Settling the Dust

Erasing the pains of her past with chalk
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Photo by Julia Sumpter

It’s easy to gripe about the pitfalls of social media. Too many equate the value of words to the number of retweets. Friends’ faces are filtered to the point of unrecognition.

“Do it for the Vine!” is the only reason to do something fun. Post it or it didn’t happen. But, in all the online frenzy of communication without much real connection, every once in a while you scroll across an artist like Tacoma’s Renae Cooper.

A flight attendant for the past eight years, Cooper has combined her love of travel with a mode of communication as old-school as it comes — chalkboards. After a particularly rough patch in her personal life, Cooper felt “dead” to the things she used to love most. For a life spent mostly in the clouds, Cooper felt heavy with guilt that her life didn’t reflect the picture-perfect family she expected. Cooper was divorced; the father of the youngest of her three children lived in Australia; and her front lawn and home demanded too much time and money.

Her blues unexpectedly led to something black. Noticing a rise in chalkboard art, Cooper began to doodle some of her favorite wise words with white chalk as a way to escape the funk she was in. “Writing on chalkboards was good for my soul. I started with encouraging words I needed to hear,” said Cooper.

To share her art, Cooper created an Instagram account and website, Colour and Dust. Through her new online identity, Cooper shared the wonderful, bright joys of her life as well as the messy, dusty bits through her artwork and blog and detailed mistakes she’d made and lessons learned. “I don’t mind sharing and talking about personal things, because it’s real and I think we should talk about real things. I had a really hard time. I’m creative because I have to be. Creativity is life,” Cooper said.

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Photo by Erin Perkins

The focused creative energy helped Cooper come to terms with her unconventional gypsy life of shuffling kids from country to country and forgoing her preconceived notion of a “perfect” home and family. She started to realize that her life was interesting and beautiful and that perfection was an illusion — in fact some of the messiness of life was an important part of her picture.

Thanks to Instagram, word of her skills and stories started to spread. Breaking up the monotony of mirror pics and duck-lipped pictures, Cooper posted pictures of her chalk art. Quotes from literary group The Inklings, C.S. Lewis, and J.R.R. Tolkien popped up on her sites in stark black-and-white images. Outlines of Aslan the Lion, reminding Cooper and her followers that you can’t run from who you are, and happy messages reminding us to look for the sunshine in the gray gradually led to coffee shops calling on Cooper to adorn their menu boards with her creative lettering skills. (Take a gander through Tacoma’s Art House Café, Blooming Kids, and Refinery Style Bar, and you’ll find boards with Cooper’s signature lettering all around.)

Recently, Cooper got offered a gig lettering for a Portland coffeehouse, which aligned with a work-related layover. “I try and combine it (traveling and art) and it worked out that I had a layover in Portland and a hotel room that wasn’t full of kids, so I could do a chalkboard in 24 hours. I’ve actually done a chalkboard menu for a café in Australia now, too,” Cooper said. She also has done chalkboard art for weddings, photo-shoot props and more.

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Photo by Erin Perkins

Beyond the extra dough earned through her chalk art, Cooper’s online presence has led to real-life friends. Cooper participates in Instameets. Friends found through Instagram pick a time and place to meet in Tacoma (or Seattle or wherever one lives) and form connections face to face. Cooper and her pals (including South Sound magazine contributor and food stylist, Danielle Kartes) put together The Village Dinner at the Art House Cafe. The evening was an opportunity for mothers around Tacoma and Seattle to gather and support each other through community and friendship. “It’s not just chalk to me, it’s being able to collaborate with others and be open about my life, because I have to be.”

It took a long and sometimes bumpy road for Cooper to find her way as an artist. But with the help of Instagram and the courage to tell her stories unfiltered, Cooper has connected local mothers with a support system, met lifelong friends, and linked customers with their morning coffee orders.

See more of Renae Cooper’s work.

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