. “But, anytime I would tell people my dad’s an art teacher, they’d say, ‘oh yeah, that’s where you get it from’ and I never thought of it like that.”
Initially, LaShonda pitched the father-daughter exhibit to the Dallas Public Library. But, around the same, the COVID-19 pandemic hit, putting a halt to her plans. It wasn’t until Evelyn Luciano, of St. Matthew’s Cathedral Arts, contacted her about an opportunity at the center that she would once again get the chance to share a stage with her father.
“It’s one of the oldest churches in Dallas and they really have a focus on showing that Black lives matter,” said LaShonda. “They have a program to give you their platform to highlight artists of color or Black artists, specifically.”
St. Matthew’s Cathedral Arts, a nonprofit center as part of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Cathedral, focuses on three pillars — arts, learning and community. It was founded in 2011 and since then it has worked to amplify the voices of creatives, whether in performing or visual arts. Following the outcry for racial injustices and police brutality to end after the killing of George Floyd and others, more companies, organizations, etc. have taken a step towards promoting Black brands, etc.
“They have a program this month called Black Voices, and they were looking for a Black artist specifically to showcase visually in that space in their gallery,” LaShonda Cooks said. “So, to have people being very intentional and say, ‘hey, we want to bring in a Black artist’ and not just do lip-service but actually be proactive is great.”
Those visiting the Cooks’ exhibit, titled “Sanctuary,” can expect to see portraits of family members and pencil drawings with a pop of color inspired by Mandolin art.
“I try to highlight moments that were important to me and/or significant in my upbringing and kind of defining for who I am today,” said LaShonda Cooks, reflecting on her pieces. “So, it features family members, my parents, my younger sister, cousins, grandparents because I wanted to pay homage to them and where I came from and the whole idea of that we’re not just in this alone these roots are important and they matter.”
For the past eight years, LaShonda has shown her artwork publicly. But the “Sanctuary” exhibit with her father has become her favorite to date.
“It’s so surreal,” she said. “I’m very blessed and thankful for the opportunity and ability to show my work with my dad and pay homage to him.”
The “Sanctuary” exhibit will remain on display until March 11.