Steve Cooley


There is an old idea that each person enters the world “called” and that reading your life backwards can reveal interests and impulses tied to that calling. Looking back on his life from his current perspective, visual artist, musician and web programmer Steve Cooley cites a Mom who was into sewing, a Dad who was into computers (His Dad got an Apple ][+, circa 1982), which kindled his interest in circuit boards, and a Grandpa who worked in a lumber yard as major influences on his development.

“I’ve been lucky to have had technology in my house for almost all of my life and many of my abstract sculptures show the influence of my Grandfather’s love and skill with wood,” says Steve.

And as far back as Steve can recall he was always interested in typefaces and the shapes of letters. He remembers that their family dictionary had a page at the start of each letter’s section that showed the letter and each major iteration in its evolution—from 5000 B.C. up to the current time. He studied those pages way before he consciously knew that his life path would take him into design. It did prompt him to explore calligraphy for a while and eventually purchase software that let him create his own fonts. He’s created 4 typefaces although they haven’t been updated in years and his interest in unique typography continues.

“I always liked the rules you have to follow to make each letter look like it’s related to the others in a typeface family,” said Steve.

After being released from high school and its rigid curriculum, Steve plunged into fine art and graphic design classes and picked only academic classes that interested him like philosophy, sociology, humanities, marketing and business law. In 1993 he left the college scene and got jobs doing pre-press film separations, print production, and web design.

“Being paid to learn was pretty sweet,” said Steve. “I’ve come to recognize that everyone learns new skills differently, and that my path was not a well beaten one, but it did work for me. Now that I’ve been in this professional trade for almost 15 years, I have also discovered that a love of learning is critical to staying up on technology.”

And the web design led into web programming which is what Steve does today to pay the bills.

His art emerges from all these influences and studies. He is always trying out new techniques to achieve harmony between color and composition. Sometimes he does a lot of compositional sketches and then picks one that he favors in order to create a larger version of it. Other times he just sketches directly onto a canvas and starts solving the problems from there.

“Recently I realized that I don’t buy materials to have materials. I buy them to make art, so that insight is freeing me up to really put the priority on a finished piece instead of conserving my supplies,” he shares.

His bent for music developed side by side with his artistic leanings. He traces its emergence to middle school. He chose to take a band class to get out of taking a language.

“The irony here is that as a web programmer, I have to learn new languages to accomplish different tasks for my job,” says Steve with a grin. “Basically all the things I tried to avoid in school, I ended up having to do for my job.”

In high school he joined the marching band and hanging out with musicians led him to enter the current music scene more deeply. Electronic music was starting to pick up steam as was the PC music scene related to Trackers. A Tracker was a program that would let you create patterns of music using samples and 4 to 32 or more tracks. This was way before Windows was available. Midi was out, but using regular computers to control midi was just beginning.

Steve and his best friend Jim created a lot of music using Trackers. Then after high school he was introduced to House music by Adam, another band classmate, when it was still emerging along with techno. He started going to clubs, after hour parties, and raves.

“The music was amazing because it was like nothing you ever heard on the radio,” he recalls.

When he moved to San Jose from Southern California he moved into a house with a group of talented guys. Their musical interests meshed with his own and steered him back to the music that was closer to his Tracker days. He improved his DJing skills which in turn helped him know how to construct songs for use by DJs.

“My friend Derek, one of the guys who used to live in that house of musicians, has a really innovative music label ( that releases songs from artists from around the world. I have a couple of music releases out on his label. And I’ve done some of the cover artwork and also help with some of the programming for his website.”

Derek and Steve are currently working on new digital art forms, focusing on a couple of specific technologies. Derek is focused on Pure Data for music and data transmission and on Steve’s side it’s Processing and Quartz Composer for programmatic graphics. The idea is that Derek will create a live stream of data and music from his various tools and transmit that real time data to Steve over the internet. He in turn will forward it on to different aspects of programs he writes to change different parameters of the visuals.

“Our goal here is to get into another space where we can do a live audio video performance similar to an event we organized last September. This new stuff is exciting because it’s really hard to get everything coordinated and working, and it takes 100% of our collective brain power to make something that’s audio and visual—with the visuals reacting to the midi and
audio data. When it’s up and running, I have no doubt it’s going to be mind bending!”

Steve has no end of projects that he has enthusiastically tackled including creating a content management system for the Heart of Chaos website. (Thank you Steve!). He also won Best of Show at the Heart of Chaos’ exhibit Urban Geography.

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