Chris Cooper, right, stands with his wife Rachel and their sons Cy and Odin.

Lawrence artist Chris Cooper awarded 2013 Fellowship from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts.

The bare trees and empty landscapes have always been some of the most enjoyable aspects of the winter months for artist Chris Cooper.

“I love February,” the Lawrence resident said. “Emotionally, I don’t think it’s a very good month, it’s kind of cold and everything, but visually I’ve always enjoyed it.”

Cooper, 35, has always had a passion for art, and this year, earned special recognition for it when he was awarded a 2013 Fellowship from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts. The competitive award is given to in-state artists solely on independent peer panel assessment of artistic quality in partnership with the Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation.

The process was an anonymous competition where pieces are judged without the artist’s name attached. The $7,900 Cooper received is expected to fund materials to further his art career. Cooper hoped to use the money for supplies, which he said can be costly, and art publications and materials.

Cooper’s focus is painting in the style of realism, where his work depicts the juxtaposition of a real and imagined scene. He’s a member of the Creative Collective, formerly the Lawrenceville Main Street Artists’ Network, and displays his paintings across the tri-state area in a number of different shows and exhibitions.

Cooper grew up in Philadelphia with a mother who worked in insurance and a father who worked in finance. He grew up always with a passion for art, though he said it was obvious to everyone around him that his career would be in art before he realized it for certain himself.

His passion for art was something he later found out he had shared with his late grandfather. Cooper’s mother fondly remembered how her father, who died before Cooper had the chance to meet him, had been an underground artist who enjoyed building and creating abstract pieces in the basement. His work was influenced by the time period, which resulted in modern, abstract creations with different art materials.

“The idea of being an artist, at least…part-time, seemed pretty normal,” Cooper said.

Art history is where Cooper found some of his biggest influences. While studying abroad in Rome, Italy in 1999, Cooper admired the work of Caravaggio, one of two famous painters whose work drew Cooper’s interest.

Caravaggio was an Italian painter in the late 1590s and early 1600s, whose realistic depictions of humans used dramatic lighting and dark shadows. Cooper’s other influence, Peter Paul Rubens, was a German painter in the 1600s. Rubens’ work was more “fanciful and imaginative,” Cooper said, and focused on the use of movement and color.

From studying those artists, Cooper developed his own affinity for the use of shadow and light in his work. He went on to graduate in 2000 with a bachelor’s degree in fine arts from The Pennsylvania State University, and earned his master’s in fine arts in 2003 from The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

Cooper and his family moved to Lawrence two years ago when his wife, Rachel, accepted a position at The Hun School of Princeton in the math department. Now, Cooper stays home with their two sons: Odin, 6, and Cy, 3. Cooper’s free time in the mornings is dedicated to painting.

Since the move, Cooper has spent his time getting to know the local landscape—and with it, creating his art.

In the corner of Cooper’s living room, a canvas was propped up on an easel, a painting only partially completed. Cooper said the canvas would eventually depict a scene at the Delaware Raritan Canal along Province Line Road, where the land often resembles a swamp when the canal floods over.

Many of his pieces are inspired by his travels, and several display landscapes Cooper often visits and where he’s found a special connection or emotional appeal.

He winds up familiarizing himself with landscapes because of his love for wandering, Cooper said. He often walks or bikes through a number of places, many times intrigued by the woods, where he can identify the time of year based on the vegetation there.

After spending time at the Princeton Battlefield site with Cy earlier this year, Cooper painted a self portrait of himself on a similar field.

In many of his pieces, Cooper tries to use his art as a way to reflect the things he spends time contemplating.

“[I] spend a lot of time thinking about things, art, kids, family,” Cooper said. “It just seems to come natural to try to make a painting out of those thoughts.

“Parenting has been one of my bigger concerns, but I haven’t found a good way of discussing it without including my kids.”

He often gravitates toward painting self-portraits, putting himself in unusual, thought-provoking situations.

Cooper also enjoys the opportunity to push himself technically, he said. In the cold winter season, scenes of bare trees and intertwined leafless branches are one challenge he said takes a certain discipline and skill to perfect the detail.

Cooper’s artwork has most recently been on display at the AOY Art Center in Yardley, Connecticut Academy of Fine Arts, and Widener University Gallery.

For more information or to view some of his paintings, go online to ccooper.org.