Nancy Cohen is an artist who resides in Jersey City, New Jersey, just across the river from Manhattan. I was struck by the organic and fluid nature of her work www.nancymcohen.com and had to find out what inspires her. Turns out, she’s inspired by the “fragility and poignancy” of life. What does that mean? Read on and find out.
MICHAEL: Hi Nancy, I love your work. It seems to be very organic and fluid. In fact, that seems to be your entire approach regardless of the genre ... sculpture, installation or painting. "Flow" and naturalism seem to be comprehensive on your part. Am I on the right track?
NANCY: Organic yes, fluid yes, "flow" yes - both in my process and in the ideas driving the work. Naturalism not so much so - or at least not in isolation.
MICHAEL: Do you get an idea first and then determine the best way to present it or do you just draw or sculpt and the idea develops as you go? Does pre-planning stifle your creativity?
NANCY: It pretty much depends on the piece. Nothing is entirely pre-planned, but I always have a starting point or an idea/approach I am working with and a destination. I also have several over-arching ideas I have been working with for many years. For example, in my current shows at Accola Griefen Gallery in Chelsea and the Hunterdon Art Museum in Clinton, New Jersey, there are strong connections between all the work, but three separate ideas that have been ongoing. One loosely falls into a category that I think of as containers and/or conveyances for the body. They started about 15 years ago with the ideas of hammocks as places for rest and vulnerability. At the Hunterdon Museum, there is a reconfigured shopping cart covered in cement and draped with delicate glass forms resembling tea towels. The piece moves and I think of it as a functional/dysfunctional object for the homeless in my Jersey City neighborhood. At Accola Griefen, there are two sculptures that are based around scooters - one isolated and seemingly missing its rider and the other where a stand in for the rider seems to be merging with the scooter itself. This body of work has been going on intermittently for about 15 years. I keep thinking I have made the last of these sculptures and then am compelled to making another. These scooters are both seemingly dissolving into the landscape, which has me thinking that perhaps it is finally over. On the topic of landscape, I have been working with concepts of water, both consciously and not, for many years as well. At times, I have done large scale installations in response to a particular body of water, although in my current shows the water references are obvious, but not specific with the exception of one piece 'Spill' which was a direct response to the BP oil spill in Louisiana. Finally, for the last two years, I’ve been expanding on a series called P (n,k) [Combinatoric]. It’s a long wall installation that started by thinking about molecular structures and shifted somewhere along the line to underwater forms and continues to grow (it is in both shows that I have now) and runs more than 60 feet. I think it is one of the more playful and lyrical pieces I have done. I don't think pre-planning stifles my creativity, but I am also not wedded to anything once the work gets going. I let it take me where it needs to go. I also draw, but that is almost a parallel activity - the drawings are not diagrammatic in any sense.
MICHAEL: When did you first become aware of yourself as an artist and that you'd make it a career?
NANCY: I always did art as a kid, but not sure I realized it was a 'career'. In my senior year of high school, I worked as an assistant to an artist - her studio was where she lived and also raised a family. I think that was when I realized that art could be your work, but was also your life.
MICHAEL: It's clear that you're quite consumed by art in a great way. Do you come from an artistic family? Also, how much of your process comes naturally and how much is plain ole hard work?
NANCY: My mother is extremely creative and was always making things when I was growing up. She painted, knitted, made quilts and she is also somewhat offbeat in how she approaches things sometimes (for example, painting things on the rims of all the sinks in the house and covering the walls of my childhood bedroom with real picket fences and giant cutouts of flowers) - so making things and experimenting with materials came quite naturally. She is also an amazing gardener, as was my grandmother and I think that growing things was a very creative expression for both of them.
So the attitude and approach comes naturally, but I am a very disciplined and hard worker and I work all the time. My ideas come through the process of working. It keeps me grounded. I need a large amount of time by myself and in the studio in order to deal well with the rest of life.
MICHAEL: Very interesting. How much do you draw from your childhood in creating works today? Or have those issues been resolved? LOL.
NANCY: I don't think my childhood plays much of a role in my work - at least not that I am aware of. I had quite a stable and supportive time growing up.
I do try to approach making my work with a kind of experimentation that has been described to me as "serious play" and I guess you could make a connection to childhood in that way.
MICHAEL: You mentioned earlier that you need to spend a lot of time alone to deal ... So do I. A lot of people think aloneness is pathetic, but I also think it's crucial. Given that, do you ever collaborate with other artists?
NANCY: I do collaborate with artists, poets, scientists, etc and I find it stimulating and refueling. I have collaborated on several projects with performance poet Edwin Torres on a sculptural object for him to wear in performance, an installation you could hear his work in as you moved through various parts of it and on small ink drawings for a recent book of his. http://nancymcohen.com/pages/past_work/008past_work.html. I have also collaborated on a number of projects with scientists - the most thrilling of which was as part of a project called Quark Park in Princeton, NJ where sculptors, scientists and landscape architects worked together. I worked with two amazing scientists, biologist Shirley Tilghman (who is also President of Princeton University) and electrical engineer Jim Sturm (and his grad students) on an installation inspired by research on how mice perceive smell. We also worked with garden designer A.R Wiley so that the landscape around the project incorporated fragrant plants, one of which opened at roughly the same time of day that a lit aspect of the sculpture became evident http://nancymcohen.com/pages/installations/500.html. Most recently, I collaborated with ecologist Jean Marie Hartman and landscape architecture student Erin Greenwood on "Finding a Way Through,' a sculpture evoking the movement of groundwater as part of a series of collaborations focused on the Cayuga River http://nancycohen.blogspot.com. This September, I will be doing a collaborative residency with artist Anna Boothe in The Studio at Corning working on a installation inspired by the iconography and spatial organization of Tibetan Buddhist Paintings.
MICHAEL: You know, lots of people still aren't comfortable with contemporary art. They're still stuck in the "Is it art" or "I can do that!" phases. What do you think?
NANCY: I think that for most work (contemporary or not) the viewer needs to give it time and attention. I believe when viewers give art time they generally get something in return.
MICHAEL: I'm assuming you're a full-time artist. What's your daily routine? Are you more creative in the morning or evening? How do you work and what things in everyday life inspire you?
NANCY: Yes, I'm a full-time artist, but I also teach part-time. At this point, I generally teach two courses per semester, occasionally more, but otherwise I am in the studio. I am a pretty earlier riser and tend to work best when I get started right away. I certainly work at night when I am in the middle of projects, but I think clearest in the morning and generally work days rather than nights. I have a studio in an industrial building in Jersey City one Path station stop away from where I live. Over the years, I have found it is important for me to work outside of where I live because I function best when the boundaries are clear. It is also important to me to work alone, yet in the vicinity of other artists. Although the building I am in is primarily manufacturing of various sorts, I am on a floor of all artists and many of us have worked in the vicinity of each other, in two different buildings now, for close to 20 years. I enjoy the camaraderie and ongoing dialog. I think that the things that inspire me change, so I don't have an easy answer for that. Ideas sometimes come from things I read or have seen, but largely the direction of my work comes from previous work - one idea or piece leads to the next. My conversations and interactions with other artists fuel me and the ongoing collaborations I described before. I have also been working on a periodic but regular basis (for the last 19 years) at Dieu Donne, a papermill that collaborates with artists currently on 36th street. Handmade paper, in one form or another, has been an important part of my ongoing work and process. That work is sometimes inspired by other work in the studio and vice versa. I am currently in the midst of a series of drawings where I am embedding rubber sculptural elements between sheets of pigment handmade paper. Some of these I will later work back on top and others will stay as finished work. The forms come right out of the sculptures in my current exhibition, but are headed in a different direction in this new work.
MICHAEL: What do you think about the art world and art market today? The super high end, blue chip market is doing very well, but I'm not so sure about the majority of gifted, living artists working today. How do you keep going?
NANCY: My own personal art world is filled with artists I like and respect - so that part is good, but the larger art world and the art market can certainly be discouraging and depressing. Everyone I know does something else in addition to their art work. I teach and I am lucky that I love to do it.
My work is propelled from within, from being in the studio, so keeping that part going is natural, but there are definitely the highs and lows. I recently described it to a friend as living on a roller coaster.
MICHAEL: Finally Nancy, Given all we've talked about, does your body of work thus far have a message and what are your hopes for the future?
NANCY: For me, making work is a personal pleasure, passion, challenge, and expression, but I am definitely and consciously trying to say something about the fragility and poignancy of life and the challenges inherent in negotiating that be it personal survival, human relationships or our interactions with our environment. I want to make work that is visually compelling enough to draw the viewer in and engage them visually and emotionally. I want to create both a tactile response in the viewer (I want them to want to touch) and in the large work, I want to create a physical response as well and then I would also like to create enough discomfort or unease that the viewer starts to think about what that particular work is about and might be trying to communicate. The specificity of the meanings and certainly the modes of expressing them (materials, scale, etc) change from work to work, but the overarching concepts remain fairly constant. My hopes for the future (in my own life as an artist) are to pretty much keep going - have enough time, space, money, health (whatever is needed) to make work along with some opportunities to get it out there in the world. I become very inspired by the introduction of new materials and methods of working and the chance to work with people with expertise in other fields so I continue to look for those. I am certainly on the look out for another really interesting collaboration with a scientist. The last several years, I have had a number of different interactions with people in the landscape architecture field. I don't admit to any deep understanding of the issues, but as I do understand, I am very interested in all they think about and do and would love an ongoing project or collaboration in that direction as well. I have had a series of conversations and interactions with a landscape architect who works with tent communities. We have talked about how we might work together. I have just put up two shows which have occupied much of this year and I’m ready to return to thinking about all of that.
MICHAEL: Great. Well, it sounds like it’s all rolling right along. Thanks, Nancy.
NANCY: Many thanks for the conversation Michael. It has been very thought provoking.
Check out Nancy’s work at www.nancymcohen.com.