Dean De Cocker’s Love of Planes, History Shines in One-Man Art Space Show
March 15, 2024

Propellors and airplane wings come to mind when one enters Stanislaus State’s Art Space in downtown Turlock. 

Professor of Art Dean De Cocker, an abstract sculptor, blends his love of that shape with history and compelling colors in his exhibition, “The Tide Begins to Turn,” which runs through March 23. 

The gallery director, who arranges shows for Art Space and the University Art Gallery, is showing his own work created during his sabbatical last fall. 

Using that time to make art is what faculty do, De Cocker said. They’re artists. They’re constantly creating. Three of his colleagues will have sabbatical exhibitions at Art Space during the upcoming 2024-25 academic year. 

Shows for the galleries are not determined by De Cocker alone. He and two other Department of Art faculty members plan each year’s exhibitions. 

“We don’t have a huge budget,” De Cocker said. “We want to be diverse and to represent everything.” 

Additionally, the team strives for every exhibition to have a teaching component. 

History informs his current show as evidenced by his collection of World War II books or even a brief conversation with him. His exhibitions are named for Pacific battles, even if the work is not directly related. 

“The pieces come from looking at propellors,” said De Cocker, who joined Stan State in 2003. “If you look at a three-prong propellor, that’s the shape. As I was drawing, it became more abstract.” 

Some of the pieces – made of wood, nylon or plexiglass, then sanded and painted in memory-evoking colors – are bundled together and mounted on sculpture stools the artist made. 

“The pieces come from looking at propellors. If you look at a three-prong propellor, that’s the shape. As I was drawing, it became more abstract.” 

- Dean De Cocker, Professor of Art and University Gallery Director

They are complemented by unique wall hangings: designs of black and white stripes with splashes of color, designed on his iPad and printed onto plexiglass; small drawings; a wing-shaped balsa piece he created long ago and framed for this exhibit; a model World War II airplane and a large installation featuring matching yellow shapes under a black canopy of thin steel rods. 

The yellow figures could represent ships alongside one another at Pearl Harbor before Dec. 7, 1941. That day lives in infamy for De Cocker, who visited the historical site during his first sabbatical for an anniversary commemoration. 

Much of De Cocker’s work is influenced by his fascination with the Pacific Theater of World War II, where his late father, Robert, served in the Seabees. 

“I don’t know if it was the movies I watched with my dad on Saturdays or what,” De Cocker said. His father, an elementary school principal, and his mother, a kindergarten teacher who took him to museums and enrolled him in art programs near their Rosemead home throughout his childhood, embraced his decision to switch from becoming a kindergarten teacher to majoring in art when he was an undergraduate student at Cal Poly Pomona. 

He attended Claremont Graduate University as a figurative abstract painter. Midway through his first semester, he grew bored of painting on flat surfaces and began experimenting until he became fixated on a shape that resembled an airplane wing. Three different advisors told him to explore what was behind that obsession. 

“I thought I was really on to something, but in the long run, it was just the beginning,” De Cocker said. 

He grabbed a camera and headed to Chino Airport for lunch where he noticed a World War II-era B-25 sitting on the field and walked out to investigate. He took photos, climbed inside the plane and imagined what it was like being a tail gunner. His reverie ended when airport officials asked him to exit the plane. 

They were not unkind and introduced him to those restoring the vintage aircraft. He spent weekends working on the plane with them.  

The guy who’d grown up building model planes and repairing bicycles was drawn to that plane used in the South Pacific. 

He interviewed his dad’s friends who had flown planes during the war. 

“I took a month off from school, and when I came back, I was researching pictures of pilots and doing figurative paintings of pilots on different kinds of materials, making that wing shape, stretching canvas over it,” De Cocker said. “I got the idea to make a plane.”  

Starting with a balsa wood kit, he found parts and pieces and painted it with aluminum-colored paint. The finished plane was 8 feet tall. 

“The Tide Begins to Turn” doesn’t include a full-sized plane, but the wing and propellor shapes De Cocker loves have been transformed into beautiful art. Long pieces of the shape are grouped like a bouquet. Some are painted in the bright green of a 1970s Dodge Charger, and others with stripes of white and the unmistakable gold of a Schwinn bicycle. Both colors are a nod to his other interests: cars and bicycles. 

A child of the ‘70s who grew up racing BMX bikes, De Cocker passed along that love to his only child, Henri, now 20. Together, they restore bikes and stock cars, spending hours strolling through swap meets for parts. 

“It’s a great thing, having had him later in life,” De Cocker said. “He keeps my inner child alive.” 

Although he didn’t become a kindergarten teacher, De Cocker clearly loves teaching. One of his favorite teaching assignments is Beginning Ceramics. 

“I’m with students having their very first experience with ceramics,” he said. “It lets them show their creativity. It lets art inspire them, and I see the light go on in them.” 

It’s similar to what he experiences when he begins something new, whether it’s finding a drawing app on his iPad or figuring out new ways to use his beloved wing shape to create a beautiful new piece, or an entire show.