by Mellissa Thomas
Imagine spending ten years of your life becoming something that never crossed your mind before – and then flourishing at that thing you never planned to become. Orlando architect James Cornetet, a prolific artist thanks to his polymath tendencies, took the lemons-into-lemonade proverb to an entirely new level. In fact, with four awards, three art exhibitions, and a book under his belt, Cornetet has rather achieved comedian Ron White’s remix of the adage: “When life gives you lemons, find someone whose life’s given them tequila, and have a party.”
Cincinnati native Cornetet, who moved to Orlando with his wife when Disney recruited her for an Orlando job, is an architect by trade, but an artist at heart. He has his hands in furniture design, sculpting, painting, photography, and writing. Although, when a man’s goal is to “not just create beauty, but critique society and expose social injustices, cultural biases and identify the controversial (and irony inherent in the) issues of our time,” then it stands to reason Cornetet would work tirelessly to disseminate truth in as many ways as he can manage. However, his subtle revolutionary efforts don’t end there: he is also an adjunct professor of architecture at both Valencia College and University of Central Florida’s School of Architecture in Orlando, having molded young minds at Valencia for five years and UCF for three.
He explained that he became an adjunct professor to give back, and finds it rewarding. “I have an internal desire to help other people trying to grow and mature in this world, and guide them in a non-parental way.” Because, he said, people tend to listen to strangers they like or trust when they impart information, whereas parents are “always trying to place their own bias on you.”
There’s a reason for his stark assessment: personal experience.
College, much less architecture, was nowhere on Cornetet’s radar after high school.
“I fell into that,” Cornetet confessed to OFM recently about his architectural career. “I was going to go to California to write screenplays and skip college, which upset my family, since I would’ve been the first grandchild to go to college.” His mother ultimately “forced” him to take architecture, which, despite his success, is still a minute thorn. To Cornetet, the post-high school crossroads is “one of the most important decisions and most important financial investments” of a person’s life. He doesn’t subscribe to the now fading notion that a traditional college education is the only way for someone to find a decent job. He prefers apprenticeship and mentor programs. “I’m the kind of guy, if I want to learn something, I’m going to pick it up and learn it, but you can’t do that with architecture. You have to have a Masters degree.”
His dissent aside, Cornetet co-founded Process Architecture, LLC, his Orlando architecture firm, with Wes Featherston in 2011.
Ten years, two degrees, a three-year internship, many exams and certifications, and $70,000 later, Cornetet is now a LEED Accredited and NCARB certified licensed designer, and holds two patents.
He gained international acclaim for his get your feet of my coffee table!, designed as a topless coffee table. Its innovative yet practical design won him the A’Design Award in 2011 and a one-year exhibition in the MOOD Museum of Design in Como, Italy, plus inclusion in many publications.
His work on Tampa’s $13 million Channelside Parking Garage extension earned the garage the AIA (American Institute of Architects) Tampa Award of Merit in 2009, and International Parking Institute’s 2011 Award of Merit as one of the best parking garages in the world.
In its short lifetime, Process Architecture has already made history as the only Florida firm to win both an AIA Florida and an AIA Orlando Award of Merit in 2012 for the firm’s simplistic yet groundbreaking LYNX Lite Stop prototype design for the Old 50 District. The cost-effective L-shaped bus shelter design not only offers interactive LED lighting that responds to traffic and bus movement, but also uses graffiti-averse material and helps the blind. “There’s no way for the blind to know they’re approaching a bus stop other than sheer memorization,” Cornetet revealed. Thanks to the prototype’s cruciform beams, the blind can know for certain they’ve reached a bus stop.
And there’s more where that came from on the firm’s website.
As an artist, Cornetet crisscrosses skill sets accordingly. For example, his architectural acumen influences his niche writing, mainly comprised of op-ed pieces against modern architecture’s avarice and its effects on society, including his first book Facadomy: A Critique on Capitalism and Its Assault on Mid-Century Modern Architecture, which earned him an honorable spot on the long list for the Sir Banister Fletcher Art Book Prize. He is also an architecture critic for the German publication Bauwelt, and AIA Florida’s florida/Caribbean Architect.
“I believe it’s become an elitist profession,” Cornetet said of architecture. “Ninety-nine percent of [American] buildings are built to generate profit.” He explained that his architecture and furniture designs follow the Ikea model – giving people more for less, and optimizing the design to prevent wasted material or space. For him, it’s not just about designing eye candy, but something that addresses a problem, and more importantly, something that serves as a decisive comment on current designs.
Cornetet’s sound understanding of framing, composition, and lighting from architecture helps his photography skills as well. He began with architectural photography, not really considering photography an art form until he attended Jai and SNAP art galleries a few years ago, which exposed him to fine art photography. He ventured into portrait photography after his daughter’s birth last year and “got hooked.”
He wields his Nikon D7000 and stalwart, decade-old Nikon D50 to take portraits, which, like his designs, make biting comments on Western society. His two recent projects, “Unconventional” and “Parramore Project” scream iconic.
Cornetet, who has carved out a niche for himself by shooting and publishing photos with no retouching, captures his subjects conceptually – every photo, or in some cases each collection of photos, tells a story. Even to the untrained eye, the photos’ rawness leaves an indelible impression; because Cornetet’s other separating factor is that he relies heavily on naturally lit spaces, manipulating the light on his subject in a way that moves the viewer.
His “Unconventional” series features four photo shoots: Unconventional Artist, Unconventional Urbanista, Unconventional Warrior, and Unconventional Beauty. He describes the project:
“The ‘Unconventional’ photography series examines unconventional feminine beauty, according to Western societal norms. Instead of fetishizing them and portraying them as an object of sexual desire, the women featured are empowered women…They do not rely on the male gaze (or on the burden of ‘having to be beautiful’) in order to exist.”
The most glaring shoot in the series is “Unconventional Beauty,” which features a body modification model with piercings in what some would consider “unconventional” places: one above the nose bridge (between her eyes), one on her right cheek just below the eye, and one in her upper lip.
He stated his greatest inspiration for the “Unconventional” project was his sisters and wife, who work in male-dominated careers, and his newborn daughter.
The “Parramore Project,” a more sobering series, chronicles the lives of Parramore denizens in downtown Orlando. Most of the candid photos capture the hope, love, heartbreak, and irony of the community’s existence while still giving capitalism and American society a proper haymaker. Though Parramore is a historic community with vibrant, loving people loyal to their neighborhood who want the same joy out of life as anyone anywhere else, it’s one of Orlando’s most pitied, with its crumbling rusty buildings and infamy pregnant with high crime and school dropout rates, and the downtown poor.
Which is precisely why Cornetet founded the Urban Art Museum.
Cornetet’s Urban Art Museum is right there in Parramore, tying right in with his cause. According to him, most public art is designated by the city or state concerned. “It’s public art without public input.” UAM engenders crowdsourced art proposals created by people in the community, and approved by the community. “[This] gives people the choice to fund a project or not, and connects the artist with the community once the project’s approved. It creates a sense of ownership within the community.” As a condition, the artist has to incorporate the donors’ names into the work in a unique way. The museum also includes poetry written by Parramore students, and has recently teamed up with New Image Youth Center.
A common resounding manifesto flourishes between Cornetet’s Process Architecture firm, the Urban Art Museum, and his fine art photography: find a need or problem, find a way to address it, and find the right people to materialize the thing that not only addresses it, but does so in an informative, charismatic way.
Group photo by Jacob Langston for the Orlando Sentinel.
All “Unconventional” photos by James Cornetet. Used with permission.
Architectural photos courtesy of Process Architecture, LLC.
9” architectural art photo courtesy of Urban Art Museum.
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About the Author:
Orlando Fashion Magazine Chief Editor Mellissa Thomas is a Jamaica-born writer. She’s a decorated U.S. Navy veteran with Entertainment Business Masters and Film Bachelors degrees from Full Sail University in Winter Park, FL.
She’s currently available for hire, writing content for websites, blogs, and marketing material. She also writes poetry, screenplays, and ghostwrites books.
She has published four books, all available on Amazon.com. Her most recent release, “Faded Diamonds”, is now available in paperback on all major online book retailers and digitally available on the Kindle, Nook, and iBooks.
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