Episode 18: Brett Cook

(un)making

Episode 18: Brett Cook

By Weston Teruya October 13, 2017

Weston Teruya welcomes artists, arts administrators, and cultural workers of color to get real about their lives, practices, and careers. Each episode is an in-depth look into how art gets made, but more importantly how these folks are seeing to the system of art’s (UN)making.


In this episode I had the opportunity to learn from Berkeley-based artist, community organizer, and educator Brett Cook. Through his years developing transformative, social justice and community arts projects, Brett has developed a deep knowledge of what it truly means to be committed to long term creative projects with neighborhoods and institutions—from the nitty gritty details of developing financial and policy resources to remaining accountable to the people at the heart of the project.

In this interview, Brett focuses in on his current, multi-year project with residents, neighbors, and stakeholders tied to the Alice Griffith Public Housing in San Francisco’s Bayview-Hunter’s Point and uses that story to provide a master class on community artmaking. During our conversation, we talked about creating skillful outcomes, bringing people into relationship with one another, and creating a culture of assessment and reflection. He also gets honest about the struggles within the project—particularly in negotiating with financially powerful institutions and the limitations of their agendas—and how he and his collaborators have adapted and continued to push toward the future.

Brett is possibly best known for the art objects that have resulted from some of his many relational and community projects over the years—particularly his signature portraits of iconic and everyday people created through loose and colorful streaks of spraypaint. In the discussion he also talks about the role, limitations, and usefulness of these skillful art elements in creating visible evidence of the less legible social engagements that are core to these projects.

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Brett Cook is an interdisciplinary artist and educator who uses storytelling, portraiture, iterative artmaking workshops, and everyday creative practices as vehicles to bring people into relation with one another and create transformative learning environments. He has been honored with the 2014 A Blade of Grass Fellowship for Socially Engaged Art, a Lehman Brady Visiting Professorship at Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and the Richard C. Diebenkorn Fellowship at the San Francisco Art Institute. Brett was selected as cultural ambassador to Nigeria as part of the U.S. Department of State’s 2012 smARTpower Initiative. And he has published Who Am I In This Picture: Amherst College Portraits (2009) with Wendy Ewald and Amherst College Press and Clouds In A Teacup (2016) with Thich Nhat Hanh and Parallax Press. You can follow Brett’s work at @brettcookstudio on Instagram and online at brett-cook.com.

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