“For many years my work was very body related – thinking somewhat abstractly about what it felt like to be a woman and to negotiate the world.”
This week we’d love to present Nancy Cohen. Nancy Cohen has been living in Jersey City, NJ for 25 years and making abstract sculpture, site-specific installation and work on paper in mixed materials referencing the figure, our fragile environment.
We adore her artwork so much! We can’t wait to introduce Nancy Cohen and her artwork!
Tell us about yourself.
I am 54. I make sculpture, drawings and installations – right now I am making a piece that combines all three. I was raised in Queens, NY and the suburbs of NYC. I have lived in upstate NY, Montana, Israel and China but for the past 25 years have been based in Jersey City, NJ and have had a fairly steady life – married 30 years, teaching most of that time and with a 20 year old son. My life is focused on my studio, teaching and relationships with family and friends.
I have been making things for as long as I can remember and serious about studying and looking at art since high school. My mother and grandmother were always making things – knitting, quilting, painting and were both serious gardeners so using my hands and bringing visual things to fruition was an obvious way to spend time but choosing to study art in college and make it my life’s work was something I did need to think about. That said, the shift from ‘making things’ to considering myself an artist was a big one and took time.
I started out in ceramics and spent my senior year in high school assisting a ceramic artist. Seeing her negotiate studio time, family responsibilities and finances made the decision to become an artist a fairly realistic one – I saw early on what pieces went into the mix, that they were complicated but that I didn’t need to choose one life over another and it could all be integrated.
Where does most of your inspiration come from?
My inspiration is varied. Often it comes from the work I made before – seeing the unrealized possibilities in one piece pushed to the next. An overarching and continuing theme has been juxtaposing the dualities of fragility and strength. That has been evident over varying bodies of work and in many materials.
For many years my work was very body related – thinking somewhat abstractly about what it felt like to be a woman and to negotiate the world. It moved from being more formally related to bodily organs and issues of sexuality to thoughts of how people negotiate their outside physical world.
My grandparents lived on the ocean until I was 8 and I spent much of my summers there. I think that time on the beach – the sand, the water, the sounds — were an inspiration that I didn’t realize until many years later. In recent years I have been making work directly related to water, both my personal experience of it and reflecting on the environmental issues our waterways now confront. I have done two large scale installations based on the Mullica River in the Pine Barrens of NJ and another series of pieces based on the Hudson River. Now I am working on an installation in direct response to a part of the Hackensack River very close to my home. I go back and forth between drawing, sculpture and installation. Ideas and approaches to materials reverberate with each other.
Do you have a favorite piece?
No, but I have made some work that has been transformative for me. From my vantage point now I would point to four projects from over the years that stand out in a variety of ways.
The first was “A Community of Shelter” from 1992. It was a temporary outdoor piece made for a park in lower Manhattan in response to the increasing numbers of homeless people sleeping in NYC parks. I would walk by this park and it was a very strange place – kind of forlorn, isolated trees on unattended to grass with solitary but frequent cardboard boxes, often with a person sleeping in them and at times tied to trees to keep them from blowing away. I thought about the lack of shelter the city was providing, the birds in the park creating their own nests and how the park was providing no inviting point of entry to the neighborhood. In response, I created 6 human sized shelter forms (the size that a person might be without a place to enter) five of which were based on shelters in nature (shells, pods, etc.) and the sixth which was based on the proportion of a cardboard shelter. Each sculptural form had a specific relationship to a tree in the park and most were situated with the idea that they might draw passers by in from the sidewalk.
I worked about a year on the forms – they were the largest and most technically challenging work I had done. I needed permission from the parks department and the local community board to install the work. I needed insurance in case anyone got hurt. I was taking on non-studio issues I hadn’t encountered before and had no idea what would happen once the work got to the park. I was worried about vandalism and the work being stolen. “A Community of Shelter” was in the park for 6 months and worked really well – no graffiti (although there were various kinds of human interactions with the work: people hung earrings from one, stored clothing in another and even created an alter with a sacrificed pigeon in front of another, kids played on them and people napped on them) and it did what I hoped – brought people into the center of the park, and raised conversations about the homeless as well.
In 1998 I made “Chariot”, directly inspired by the Chariot sculptures of both Giacometti and David Smith. It launched a new and important direction in my work. It was the first in a series that I think of as conveyances for the body – they are human-scaled sculptures, that the viewer can imagine in some way interacting with, but in the end they don’t supply the support they are otherwise speaking about. The implied but absent figure is constant as is the inherent dysfunction of the work. “Chariot” led to “Wheel Chair”, “Bed”, “Gurney” and “Itinerant Couple” (movable chaise lounges for the homeless). I am still involved with this and hope to have an exhibition of the ongoing series in the next few years.
The next significant project for me was in 2006 when I collaborated with Shirley Tilghman, molecular biologist and president of Princeton University on “Sensation: Interior View” as part of a series of collaborations between scientists, artists and landscape architects for Quark Park in Princeton, NJ. Our piece was based on research about how mice perceive smell and our idea was to create an environment that evoked a scientific occurrence rather than illustrating one (as an exhibit in a science museum might do). In the end our collaboration grew to include Jim Sturm, Professor of electrical engineering, a group of his graduate students and A.R. Wiley, a garden designer.
The sculpture incorporated electroluminescent wires designed to appear to move through the piece as neurons might move when sending a message back to the brain. The area was landscaped with fragrant herbs underfoot and fragrant flowers that opened at dusk as the electroluminescent lights first began to be evident. It was a visually, conceptual and sensual environment.
It was a thrilling collaboration where all of us were stretched in new ways. I was stimulated by attempting to understand and integrate a scientific concept into visual form, to work with technology and a wider range of people than I was accustomed and to communicate on a variety of levels – both to a core group of people with whom I had regular contact and to a larger community that would be experiencing my work without me.
The following year, I was invited by the Noyes Museum of Art to make a site specific piece for their galleries. “Estuary: Means & Modes” (2007) followed a long study of the ecosystem and waterways of the Pine Barrens of southern NJ, where the museum is located. With the help and company of Dorrie Papademetriou, the curator of the museum we met with marine biologists, the head of Forsyth national wildlife refuge and scientists from the local EPA who were involved in oyster re-population projects. As part of the investigation we took a boat ride in the marshes, harvested sea grasses that I made into paper and collected water samples examining color changes from the start of the Mullica River until it reached the Atlantic Ocean.
My resulting project ran 30 feet on the wall and another 30 on the floor. It was made out of handmade paper with flecks of local grasses, it followed the path of satellite photographs of the river and was colored to reflect the rivers changing palette from tea colored to rich blue.
My work grows when I take leaps and chances and that happened here – a larger scale, a broader color palette and taking head on a subject (water) that had been in my work for years but never addressed directly before. I was able to translate the ideas of fragility and strength (in my work since the beginning but always connected directly to the body) to an environment or ecosystem – where the human is a part but not the major player.
What do you want to say through your work?
It changes with each piece but there is always an overriding idea that I hope the work speaks about conceptually, emotionally and through the specific use of materials.
What is your favorite material?
My materials are constantly in flux though in my current installation (in progress) I am working primarily with handmade paper and glass. I am always looking for new materials to challenge me and to open up my vocabulary. A friend and studio neighbor describes my studio process as being somewhat like a mad scientist – because I am always mixing something new up and trying to see how I can get materials to speak.
What is the most difficult part of being a female artist?
For me the challenge, especially when I was younger, was figuring out how to juggle everything. This is hard for all artists, especially young ones but in a particular way for women artists who also want to have children. My twenties were about figuring out how to support myself as an artist, how to maintain my studio and how to begin to get my work seen. The addition of a child in my 30’s made it much more difficult as all the previous issues remain relevant as well. I have been fortunate to have supportive people around me, especially my husband and parents. My husband is a very involved dad and so child raising and household work was shared and my mom pitched in for years, in the studio when I had a deadline and helping with our son when we were both working.
I have two older women artists friends (the one I assisted when I was in high school and another who was my teacher at Skowhegan), who had children, a job and a very active studio practice that were very much role models for me when I wasn’t sure it was possible to keep it all going.
I have also had great help in the studio from younger artists assisting me when I have large projects and have felt in over my head. I think carefully about those relationships and make an effort to mentor them in ways that were either useful for me or that I might have wanted.
I think it is hard for all artists and women artists have had extra struggles and still do. I am also fortunate to have a large group of women artist friends to share all of this with and it has made a huge and positive difference for me.
Now in my 50’s I am heading into the issues more relevant to ‘older women artists” and know that there are more and unanticipated challenges ahead.
Did you ever feel like giving up? What’s the best advice you’ve been given at that time?
I never felt like giving up but I have certainly felt overwhelmed. As a young artist finding a job that was satisfying and stimulating was a huge thing. I waitressed and did secretarial work that were both very dispiriting for me. It was during a residency at McDowell that another woman artist helped me get my first teaching job and then taught me how to do it. It was a joy to find paid work that I loved and that felt useful. I have been teaching almost continually since then.
I have also had my share of disappointing career situations – no worse than anyone else I know but hard nonetheless: a gallery that closed owing me money, another that disappeared with my work, appointments for studio visits that were no shows, exhibitions planned that didn’t happen – these things happen all the time. For me being in the studio is centering and nourishing and keeps me grounded.
What advice do you have for aspiring artists?
Find a way to make money that you like and that you can keep doing as you get older. Have artist friends and be open with them. Establish your own community of artists. Expect to have to find your own opportunities – very few will come looking for you. Be open to new experiences. Be flexible. Go places. I have done many residencies over the years – they have all been good for my work and for professional contacts and artist friendships.
A few months ago, you had an installation, “Between Seeing and Knowing”, inspired by Thangka. Tell us about it.
I have a close friend, Anna Boothe, a glass artist who I met 15 years ago when she fabricated a piece for me. Although our personal work is very different we communicate well and had the sense that we could make something significant together. We were both interested in Tibetan Buddhist painting and thought that could be an exciting point of contact to launch a project. Because of her experience teaching glass Anna was able to apply for a special residency at the Studio of the Corning Museum of Glass where artists can collaborate. We applied together to make a piece in some way relevant to Thangka paintings and were fortunate to be selected.
The most exciting part of the residency was we would get to work in a broad range of glass processes and techniques – to get help when we needed it – to have full use of Corning’s extraordinary facilities and to work together day and night for that period of time.
The residency had a huge impact on both of us. We worked 6 months in advance of the residency on ideas and preparatory work (wax forms to cast in glass and clay forms to slump over, etc.) and after the residency we worked for a year finishing the forms and creating an installation in my studio. Anna and I pushed each other in directions neither of us would have gone on our own. For myself, I took on more narrative content, more recognizable imagery and way more color. For Anna her sense of finished form loosened up, as did her level of experimentation and her willingness to let forms connect in more open ended ways. It was an extraordinary collaboration for both of us – where almost every decision was shared and most elements were touched in one way or another by both of us.
We were fortunate to show the installation in the fall of 2013 at Accola Griefen Gallery in Chelsea and are looking for other venues for the future. It was my first experience working directly from an art historical source, my first experience collaborating that extensively with another visual artist and my longest ongoing collaboration. We had to be willing to let go of some ideas about what our work was and to let ones that might have otherwise been uncomfortable in. This caused us both to think deeply about who we are as artists, what our work means to us and what we think art should be. Anna and I hope to work together more in the future and have some proposals out for potential future work.
What is your dream project?
I don’t have that in mind. But I am very interested in continuing to collaborate with other scientists and those with expertise in other fields. I am also interested in making work for public spaces and in working more with landscape architects – on creating environments for artwork where the two are integrally linked.
What is up and coming for you, as projects?
In the studio I am working on a new installation, inspired by a very unusual site on the Hackensack River in Secaucus, NJ. I am trying to capture some of the emptiness and mystery of a very particular marshy landscape by incorporating drawing and sculpture in a way I haven’t done before. At the moment the piece doesn’t have a venue but I expect that will come in time.
Nancy Cohen has completed large-scale, site-specific projects for Thomas Paine Park in lower Manhattan; the Staten Island Botanical Garden at Snug Harbor; the Ross Woodward School in New Haven, Conneticut; the Noyes Museum of Art in Oceanville, New Jersey; and the Katonah Museum of Art in Katonah, New York. She has collaborated with scientists and poets, including Shirley Tilghman And Jim Strurm of Princeton University and performance poet Edwin Torres of New York City. Her work has been widely exhibited throughout the United States and is represented in important collections, such as the Montclair Museum, the Newark Public Library, the Weatherspoon Art Gallery, Yale University Art Gallery, and the Zimmerli Museum.
She does have several upcoming group exhibitions in the Spring of 2014.
1. Art Faculty exhibition at the Godwin-Ternbach Museum at Queens College (where she teaches). 2/13 – 3/29, 2014
2. A group exhibition”Jersey Women Artists Now: Contemporary Visions” in the George Segal Gallery at Montclair State College 3/6-4/19, 2014 and I will be speaking as part of a panel discussion on 4/2/14.
3. “Paper Cuts” 5/3 – 6/1/2014, a show of 5 artists working in handmade paper at Gaia Gallery (79 Hudson Avenue in the Vinegar Hill Section of Brooklyn).