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Ligonier painter trades science for art-filled career

Shirley McMarlin
| Thursday, Aug. 11, 2016, 6:09 p.m.
Painter Jaime Cooper photographed in her Ligonier studio on Thursday, Aug. 4, 2016.
Evan R. Sanders | Tribune-Review
Painter Jaime Cooper photographed in her Ligonier studio on Thursday, Aug. 4, 2016.

Painter Jaime Cooper says she's intrigued by the art of the Renaissance — which is fitting, as the Ligonier Township resident is something of a Renaissance woman herself. She graduated from Penn State in four-and-a-half years with dual bachelor's and master's degrees in biology and genetics, then worked in preclinical trials for a cancer drug. When the drug was abandoned, she and her partner, Scott Perry, started painting and selling toy soldiers. Then she turned to fine art, becoming known for her French and Indian War-era portraits. Now she's learning to play the ukulele.

Question: Why was the drug you worked on abandoned?

Answer: It looked great in the preclinical trials on animal models, but the first week it went into human trials, they had to shut it down because it was too dangerous.

Q: How did that lead to you quitting the job?

A: It was very disheartening after all the drudgery of doing the same thing over and over again, but that's the nature of scientific research. It was really boring compared to school, and I thought, if I'm going to be this bored in my life, at least I want the happiness of having done something tangible at the end of it. The chances of that are pretty low, though — most drugs get trashed at some phase.

I had saved some money, so I decided to start my own business until I decided what I wanted to be when I grew up. It was 2000 and I was 24 at the time. Scott and I started painting collectible toy soldiers. He's still doing that.

Q: You're from Maryland and had been working there. What brought you to Ligonier?

A: Scott's parents are ex-patriots; they're British and they live in Greensburg. We used to come to Ligonier for dinner when we'd visit, and I always thought it would be a great place to live. Also, down in Baltimore, I couldn't get a zoning permit to have a business in my apartment.

Q: How did you move into oil painting?

A: I had totally expected I'd have to go back and get another science job, but the business was working and we had a steady income. About two or three years later, I started thinking about pursuing serious art more seriously. I started teaching myself to do art. I explored different mediums but really fell in love with graphite drawing and oil painting.

Q: So you're mostly self-taught?

A: Pretty much. I've taken a few workshops at the Art League in Alexandria, Va., and at Studio Incamminati in Philadelphia.

Q: Were you always interested in history or did painting spark that?

A: I had a history class on Nazism and fascism in college, and the professor was just an amazing teacher. It was the only class I've ever been in where the professor got a standing ovation after the final lecture. That was a start to my interest in history. Painting has led me to explore more of it.

Q: How did your business develop?

A: Living in the Ligonier area, I was learning about the French and Indian War, so that's where I started in my painting. I've had a studio in Ligonier for eight years. I started by selling prints and originals of the French and Indian War paintings. Then I started getting more into gallery paintings, things that appeal to a broader audience, like landscapes, portraits and the scenic genres.

Q: What are the peaks in your career as an artist?

A: For Ligonier's 250th anniversary in 2008, I was in the show (at the Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art at Ligonier Valley) with John Buxton, Robert Griffing and Chas Fagan. That was my first big show. I've shown nationally three times at Salmagundi Club in New York, and I'm an elected artist member of the American Artist Professional League.

Q: Do you miss science?

A: Not really, though I do keep up with the new technology.

Q: What led you to pick up the ukulele?

A: I admire the bravery of my students for coming in here and doing one-on-one lessons, so I decided to do something scary that I'd never done before to learn what my students are going through. I picked the ukulele because it's small and easy to transport.

Shirley McMarlin is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-836-5750 or smcmarlin@tribweb.com.

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