Nassau Guardian Profiles John Cox
An accomplished Bahamian artist, John Cox has helped define the contemporary Bahamian art scene locally and globally through his work and through the creation of Popopstudios International Center for the Visual Arts.
Yet for over a decade, Cox has also been an important figure in the lives of many up-and-coming Bahamian artists as an instructor in the arts program at The College of The Bahamas, redefining the teacher-student relationship through honest exchange – a skill he takes with him now to establish a new kind of arts school at Popopstudios ICVA and to his new position as chief curator at the National Art Gallery of The Bahamas.
“I think it’s really important to connect especially as a teacher because that’s where the real learning takes place,” he said. “I think the greatest failures in education occur at primary and secondary levels, and I think the redemption comes at the tertiary level.”
“I’m not interested in discipline or the curriculum; I’m interested in empowering people,” he continued. “I don’t really think that one person ever really teaches one other person anything – I think we all really know what we all need to know and teaching is just creating alignments and opening vents for knowledge to come out.”
Like many great teachers, Cox credits his own mentors for molding his teaching sensibilities. In high school at Queen’s College, his art teacher Mr. Pickerskill created a comfortable environment that encouraged creativity, exposing the inherent ability Cox had to visually communicate and solve problems – a rarity in a school environment that he often felt uncomfortable learning in.
“So much of my art experience now is based on relationships with myself, with my students, with other artists, with clients – so much of my creative reality is based on these that I think when I look back to when I wanted to become an artist, it was based on relationships with people who helped me be creative,” he said.
When Cox ventured abroad to develop his artistic talent in 1991 at Rhode Island School of Design in a BFA in Fine Arts, he met two more mentors who would greatly influence both his artistic practice and his teaching practice: Al DeCredico and Jack Massey. While DeCredico fostered in his freshman students a strong sense of independence in their artistic practices, Massey opened their eyes to possibility by challenging preconceived notions of process.
Both had a profound effect on Cox, setting his time up at college to be life-changing – so much so that he went on to complete his graduate studies at RISD in a Master of Arts in Teaching, becoming a teaching assistant to them both during that final year.
“I could be like them because there was something about them that was in reach,” he said. “I thought they were both really good artists and they also had this lifestyle involved with dialogue with young people, being challenged by young people but also challenging them and I thought this is what education is. This is it. It’s what informs me today still.”
Taking up a teaching position at The College of The Bahamas in 1997, he has since taught many classes to prospective artists, from 2D design, printmaking and art history surveys, commercial art, advanced painting and mixed media, which he introduced himself.
Though he took a brief break from teaching to act as the education officer at the National Art Gallery of The Bahamas from 2003-2007, he’s become the most sought-after instructor in the arts program at COB, with his ability to expand the classroom environment into the wider community, taking a hands-on approach that opens his student’s eyes to possibilities and creates spaces for them to gain confidence in their creative abilities.
“I feel like let’s not sit here and read theory, let’s go outside and figure it out,” Cox said. “I always felt like for my students, what I wanted to do for them is create an environment where they felt encouraged that they could develop their own knowledge, and not necessarily a knowledge I imparted to them, but rather a place to let people succeed or fail and then figure it out themselves. That’s the most empowering way to teach.”
That same attitude of setting aside formalities to favor a more practice-driven approach to education is what drives the programming at Popopstudios ICVA. Created in 1999 by Cox and a group of like-minded artists with the intention to provide a space for contemporary Bahamian art that was radically different from idyllic landscape paintings and photography, Popopstudios has grown into a space where Bahamian and visiting international artists alike have the space to engage in dialogue about art, whether through their gallery shows, artist studios or through their residency programs.
Though always a place of informal education opportunities with their programs that invited emerging student artists to learn from the community of established artists operating out of the space, Popopstudios now offers art classes that bypass any institutional formalities and requirements and get to the very essence of its mission: providing educational opportunities to the community to advance the Bahamian cultural and artistic landscape.
“We want to really grow artists at this space and one of the best apparatus with which to do that is education, to use the opportunities to learn within a framework,” said Cox. “A big part of education is just dialogue and I think we create that dialogue with our residency programs. So I see the future of Popop as being one of the first independent visual art schools in the country that is driven by dynamic offerings and a dynamic residency program.”
“I’m really proud of my Bahamian art family,” he continues. “I think we have some of the best artists in the region and I think we as a people – as a government, as a body of educators, as business people, as social workers – need to understand we have this tremendous resource here.”
Indeed this belief is what has driven the shift in his teaching life. Now finally largely detaching from The College of The Bahamas, Cox looks towards not only developing programming at Popopstudios, but also at the National Art Gallery of The Bahamas in his new position as chief curator. Working alongside new director of the institution Amanda Coulson, Cox hopes to use his ability to help people see and understand nuances of art in a position that can take Bahamian art to the world.
“I feel like it’s not so different from what I was doing at COB,” he said. “I think part of education is empowerment and creating opportunities and I feel here is an opportunity to do more of that – to help create the visual rhythm of our country.”
“I think we have the greatest potential than any other single group of people to get this done and I feel humbled to be part of it,” he continued. “I feel excited about the next 10-12 years for Bahamian art to do really exciting things in the region as Caribbean artists make it on the global scene. It’s an exciting time and I think part of our job is to nurture in people that we have this tremendous resource here.”
The Nassau Guardian
Published: Monday, March 19, 2012