Creativity Is a Sleeping and Cunning Beast That Seems to Come and Go as It Pleases: The Jeffery Cotton papers

Photograph from Jeffery Cotton’s profile as a former MacDowell fellow, 1991.

Jeffery Cotton (1957-2013) was an accomplished artist who kept passionate journals documenting his growth as a musician and as a person. He kept journals from a young age with the earliest journal in the collection written in 1975, when he was 18. Cotton diligently wrote about all details of his life and wrote in the most beautiful and legible cursive. As an archivist working on a collection with the bulk of materials handwritten, legibility accompanied by dates is a gift. He wrote about coming of age and into himself as a gay man. The journals hold his coming out story and the ups and downs of his various loves. He wrote in a way that was explanatory and gracious, knowing or maybe hoping that one day, someone might also find value in his inner thoughts.

In exploring Cotton’s journals, I had a sense of his hopes and dreams. He admitted he was prone to infatuations that thrived mostly in his journal entries, “How much I would love to just be able to hug someone – to be with them, to love them. I fantasize constantly,” (August 21, 1976). The intimacy of Cotton’s journals made processing my first hybrid collection exciting and rewarding. It was special to read about the artist’s personal life, artistic decisions, and listen to their creations.

The Jeffery Cotton papers is a hybrid-collection composed of personal journals, sheet music, handwritten notes, and recordings on CDs and audiocassettes. Throughout my internship, I followed the Jeffery Cotton papers from survey to finding aid, including accessioning the born-digital materials. I created logical copies of audio files from 14 optical discs from 1990-2004, that are available for researchers to listen to in the reading room. Cotton was a classical and experimental composer often writing music for a full orchestra. 

Arizona Friends of Chamber Music. JEFFERY COTTON
Performed in 3 movements: Meditation, Rhapsody, and Bacchanal.Premiered by Joseph Lin, violin and Svetoslav Stoyanov, percussion, at the 2005 Tucson Winter Chamber Music Festival.

Cotton’s journals dive into the evolution of his process as a musician. He wrote about how changes to his lifestyle, such as running multiple times a week, shifted how he wrote for woodwinds. He mused about his artistic momentum, “Creativity is a sleeping and cunning beast that seems to come and go as it pleases,” (May 8, 1977).  Cotton was a prolific writer, especially towards the end of his life. He also wrote poetry that was scattered throughout his journals accompanied by doodles in margins.  

On Jeffery Cotton’s artist website, which we captured via Archive-It, he shared some of his important essays. He wrote about connecting with his audience and what inspired him to continue to create even when the world felt unstable around him. This excerpt is from his essay Remaining Disarmed which he wrote for the MacDowell Colony quarterly newsletter post 9/11. 

People have never wanted to connect to an artwork. They want to connect to the artist, and the artwork is merely the means to that end. I do not need war and terror to inspire me, thank you, but as galvanizing moments go, this is one I would like to hang on to. My goal is to remain disarmed and turn to my gut more often. I can imagine a new aesthetic of style (of whatever kind) and substance, where the creative act is a joyous imperative and its own reward. Our audiences, seeing that we’ve reestablished eye contact with them, will trust us once again, and respond with gratitude.

Remaining Disarmed, Jeffery Cotton

This collection was to process and I hope to work with more collections like this one in the future. 

The finding aid for Jeffery Cotton papers can be accessed here:

Please visit for information on accessing the collection.

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