A highly successful student at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Irma Howard Cook became a skilled portraitist who worked with oil, watercolor, and charcoal. Her delicate, nearly invisible brushwork enlivened her portraits, still lifes, and landscapes. 

Irma Virginia Howard was born in Ballston Spa, New York, and suffered a childhood illness that left her with degenerative hearing loss. As a result, her parents encouraged her to train as a seamstress, a skill that served her well later in life as a mother of three. Irma convinced her parents to let her attend the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where she received William Emlen Cresson Memorial Traveling Scholarships in 1922 and 1923, funding travel abroad and full tuition for two years. She also won the Charles Toppan Prize, awarded to advanced students. In all, she spent five years studying with Daniel Garber, Hugh Breckenridge, Joseph Pearson, Philip Leslie Hale, and George Bridgman. 

While a student at the Academy, Irma met fellow artist August Cook, with whom she formed a friendly rivalry and later married. The pair were a study in contrasts; Irma was friendly and extroverted, while August was severe and quiet—temperaments reflected in their art. August Cook greatly respected his wife's talent, hailing her “the finest artist he knew” and encouraged her to continue painting after they wed.

The Cooks moved to Spartanburg, South Carolina, after their marriage in 1924, where August Cook taught at Converse College (now Converse University) for forty-two years. Like many married women of her generation, Irma Cook prioritized motherhood and domesticity over artistic pursuits, painting portraits of her children, grandchildren, and friends. Her paintings and charcoal drawings capture the tender affection she had for her subjects. As was her husband, Irma was multitalented. Known as a knowledgeable collector and antiques expert, she also stenciled furniture, hand-decorated certificates of significant life events and occasions, and occasionally painted the family Christmas cards.

Irma Cook shared her passion for art with students in the Spartanburg community by teaching the same skills she had learned at the Academy from a studio in the basement of her Converse Heights home. In 1938 a group of Cook’s students formally requested that she teach a life class in painting and drawing during Converse College’s summer session. In 1957 Cook, along with Helen DuPré Moseley, Mary Ellen Suitt, Lois Cantrell, and Hazel Bobo, was a founding member of the Spartanburg Artists’ Guild, which still thrives today. The mission of the organization is to “cultivate, nurture, and grow the visual arts. … host juried shows. … support local artists by providing thousands of dollars in prize money.” The Cook's legacy continues at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where their children established an award honoring their parents and longtime instructor Daniel Garber which is given to a student for a “single drawing of a human figure, or figures, done from life and not executed in the classroom. The purpose of this award is to encourage the School’s emphasis on sound drawing and to perpetuate the memories of Irma H. Cook and August Cook, graduates.”