Artist Cooper Sanchez illuminates Oakland Cemetery

The gardens become gallery for the artist’s ‘Illumine’

The gardens at Oakland Cemetery are ablaze with spring. Hot pink azaleas have engulfed the beds around the Bell Tower and plots along the pathways burn bright with green. The season has just begun, though, and it’s still cool in the early morning, particularly under the shade of the towering magnolias where artist/gardener Cooper Sanchez is installing work for April 16’s Illumine: An Evening of Light and Art in the Gardens.

For six months Sanchez gathered wisteria vines from abandoned acres and untended lots. He’s dried and whitewashed them and draped the knotty ropes from tree branches. The sculptural vines curl against and twist in tandem with the lines of the giant trees. The stark white color makes each tree — four magnolias and one Chinese evergreen oak — into a beacon.

“I’ve been messing with this idea for a few years,” Sanchez says. “I like taking wisteria and repurposing it. I guess being a gardener, we’re always twisting and manipulating and retraining plants.”

For Illumine, Sanchez crafted lanterns out of tomato cages, created a new series of light boxes, and enlisted three of his artist friends to turn Oakland into a gallery for an evening. On April 16, visitors will guide themselves through the grounds, drawing a route from luminary to luminary and exploring the gardens as twilight turns to dusk turns to night.

“I can’t show the kind of work that I want to show in a traditional gallery setting,” Sanchez says. “For me, it’s become more about putting somebody in a place that is important to me or a place that I find interesting. This isn’t a gallery, but to me it’s like an outdoor museum. I truly adore this place.”

Sanchez graduated from the School of Visual Arts in New York in 1999. Never partial to a desk job, Sanchez ran a landscape service for a stretch and worked as a graphic designer before coming on at Oakland eight years ago. As head gardener, he maintains the flora year round in areas of the cemetery that are actively being restored, about a quarter of the property’s 48 acres.

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Illumine won’t be the first time Sanchez has used Oakland’s Victorian backdrop as a gallery for his work. In 2009 he created the moody Oakland :: In the Greenhouse Ruins. It featured his paintings, light boxes, and cyanotypes (blue photographic prints) and spoke directly to the cemetery’s history and aesthetic, with its ornate mausoleums, rambling cobblestone walkways, and crumbling greenhouse.

At Illumine, Charles Ladson will show four large-scale paintings, which Sanchez describes as “surreal” and “dreamlike.” Filmmaker Steve Bransford will project selected excerpts from his and Sanchez’s ongoing documentary about renowned gardener Ryan Gainey, one of Sanchez’s mentors. Elizabeth Ingram, a designer and stylist who’s worked on Ford Fry’s recent restaurants, has been charring furniture and burning cabinetry for a takeover of Oakland’s new greenhouse.

Along the paths from the gates to the greenhouse and under those wisteria canopies, Sanchez is installing his light boxes containing pressed plants, cyanotypes, and smoke drawings or a combination of the techniques.

To make the smoke drawings, he burns diesel or lamp oil in an old-timey lantern and holds semi-opaque Plexiglas above the flame to capture the soot and smoke. Then he makes his marks with his hands and fingernails or some other tool.

“It’s really hard to control smoke or draw with it. It’s almost like finger-painting because it’s so delicate,” he says.

For his pressed botanicals (a year’s worth, most from Oakland), he might go two, four, or six layers thick, sometimes including photographs, varnish, or translucent paper for added texture and depth. In “Pressed Iris,” Japanese irises poke up through a tangle of bare branches from a photo of a winter tree at Oakland.

“Pressed botanicals, to me, they always seem like a real Victorian thing to do,” he says. “Same thing with cyanotypes. It just naturally lends itself to that period of time when people were very interested in science, in the natural world and capturing it in some way or another. And that’s a happy accident — I’m into that and they were into that.”

The result is gauzy and ethereal; spectral silhouettes of garden fragments that highlight the natural elements surrounding us, particularly in a space like Oakland Cemetery.