Guitarist Alex Cook is the sort of artist whose life moves with the tides of ideas and inspiration. Last week he graced Principia with music in the Pub, prayerful thoughts on creativity during a Quiet Time talk in Sylvester, and wisdom for artists of any kind. Although based in Boston, he tours with his paintbrush and guitar. Most recently, Cook has been writing what he calls “God songs” and performing at churches and house concerts on both coasts.
Cook’s first love was visual art, and when he was eight or ten years old he loved to draw and wanted to design shopping malls so that he could create “really awesome escalators.” While attending the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, he painted his first mural in Northampton, MA. The mural still stands today.
Cook began playing guitar and writing songs as a young teenager, and in the last couple of years songwriting has become the focus of his work. After making six albums of his own songs, he began writing “God songs” exclusively in 2008. He said, “[I]t all became much more compelling and important to me when I [had] songs that would actually really help people and really be inspiring.”
This new phase of Cook’s life began in the fall of 2007, when his prayers led him to spend the first four hours of every weekday “doing nothing but being creative.” He said that, being a painter, he assumed this would mean making new paintings, but on the first day what came out was a song. Over the next five months, Cook wrote twenty-five songs about God. He said he had never been able to write about God in an honest way so he just hadn’t done it, but it suddenly became very natural.
Cook said, “More and more, I don’t really draw hard line distinctions between [different forms of art] … I see huge connections between the idea I’m expressing in a particular mural and the idea I’m expressing in a song.” When asked if he has missed painting since beginning his recent focus on music, he said, “I don’t, because I’m with the ideas that I love. I’m happy to know that I’ll be painting again some day, but it all comes from the same place. I’m companioning with ideas.”
Asked why he paints murals, he answered, “It’s a silly but a simple and profound reason.” He had always feared showing paintings and being judged at galleries, where a very small percentage of the population sees the art that Cook feels is meant for everybody. He said, “It occurred to me that the way to completely circumvent that was to paint murals, because if I can contrive a way to get my painting up on a wall, then there’s nothing that can stand in the way of everybody seeing it.” He also said it felt like shooting himself in the foot to show in galleries where so few people would see his art.
When painting that first mural in Northampton, Cook was about to start with the roller on the wall when he was overcome by a paralyzing fear of displaying the creative process in public, which he had only ever done within what he called the “sanctity of a studio.” After praying for a few moments, he realized that it wasn’t about him, but rather about giving a gift, and the fear was replaced with excitement and ease. He said, “I learned so much from that mural about community, and that became the next ten years of my life, figuring out how art actually does feed communities.”
His website, www.stonebalancer.com, and the murals themselves are Cook’s only form of advertising, so he makes sure to put the web address on his murals. His murals come about through a mixture of asking the owners of walls he likes and being commissioned to paint a mural. He said that when he’s working under a commission, he talks with the commissioner about what the mural should look like, but when he is not getting paid, he demands complete freedom.
The first job Cook turned down was a commission to paint a mural of Disney characters at a gym. He said it just wasn’t his thing, and that it came down to where his priorities lay.
In 2004, Cook started a mural-painting program for teenagers called Art Builds Community, and a lot of his work consists of designing murals and then facilitating their execution with a group of people.
While painting a mural in Boston, Cook had set out a bucket for donations. At one point, a man walked by with a baker’s cart and offered him a pie because he didn’t have any money on him. Cook said, “[In] what other job do you get paid with lemon meringue pies?”
This past fall, Cook toured with The Blessing Tree, a trio of Christian Scientists based at Camp Bow-Isle in British Columbia. The new quartet met at a Christian Science summit in Victoria and then played thirty shows between Vancouver and San Diego, followed by twelve shows on the East Coast, beginning Cook’s current tour.
Junior Jodie Maurer, an art major and the president of Principia’s Christian Science Organization, asked Cook about how he keeps his thought receptive to making art in a given location. In his answer, he shared the concept of voice with a capital “V.” He said, “It’s not just the voice that keeps you safe and happy but the voice that says ‘this is what you are about, this is what your job is, this is what you need to do to play your part in saving other people’s lives.’ … The concept that such a Voice exists just nailed me right in the heart – and that it was talking to me! And of course, if it’s talking to me, that means it’s talking to everybody.”