In April 2014 in Westtown, New York, metalsmith Steven Cooper’s home and studio disintegrated into ashes before his eyes during a seven-alarm fire.
Cooper and his wife, Karen, escaped with only the clothes on their back. That night, they watched helplessly as firefighters fought flames coming from the farmhouse that the couple had restored together. Soon after the fire, Karen died, having endured a long battle with cancer.
Now, Cooper has remade a home and studio in Lawrence.
In his old studio in Westtown, Cooper had created large flower lawn ornaments for studios and garden centers across the country. Before the fire, he said that he employed five people to assist in creating the large designs.
It was Karen who first encouraged him to design lawn art.
“I designed a line of botanical jewelry,” he said. “My first wife one day asked me if I could make one larger. I had steel in my studio. With a plasma cutter, I freehand cut out petals, formed them, and welded it altogether. I originally made it all for myself. People pushed me to sell them. I sold them wholesale to galleries across America. Until 2014, I had five full time employees. It was very busy.”
He said everything was handcrafted. He has never used a mold for any of his creations, large or small. After the fire, his passion for the lawn sculptures dwindled.
“I was a robot, not creating anything new,” Cooper said. “I imploded the entire business and basically stopped working. I had to find myself. I decided to make some changes. I did the large work for a while, because I had commitments to galleries and garden centers.”
A large phoenix, the mythological Greek bird that bursts into flames and is reborn from the ashes, now towers proudly over the farm in New York, where the artist’s former life vanished so quickly. Much the mythical creature, Cooper also found a way to reclaim art and love.
“Finally I designed a piece,” he said. “It was a 9-foot tall phoenix, rising out of a bog with cattails and water lilies on the bottom of it. That piece still lives on one of the ridges of that property. Once I created that piece, I could start designing again.
“It took time. Eventually I saw the light at the end of the tunnel. You can wallow in self-piety or go back to living. It was really because when Karen knew things were not going to get better, she kept saying to me, when I’m gone, you have to live and remarry and keep moving forward.”
Cooper heeded Karen’s advice, and returned to his calling and found love a second time. A new marriage brought him to the Princeton area, where he resides with his wife, Simone, a 13-year-old stepdaughter, two cats and a rambunctious new puppy. He has opened up a studio in Lawrenceville where his emphasis is now on handcrafting unique jewelry and Judaica.
“I grew up in Essex County, New Jersey, so moving back to New Jersey, was in a way, like coming home again,” Cooper said.
Cooper became interested in metal work in junior high school after taking a class, and was immediately enamored. Afterwards, he said that he took every metal class that was available at his school, and when it was time to enroll in college, he knew that he wanted to study to become a metalsmith or jeweler.
Cooper earned a degree from the Rochester Institute of Technology’s School for American Craftsmen, and later an advanced degree from the Fashion Institute of Technology in jewelry design. He said to become a metalsmith and jeweler, one must dedicate a lot of time to sitting on a bench learning the craft.
He left New Jersey at the age of 24 when he moved to Westtown upon marrying his first wife, and together they transformed a barn from 1820 into a home. They resided in the farmhouse for 15 years before the fire took everything.
Cooper said that he enjoys living in this area of New Jersey. Before the move, he lived in farm country, and shopping for groceries required a 25-minute drive. He said that he is glad to be closer to retail, and that he likes that there are a lot of people around when he walks the dog.
Cooper has returned to working with silver and now primarily creates ornate jewelry and Judaica. In 2011, he was the recipient of the Niche Award for his Copper Flower Hanukkah Menorah.
“I’ve always been doing the jewelry,” he said. “Judaica was something that I did for myself for many years. I’ve had people ask me for work, so I started producing more and more. They are one-of-a-kind pieces. I will reproduce them. Each is handmade, so it turns out slightly different. All of my work is hand fabricated. I don’t use any molds, even the large garden sculptures were hand-formed.”
His popular wedding mezuzahs are on display at The Jewish Museum’s Celebration Shop in New York City. Other ornate and unique handcrafted Judaica pieces available for collectors include Yahrzeit candle holders, Shabbat candle holders, yads, tallis clips, kiddush cups, Hanukkah menorahs, seder plates and mezuzahs. Also available is sterling silver Chai, Star of David and Hebrew name necklaces.
Cooper continues to design sterling silver necklaces and earrings with a range of botanical designs. New to his line is hair accessories inspired by his wife’s long hair.
“I saw Simone had a need, and I wanted to give her beautiful, lasting pieces for her hair,” said Cooper.
“There are days when I look back and think, I lost everything. Somehow I met Simone, my present wife. She gave me more hope. There are good things still out there. That’s how I look it. I thank God for what I have and move forward,” Cooper said.
Cooper’s work is showcased in galleries across the country and available online at his website, sdcoopermetalsmith.com.