PITTSFORD — When it comes to making art, Cooper Johnson has found that he’s most creative when he’s thinking inside the box.
Johnson, a senior at Otter Valley Union High School, creates intricate, detailed 3-dimensional sculptures out of cardboard.
As a child, Johnson liked to build things with Popsicle sticks. But in seventh grade, a teacher suggested he try cardboard.
“I just went overboard,” he said of his preferred medium.
Soon, his pieces got bigger and more elaborate.
In the summer between seventh and eighth grade, he spent a month building an 8-foot aircraft carrier.
Now, he regularly makes cars, tanks, castles, medieval armor and even a massive replica of the Titanic.
According to Johnson, it’s not too difficult to find source materials for his work — his family does a lot of online shopping, so cardboard boxes are never in short supply. For some projects, however, he prefers to buy “clean cardboard” from Home Depot.
Completely self-taught, Johnson starts with detailed sketches and plans, and then brings his pieces to life using a simple array of tools: a pair of scissors, an X-Acto knife and a hot glue gun. On occasion, he said uses a straightedge or a ruler, but he usually just “eye-balls” it.
“I have a good spatial intelligence. I don’t measure a lot.”
Pieces can take anywhere from 1 month to a year and a half to complete.
Johnson said his largest creation to-date was an 11-foot cruise ship, which he worked on for nearly 18 months.
With such a time-intensive hobby, Johnson admitted that it’s easy to get lost in his work. He noted that he can get tired or lose interested if he spends too much time on a particular piece. Through the years, though, he’s gotten good at knowing when to step away.
“I get in my own zone. … Sometimes I work on these 8 hours a day, 10 hours a day and, sometimes, I only work on them for 30 minutes,” he said. “You got to take some breaks.”
Otter Valley art teacher Frannie Willard has known Johnson since he arrived at the high school in ninth grade.
She praised his enthusiasm and attention to detail, adding that he spends a great deal of time researching each sculpture he creates so he can make it as detailed as possible.
“His technical skill is through the roof,” she said. “No matter the scale — whether it’s a miniature piece that’s 12 inches long or a massive piece that’s 6- to 8-feet long — he builds with the same level of accuracy.”
When Johnson started high school, Willard said he was well on his way with his cardboard creations, but she said she has helped to keep him focused and motivated, as well as introduced him to other materials, like balsa wood, and instilled some basic artistic foundations, which he has been able to apply to his work.
This fall, he’ll be taking Advanced Studio Art with Willard, where he will be able to focus on his creations.
“He’s just gotten so much more proficient,” she said. “It’s something that just calms him (and) gives him something super positive to do.”
Willard said she hopes to hold an exhibition of Johnson’s work at some point this school year, if the pandemic allows.
“I think it’s important for him to be able to share the collection because he has so many pieces that are just phenomenally done,” she said.
Johnson said he’s unsure what he wants to do after high school. He likes the idea of working with his hands, noting he would be interested in creating products for a company like Hubbardton Forge.
Willard said she is eager to talk more with Johnson about how he can apply his talents after graduating.
“The thing about Cooper is, whatever field he goes into, his ability to tap into his creativity, his ability to work at such a high level and just persevere through challenges … is going to help him advance in any kind of career path that he so chooses,” she said. “I hope that it will one day be art, and I will get to walk into a gallery filled with Cooper Johnson pieces, but I know that no matter what field he goes into, the skills that he’s been cultivating all these years will help him advance.”
In the meantime, Johnson has more entrepreneurial endeavors in mind. He said a military veteran from Florida has commissioned him to make an aircraft carrier. He envisions potentially making a business out of it.
“I’d like to have my hands full with projects to make,” he said.