Watercolor. 10in. x 13in. 1936
Gift of Katherine & Howard A. Cook
An early childhood trauma left Irma Howard Cook deaf by adolescence. She might have learned sign-language as an alternate form of communication, but her parents, who feared doing so would isolate her from mainstream society, had her learn lip-reading instead. The decision proved to be a prescient one. In her adult life, Irma became known for her gregariousness, humor, and extroversion as much as for the unique manner with which she communicated.
These skills served her well as a student at the prestigious Philadelphia Academy of Fine Art (Now known as PAFA), where she enrolled in the early 1920s. While a student at PAFA, Cook distinguished herself by winning two Cresson Scholarships, in 1923 and 1924 respectively, as well as the Academy’s coveted Charles Toppen prize. Irma is said to have ‘taken on as a project’ a fellow student - August Cook - early on in her academic career at PAFA. Young August was quiet and introverted, and although he had won a Cresson Sholarship of his own in 1921, we can only image the dynamic interest the considerably accomplished, garrulous Irma must have held for him. On the other hand, August must not have been without charms of his own - the same year that Irma was awared the Toppen Prize, she and Cook married. August accepted a teaching position at Spartanburg’s Converse College, and the couple moved there together shortly afterwards.
Sadly, the nascent but significant talent demonstrated by Irma’s academic achievements would never be given full expression. Her story echoes that of many 19th and 20th century women artists - Cook’s artistic career took a backseat to the societal pressures and immediate concerns of family and domestic life. Irma kept a basement studio in the family home and taught art to several private students, and achieved some renown as a portraitist in Spartanburg and its immediate environs, but devoted most of her life and energy to her children and spouse. Susan Cook Parsons recalled, in 2000, that “The fact my grandmother chose to raise a family and put her artistic pursuits second place was always difficult for my grandfather…[but he] became resigned to not having the partner he’d perhaps hoped for in his artistic pursuits.”
Only a few artifacts survive to us from this period of the artist’s life, many of which are emblematic of the complex relationship between Cook’s domestic life and artistic life.
SAM is funded in part by the Chapman Cultural Center, INC and its donors, the County and City of Spartanburg, and the South Carolina Arts Commission which receives support from The National Endowment for the Arts.