Strolling through the 1020 ART gallery, you might come eye to eye with musician Ray Charles or the first and only female chief of the Seminole tribe, Betty Mae Jumper.
Peer closer, and you will see the highly detailed handiwork of Bradley Cooley Sr., who died earlier this year, and his son Bradley Cooley Jr. As a team, Bronze by Cooley, they created one of the largest, and most respected bodies of work in bronze, immortalizing wildlife, sports figures and songwriters. Cooley hopes he and his father’s greatest contribution, however, will be to the native peoples that lived in the southeastern United States. “Bronze is forever,” said Cooley. “It’s for generations to come and will be something permanent. I’ve done some sculptures in other media, but I prefer the bronze because I know it will be here when you and I are gone.” The family decided to honor and celebrate the elder Cooley with a display of his great works in “Legacy,” an exhibition that will run Monday-Friday through June 30. Each work represents the longlasting impact the patriarch had locally, nationally, and internationally as an artist. The younger Cooley, along with his wife, Linda Cooley, are continuing as the backbone of the family business, creating sculptures for both informative and artistic purposes.
“Our pieces are very educational,” Cooley said. “All my pieces are telling a story of some type whether it’s educating you about what the natives wore or how they were at that time. It’s important because I’ve got Choctaw and Cherokee as part of my heritage, but it’s also such a big part of Florida history.”
Art also runs deep in the family tradition, as Cooley's maternal grandfather was a sculptor and painter who in turn taught the trade to the elder Cooley. The young Cooley began sculpting at age 5, and made his first bronze sculpture, a bust of Julius Cesar commissioned by his teacher, at 16.
“I started out picking up little pieces of clay my dad left behind and making stuff,” recalls Cooley, who attended North Florida Junior College for two years on an art scholarship. “I learned a lot about design there, but my father was the one who taught me about technique. After school, I went right into the business.”
His father was also his main instructor when it came to learning about the early southeastern Native Americans, which had been passed on to him from the elders of the Seminole tribe. Together they found arrowheads on their farm and learned to make atlatls, a traditional spear thrower, firsthand before placing these traditional tools and activities in bronze.
As historians and artists, this collection of stories and experiences are essential to the Cooleys’ artistic processes in order to accurately represent the Native American culture. Recollections of joining his father at powwows every weekend and learning the legends from Seminole elders stand out in Cooley’s memory. When being commissioned for any given work, research at museum archives is another source of information.
“For a life-size bronze of Chief Osceola, I went to a museum in Gainesville where they had a death mask of him, and took calipers to measure his face,” explains Cooley.
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