Saturday, November 11, 2023

Q&A with CJ Cook




CJ Cook is the author, with Paige Herbert, of the new book Beauty in the Beast: Flora, Fauna, and Endangered Species of Artist Ralph Burke Tyree. His other books include Tyree: Artist of the South Pacific.


Q: You’ve said that you bought a Tyree painting in 2008 and wanted to learn more about him. Can you say more about what inspired you to write this book about his art?


A: Only a few paragraphs about this man and his life were available in books or online. Minnie's, a Tiki restaurant in Modesto, California, owned some of his works and had a page on their website dedicated to him.


I became fascinated by this man, his art, and the process of oil painting on velvet. My interest led me to write Tyree: Artist of the South Pacific (2017), which won two Gold Awards from the Independent Book Publishers Association in 2018 for Cover Design and Biography. 


Q: How did you research the book, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?


A: I had more to say about Tyree, especially his animal art, which only had one dedicated chapter in my previous book. There was more to be told and more paintings to present, thus the genesis of this book.


With this book, as with my first, I had the support of the Tyree family in further exploring this fantastic man and artist and finding more of his animal paintings.


Tyree's granddaughter, Paige Herbert (daughter of Marda), is my editor and coauthor. She brings her art history background to the book, conducting visual analyses and adding stories about the animals.


Surprises were the details and insight he had into so many birds, especially (raptors) and endangered mammals of the planet. He did his research into the species.

Q: What initially intrigued you about art featuring the South Pacific?


A: I love the islands of the South Pacific. I have visited many of Tyree's islands, and I continue to explore the South Seas: Guam, Pohnpei, Truk, Palau, Bali, Tahiti and its surrounding islands, New Zealand, Australia and its Great Barrier Reef, Taiwan, and the Hawaiian Islands. The latter paradise I visit multiple times a year.


Q: How would you describe Tyree (1921-1979)’s legacy today?


A: My first book brought his art out of the darkness of black velvet kitsch. His painting prices have doubled and tripled in the past five years.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: My new book is about Edithe Beutler, a famous colorist who painted in Hawaii before the advent of color photography. She used oil to paint black-and-white photos sold by Kodak.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Beauty in the Beast is published to mark the 50th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act of 1973. It explores the works of the last ten years of Tyree's life when animals became his focus.


Like Tyree, I am a plant and animal lover. Many photographs that supplement his paintings in this book are from my collection, taken by friends and myself. I care deeply about our animal brethren, especially the vulnerable and endangered.


Fortunately, I can support my local San Diego Zoo, which has played and continues to play a pivotal role in efforts to save species such as the California condor, featured in Chapter 6.


In 1998, I even had the chance to assist the efforts of pediatric orthopedic surgeons and zoo veterinarians to correct a severe knee deformity in a two-year-old lowland gorilla (Gorilla gorilla) named Ndjia.


In Africa, this gorilla is protected but still faces dangers posed by poachers, Ebola, and habitat destruction, causing its numbers to decline so much that the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List categorizes it as critically endangered.


With Ndjia, her knee deformity gradually straightened after careful femoral growth plate surgery, a month in a body cast (a first for any gorilla), and a slow recovery. As the years passed, she became a viable breeding mate and a proud mama. This successful gorilla growth plate surgery brought me great delight and pride.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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