Continuing to pursue his creative aspirations, Chris Cooley recently opened his new art gallery in downtown Leesburg, Va., hoping to make it a cultural hub for artists and residents alike.
It’s Friday afternoon and Chris Cooley walks through the back entrance of 9 North King Street in Leesburg, Va. He makes his way past a storage room, housing blocks of clay, pottery, machinery and bags of trash, and steps into his new, renovated art gallery. It’s a big night – “First Friday” – and Cooley is preparing, and christening, his space for visitors, due to arrive in an hour.
These are the finishing touches – and there are more to come – for Saturday’s grand opening, in which Leesburg’s mayor, along with friends and more family members, will come and cut the ribbon on Cooley’s nearly two-year labor of love.
“Now it’s really just become a labor,” Cooley says, though he’s ready to start loving it again.
He and his fiancée, Madi DeBray, opened the gallery in December and have been slowly getting the place ready for viewing – cleaning, organizing and hanging objects – hoping to expand a cultural footprint in a town that has lost some of its fervor for the arts.
That was possible once Cooley decided to move into a larger building. His first gallery, right across the street, opened in 2010, while he was still playing tight end for the Redskins, as a way for him to store his pottery and toy with developing a business. But he got tired of paying the lease, and, two years ago, sprung to take advantage of the former bail bonds building across from the city courthouse.
With a bigger space and some serious renovations in store, the two, which would eventually become three with the birth of their daughter, Sloane, in 2014, began plans to make “The Cooley Gallery” more than just a place to see art. With a long back room that can double as an event space, they’ve coordinated with local artists to teach classes, have planned paint and wine nights (which Cooley wants to attend) and have even offered invitations to local improv comedy troupes.
“We’re trying to bring it in. Nobody ever does anything like this,” said DeBray, who is in charge of scheduling classes, finding instructors and “keep[ing] Chris in line.” “When it was just the gallery, people were like do you have classes? We just didn’t have the man power.”
Cooley has made up the majority of it. His first order of business involved some demolition with the help of a construction worker. They tore down dry walls in order to expose the building’s original brick, which dates back to 1792. The rest of the redesign turned Cooley into a makeshift contractor. His responsibilities included laying down new flooring, re-using the upstairs wooden beams and building a bathroom for two weeks.
“The last six months has been only me,” he says. “I had to tear down partition walls and tear down the old electrical and a drop ceiling and then another level ceiling above it. I’m getting damn good at spackling ceilings.”
“I think at one point he was Karate-kicking the walls,” DeBray said. “I knew he was going to be pretty hands-on with it.”
Art Was Always Embraced
That’s a fitting way to describe the artwork that Cooley, a ceramist, does on a daily basis, a hobby that’s become a passion that’s become somewhat of a vocation during his post-football career. But art has always been a part of his life.
“It was always something that I liked to do,” Cooley says. “One of the first things I remember doing was my mom got me a woodcarving set. I loved that thing, man. It’s hilarious because I have big pieces of wood hanging in my grandma’s house that I did. My family on my dad’s side is all pretty artistic so it was always embraced.”
He continued art into high school in Logan, Utah, where he took AP Art classes, mostly drawing and painting in what he called a “laid back environment.” He liked it so much he figured he would pursue an art major at Utah State, where he had the difficult task of balancing three-hour painting classes with the demands of afternoon football practice. He aimed to be a coach and teach high school art once he graduated, but his skills on the field soon diverted those plans.
Cooley can safely say he was the only art major on his team, but never felt much alienation from his teammates for it. (“I don’t even know if anybody even paid that much attention to me, if I even remember,” he says). He had to finish his projects at night once practice ended, but that’s where his passion really blossomed.
“That’s when I started getting into thinking about art – not just copying and pasting, trying to re-do something,” Cooley says. “I had a couple of art history classes that I loved. It was great.”
Part of that engagement came from critiquing his classmates, something Cooley struggled with at first. He drew a lot of football fields but “nobody could critique a football drawing,” so he expanded his portfolio and learned more about what he was looking at. Similar to studying football film, which Cooley analyzes today for the Redskins’ “Coach’s Show” on Mondays, he’s become much more confident wearing his critical hat.
“I’m actually really good at critiquing work now,” he says, “seeing work, critiquing it and understanding it. I’ve actually got really good at it. I’ve spent a lot of time reading and researching art and I see a million things that we decide on to go in the gallery.”
His introduction to pottery came a few years into the NFL and he immediately connected with the medium. He always had good hands as a receiver, so it made sense that he’d try to get even more use from them. His dad gave him an old, General Electric wheel and Cooley began spinning pots. But something was wrong.
A few years later his dad wanted to use the wheel and noticed an issue in the way Cooley was working it.
“There’s a switch and the wheel can spin either way, and my dad’s like ‘you’re wheel’s spinning the backwards way,’” Cooley says with a laugh. “So I turned it around and I immediately started making what I thought were good pots. I still think I’m making good pots and I’m probably not.”
From there his interest grew. Cooley took YouTube classes and read books. He bought a big kiln and began firing his pots. Soon, he had 500 in his basement and knew it was time to export them to another building for display.
To give you an example of Cooley’s enthusiasm for this new trade you have to go back to Montana.
Cooley and Madi were on vacation in Wyoming a few years ago when he heard that Matt Long, a well-known potter in the art world, was staying nearby in Montana. Cooley couldn’t resist driving to meet him. When they got to the town Red Lodge, where Long was supposed to be, they were told he had just left for Helena.
“I made Madi drive to Helena with me the next day,” Cooley says. “So we drove three hours the next day to Helena.”
Cooley is not one to lead with his resume. He doesn’t like telling people he meets that he’s a former Redskins tight end and current radio broadcaster for the team. But upon meeting Long, it just slipped out.
“I went ‘H-H-Hi, my name’s Chris Cooley, I p-play football for the Washington Redskins,’” he says. “It was cool to meet him.”
Later that year, as a Christmas present, DeBray paid for Long to travel to Virginia to spend three days in Cooley’s studio with him. They became good friends and Cooley has continued to stay in touch with him, along with other local potters, opening up a world he wished he knew existed as he first began fiddling around with clay. He’s now a regular at NCECA, an annual ceramics conference, networking with other potters and learning more techniques for himself.
“What’s funny is that everyone says, ‘It’s so crazy that you’re into art and you played football,’” Cooley says. “All of my pottery friends could hang out with all of my football friends. It’s not a different world. I make friends with cool people, I don’t care what they do. But if I hang out with people that make pots, it’s not like this creative, weird, artsy environment. It’s the exact same environment if I were in [Redskins President] Bruce Allen’s office having a beer.”
The only difficult transition Cooley has had to make from paid athlete to paid potter has been his mentality, or more specifically, how he deals with criticism.
As a football player, negative columns and angry fans, not that there were many, never bothered Cooley. His career 429 receptions, 4,711 yards and 33 touchdowns could speak for themselves, objective statistics that Cooley could rest on, or use as motivation, in times of anxiety during the season.
But art doesn’t have algorithms with which to judge.
“I’m really subconscious about my stuff and the stuff that I make,” Cooley says. “And some stuff I know is good. But I never entered the AP art [test], I haven’t really submitted to any contest, [or] submitted the gallery to anything, kind of because I don’t want to be told it sucks. But when I played football I never cared. I was never subconscious about how I played. If someone said you suck at football, none of that ever mattered at all to me. It would really bother me if someone were like, ‘You’re a [crappy] potter.’
“Art is way more subjective. Football is pretty easy to know, to judge yourself,” he adds. “As far as art goes, everyone likes something different.”
'The Perfect Thing'
Maybe that’s why there’s such a diversity of art in Cooley’s gallery. Upstairs holds pottery and some pastel portraits. Downstairs features oils, acrylics, water colors, more pottery and some glass blowings.
Soon, visitors begin to enter through the front door, including Redskins offensive coordinator Sean McVay, who immediately greets Cooley, DeBray and Sloane. Cooley takes him back into the workshop and shows him some of Long’s work, describing, for about the third time in an hour, how Long is able to get a certain design on the outside of the mug he’s holding. If you believe it’s difficult to convince a football coach about the wonder found in a ceramic jar, Cooley will debunk that myth pretty easily.
Later, Redskins head coach Jay Gruden and general manager Scot McCloughan walk in with their wives and a similar interaction takes place. Cooley then ushers them around, leading them upstairs and pontificating how in the world someone with no experience in renovating buildings just tore apart one and turned it into this.
More people filter in. Classes have begun the day before – local artist Amy Manson will play a prominent role for some – and DeBray is on the lookout for more people to sign up. She just posted the spring schedule on their website and already has 10 instructors, and another 20 waiting, ready to start teaching.
Cooley’s involvement with art is something DeBray is used to.
“Pretty soon after [dating], he actually gave my family coffee mugs and he was all pumped about it. I figured it out pretty quickly,” she says.
But her own involvement in the art world is still progressing as she splits time raising Sloane. Her interest only figures to grow, just like her daughter, as the gallery does, something they’re confident will happen.
“It’s great,” she says. “We always wanted something that Sloane could be involved with and being here and hanging out, so this was the perfect thing.”