Cooley Addresses Creative Survival

Mira Steinzor
Mira Steinzor
Independent/Courtesy Ryder Cooley

The Watermill Center continues its Nights @ The Round Table talks on Wednesday, February 27, at 5:30 PM, with artist-in-residence alum and inter-disciplinary artist Ryder Cooley. The series welcomes the community to join for intimate presentations led by its community fellows, staff members, and esteemed alumni.

Cooley will present a selection of slides and music/performance videos excerpted from her portfolio of interdisciplinary work. She will also facilitate a conversation about “how to survive financially and spiritually as independent artists/musicians in an increasingly privatized, product-driven, and ecologically/politically devastating corporate America.”

Amid privatized and product-driven America, what drives you as an artist?

I feel more passionate than ever about being an artist. This is a vital time for the arts. We must keep our eyes open and our heads out of the sand, otherwise we could be completely swallowed up and co-opted into digital marketing, branding, and propaganda. What do you do when you feel like you are drowning? You swim even harder than before and that is what I feel like I have been doing, which is better than treading water.

Will you be discussing survival as an independent artist?

My intention for the Watermill Round Table is to facilitate a conversation about creative survival. Everyone present will be encouraged to participate in the dialogue. Sharing a diversity of perspectives and experiences is integral to building individual and collective survival skills so please bring your stories and strategies to share.

How have you seen the arts world change?

As a young artist, I was able to support myself by working and exhibiting/performing within the non-profit arts. Over the years, I have watched small arts organizations and non-profits drop like flies as public funding for the arts has diminished. Support for the arts has shifted drastically from public to private sponsorship. Curation and presentation are increasingly based on popularity versus content.

What advice would you give to young interdisciplinary artists today?

I think the most important thing for artists is to be our most honest and edgy out-there selves, even if it is less marketable, trendy, or profitable. Find your tribe and stick together, help each other out. Don’t let the world break you down, and try not to be competitive with one another. Support each other as much as possible.

Who inspires you?

My father, John Ryder Cooley, is a writer and professor who turned to sculpture, and his husband, Jack Millard, is an incredible large-scale abstract painter. They are both a big inspiration to me and I am so grateful that my family has been encouraging and supportive of me as an artist. I studied accordion with Pauline Oliveros and Jeanette Lewicki, two strong women musicians, and most recently I have been playing with Melora Creaeger of Rasputina, who has been an amazing musical mentor.

What do you do to get your creative juices flowing?

I get most of my inspiration from solitude. I have always loved cemeteries. I can feel all of the energy there — the spirits of the dead floating around and the fascinating residue of their lives carved into decrepit stones and the beautiful trees juxtaposed with fake flowers and all of the animals who live there — it’s all so fascinating. Thinking about my audience is also a big part of my inspiration, as well as going to museums on quiet days when no one is there.

Tell us about Hazel, the taxidermy ram that you use in performances.

Hazel is a disembodied Barbados Black Belly sheep who now exists as a taxidermy ram’s head. I was looking for a taxidermy animal to play the role of the extinct Pyrenean Ibex in my extinction cabaret “XMALIA.” I found Hazel at a Salvage in Albany and it was love at first sight. Hazel is symbolically re-gendered and resurrected through our work together. I am her post-mortem prosthetic body, and she adorns me with horns. Hazel is also the mascot spirit animal for my dark carnival band Dust Bowl Faeries, and she co-hosts a weekly open mic night with me at a fabulous music venue in Hudson called Club Helsinki.

Who are the Dust Bowl Faeries?

Dust Bowl Faeries is a Dark Carnival band that Hazel and I founded in 2014 featuring accordion, singing saw, ukulele, lap-steel, guitar, and percussion. The group is inter-generational, and our unique sound draws inspiration from circus, post-punk, Gypsy, and Eastern European folk music.

What impact do you hope your work has on others?

I love it when people are transported to another world through the art and music that I make. I began playing music during the Riot Girl movement, and it has always been a goal of mine to inspire and encourage other women and queer/trans identified people to play music and write songs.

What else are you passionate about?

I have been vegan for over 20 years and I do my best to live responsibly by recycling, growing vegetables from non-GMO seeds; carpooling, walking, biking, or taking public transportation when possible; and consuming things that are organic, non-toxic, and cruelty free. I am passionate about animal rights and ecological awareness. The earth is resilient and there is still time. We can change.

If you could relay a single message to the American audience, what would that be?

Equality, compassion, and respect is the mantra that I think America needs. Everyone should have access to basic needs, and by everyone, I mean animals too! I will always remember the things my grandmother told me: “love thy neighbor” (humans, animals, trees, the land) and “treat others as you would like them to treat you.” If we could apply these folk sayings to political affairs, we would be living in a much better world.

Cooley will also participate in the “Takeover!” at Southampton Arts Center as the featured artist at the “Takeover Hangout” on Thursday, February 28, at 6 PM.

For more information, visit or

[email protected]

More from Our Sister Sites