GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

December 8, 2009

Blogger with city, Times ties earns $30k grant

By Richard Gaines

With funding derived from the work of Andy Warhol and directed by his will, a grant writers' foundation has made a major award to Greg Cook, a journalist who began his work in and around Gloucester and the Daily Times and remains hooked by the city.

 The award is for Cook's Internet arts newspaper, The New England Journal of Aesthetic Research. The 2009 awards, totalling $710,000 to 26 writers, by The Creative Capital/Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant Program were announced last week. Cook's award was $30,000.

"It's more than a Pulitzer, but less than a MacArthur," he said, referring to prizes for journalism and genius, in a telephone interview from his home office in Malden.

He is the only active blogger to win an award this year from the Warhol Foundation and Creative Capital.

At its core, the journal that earned Cook the reward is an enterprise whose spotlight is aimed eccentrically at the highlights, lowlights, interesting experiments and shenanigans of the arts world of New England. Surrounding the hard stuff is some sophisticated and very funny fluff.

At his core, Cook is a reporter; he describes his work as homage to the honorable legacy of the "press," an archaic term from which today's media has emerged.

He cites his newspaper training, first as a copyboy at the Salem News, then as a reporter at the Daily News of Newburyport and the Gloucester Daily Times for providing him the speed writing skill to meet deadlines.

Cook notes that he puts out "a few hundred words a day" from his survey of arts' papers and materials and original reporting; he often adds material in the middle of the day as stories change.

To Cook, journalism still is an honorable calling.

On the other hand, the creator of the site with the self-mockingly pretentious, yet keenly descriptive name — The New England Journal of Aesthetic Research — is pictured on the "about" page of his gregcookland Web site as a demented imitation of Boris Karloff's mummy from the 1932 movie classic.

This side of Cook, goofy and self-deprecating — he admits to being immature — coexists with an artist's sensitivity to and fury at life's crimes that his work identifies, illuminates, confronts and obtusely attacks.

Beneath the photo of the badly mummified Cook, he describes himself as part of the new wave of "underground" cartoonists pushing the boundaries of contemporary comic books by experimenting with styles and subject matter that go beyond traditional newspaper gag strips and superhero pamphlets. His subjects range from history to comedy to fictional dramas about day-to-day life.

From that lunatic-serious page, the Web traveler can open up Cook's unpretentious strips on Guantanamo and the Iraq War stories of his neighbors in Dorchester, before he and his wife relocated to Malden.

In the Guantanamo strip, he was illustrating documents about war prisoner interrogations that were leveraged out of the FBI by the American Civil Liberties Union using the Freedom of Information Act.

"Running your own publication like this," said Cook, "you pursue what you think is exciting."

Among Cook's favorite stories since creating the NEJAR in 2006 is the revelation on Jan. 29 that head of the Brandeis University Board of Trustees is "a professional liquidator, who came by that career after running the Zayre discount retail chain into the ground." The context was the announcement two days earlier that Brandeis' trustees had decided to liquidate the irreplaceable collection in the Rose Art Museum to cover losses.

A week ago, Cook published a follow-up — that "Brandeis University is looking for a 'curator and arts coordinator' not to restore the decimated staff at its Rose Art Museum, but for the Waltham school's Women's Studies Research Center founded and run by Brandeis President Jehuda Reinharz's wife Shula."

Then there are ruminations. For example, on "yokelism," which Cook described as a "series of essays arguing for a proud provincialism in New England, including more support for locally made art, and tough love."

The serious stuff rubs shoulders always with the light. Along the edges of the journal's pages are invitations, via one, the reader can learn more about "our founder and his invisible museum," which contains a visible "pocket guide to highlights about the Invisible Museum," edited by (the non-existent) Gregory Cook III. The guide was written in Gloucester and Dorchester, 2007, according to the title page.

Cook, 36, left the Gloucester Daily Times in 2004 to pursue his goal — to write about arts, but admits he remains "in Gloucester's thrall." He settled here in 1995 after coming East in romantic pursuit of Kari Percival, whom Cook met in arts school in Chicago; they are now married.

"I wasn't planning to be in newspapers," he said, but found slivers of work at papers in and around Gloucester. At the Salem News, Cook "typed up briefs and school lunches, while doing a little writing and illustrating."

He lived here from 1995 through 2006, and maintains a slew of friendships that bring him back for daylong, bouncing-around visits.

He also maintains an active photo-journalistic study of the city focused on St. Peter's Fiesta, which he has been studying for more than a decade.

"I'm hoping to do a book about Fiesta," he said.

Cook's newest subject of interest is parades. He said he sees them as reflections of the host cultures — whether the Boston Caribbean Carnival Parade, or the South Boston St. Patrick Parade, the Plimouth Plantation Thanksgiving Day Parade, or the St. Peter's Fiesta Parade.

Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or via e-mail at rgaines@gloucestertimes.com.