Walter Cooper once worked on Madison Avenue for internationally recognized ad agency, J Walter Thompson. He was a copywriter for major accounts while living in both New York City and Tokyo. Cooper fell into advertising, he says, because it allowed him the opportunity to pull a stable paycheck but still maintain some semblance of creativity.
"Have you seen Mad Men?" he asks. "That show was actually pretty true to form when it comes to what it was like … there was a lot of pressure; there was a lot of drinking."
And it wasn't that Cooper was unhappy, really; more like he had grown tired of his high-stakes lifestyle as it played out in the big city, and besides, he was harboring a secret that, back then, was pretty huge: Cooper is gay.
"I wasn't living openly then. I mean, a lot of people weren't, but I realized that I wanted to live in a different kind of place, and I wanted to be somewhere I could experiment with my art," he reminisces. "In those days, my uncle was the managing editor of the New Mexican; I came out to visit, just to see family for a week, and even though it was only a week, it was very apparent there were already a lot of gay and lesbian people here, and they were living their lives in a very open way."
This was in 1970, and by 1973, Cooper was living in Santa Fe full time. It was, he says, an exciting time, not just for the LGBTQ+ crowd (before those letters were event a thing), but also for artists who worked in all conceivable mediums. Without having to fear ire for being who he was at long last, Cooper was allowed to thrive alongside his contemporaries, many of whom are respected and well-known local artists to this day.
"Santa Fe was unique and accepting, and there were a lot of gay people here who were very serious artists, as opposed to Sunday painters," Cooper says. "Many of them were like me: young people who were trying to figure out how to start out and find careers as artists or photographers or musicians or poets or potters. … Back then, the town was full of young people, maybe because it wasn't as expensive as it is now—I was able to buy a house a block from the Capitol that first year for $17,000—but times have really changed, and it isn't exactly cheap anymore."
Still, Cooper and his fellow gay artists did face hatred from time to time. Many would frequent a gay club on Galisteo Street called The Senate, and he recalls that they would sometimes be screamed at or have bottles thrown at them.
"They'd call us 'joto' or 'mariposa' and there was gay bashing or sometimes fights," he says, "but overall, I have to say that Santa Fe remained a very welcoming place for gays, and that was incredibly helpful to young artists."
By the late 1970s and early 1980s, the gallery system we now know was on the rise, but it wasn't unusual for artists to show their work with more ease than during today's engorged Canyon Road nonsense. This allowed Cooper to show his paintings but also to dabble in various mediums such as silkscreen prints, abstract acrylic paintings and writing. He'd made art while working in advertising, but never had he enjoyed the freedom to create at his own pace and in his own styles.
"My first show was at St. John's College, and I was a part of Hill's Gallery, which was the first exclusively contemporary gallery in town, and in those days, the openings would last," he says. "The after-parties would go all night, and the community was small, whereas now galleries are just a business, and if you're not selling, you're not showing, but I made a living at this for nearly 25 years, until my sales began to fade."
He would turn to writing and has since released three books. His first was called Shards and reflected upon his years in advertising. Briefs: A Virile Display of Verse Witty and Gay would follow and feature poetry based upon his life. His newest book, Unbuttoned: Gay Life in the Santa Fe Arts Scene, examines his experiences over three decades.
The self-published memoir, available at local bookstores and online, recounts almost everything from his first forays into Santa Fe gay and arts cultures to the tragic early '80s days of HIV/AIDS, an epidemic that Cooper says "hit like a tidal wave and killed something like 40 guys I knew." With sharp prose and clever wit, he brings the focus out of the dark days of AIDS and into the '90s, as gay culture became more commonplace yet more scattered. One can almost feel Cooper's longing for the past, but his portrayal of the community never wanders into self-pity; instead, we can appreciate his strong sense of nostalgia.
Unbuttoned is a fascinating who's-who of local talent and a thorough overview of Cooper's place in laying the roots of the local arts scene, many of which are still in place today. A must-read for Santa Feans, not just in the gay community but for anyone who thinks they know local art, the book presents a picture of the years when Santa Fe was a glorious artistic paradise where those who had been afraid could find family and acceptance, and creativity was unaffected by commerce, thereby reaching an all-time high. These days, Cooper sticks to writing, but he still looks back fondly on the years he says shaped our local arts scene.
"I don't want to be one of these people who says, 'Oh, you should have seen it back then,' because that's just boring," he says, showing the slyest of smiles. "This town is full of good stories to this day, and I guess that's why I wrote the book; this is my town, this is my home, and though I can't help but be nostalgic for my youth and for those years when the gay community had more of a presence, I love this place; I truly do."