Nancy Cohen – One Substance from the Start

Nancy Cohen‘s sensibility for the ephemeral is evident throughout her wide range of forms – from small sculptural pieces to large scale room installations. With fluid agility she utilizes diverse material such as glass, paper, rubber, and ceramics, to form a thematically rigorous body of work – both visceral and inquisitive. The artist shares with Art Spiel some of her ideas on process, use of material, themes, and projects.

Nancy Cohen, Merge, 2018, Handmade paper, 81 x 68 inches, photo courtesy of Edward Fausty

AS: You seem to work with diverse materials- glass, paper, ceramics. Can you share how you started working with these materials?

Nancy Cohen: I am most engaged when I can merge material, color and texture into one substance from the start, rather than adding them later in the process. When I studied ceramics as an undergraduate I was most drawn to porcelain and I pigmented the clay before working with it.

From that time on, I have always responded to materials that transform through the work process.  I have an experimental and hands on approach, getting stimulated by pushing materials in unexpected directions.  Handmade paper, clay, glass, cement, and rubber all share those qualities of transformation, malleability and surprise.

Nancy Cohen, Attachment, 2017, 100 x 86 inches, Handmade Paper, photo courtesy of Edward Fausty

AS:  How do you see the relationship between your work on paper and your other media?

Nancy Cohen: I have always made drawings, sculptures and installation but until recently the two-dimensional work was secondary – an auxiliary to my process, a bridge between larger projects. Since 2014, I have been making large scale two-dimensional pieces in handmade paper and at this point those drawings are a major focus. The finished works speak to the physicality of the body and simultaneously evoke an intimate sense of touch, in a way akin to being in nature experiencing both vastness and quiet moments of focus.

The sculpture and drawings develop in parallel, although ideas and image inform each other and lead the work in new directions. A recent series has involved the idea of protection for the body. My 93 year old father has fallen innumerable times and he is frail. A fantasy of encasing him in bubble wrap for protection led to one large handmade paper drawing of a wrapped figurative form. That drawing led to several others – all related in concept but different in mood.  From those drawings a new series of sculptures developed.

Nancy Cohen, Precarious, 2018, 27 x 7 x 4 inches, Glass, silver, wire, aqua resin, handmade paper, photo courtesy of Edward Fausty

AS: I first saw your installation “Hackensack Dreaming” at NJCU. Can you share your premise and process in this project?

Nancy Cohen: For the last fifteen years a primary focus of my work has been an investigation of the waterways around NY and NJ. I am interested in the meeting point of industrial development and the survival/adaptation of the surrounding environment. “Hackensack Dreaming” is a large scale installation reflecting on Mill Creek Marsh in the Meadowlands of NJ, where the site of a former forest is now a tidal saltwater marsh.  I visited it the first time on a sunny winter day when the remnants of the cedar trees were partially encased in ice.

I began making isolated works in the studio trying to evoke these forms – first making drawings of stumps encased in ice, and then glass, wire, and paper sculptures of the stumps themselves. Over several years and repeated visits to Mill Creek Marsh, these separate elements evolved into a large meandering installation in my studio. Midori Yoshimoto invited me to show the installation in the gallery she curates at New Jersey City University. The long rectangular space echoed my studio quite well except there was an additional wall in the gallery. The decision to complete the installation for the gallery space with a large drawing, rather than a more sculptural form, launched this new body of work – large scale drawings where the ground and the imagery are constructed entirely in handmade paper.

The traveling installation gave me the opportunity to reconceive of the physical manifestation of the project for four different gallery spaces and reconsider its meaning from the varying perspectives of the venues. From NJCU, an academic venue close to the Hackensack River and my studio, to The Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education, where the issues raised in the pieces were considered in a broader environmental context; to Duke University where discussions involved the idea of documenting a place in a non-representational way; and finally to UrbanGlass, where it was displayed in downtown Brooklyn with a storefront window by a busy urban Street and in addition, at a site of glass making.

Nancy Cohen, Rocker, 2017, 7 x 20 x 7 inches, Glass, metal, aqua resin, photo courtesy of Edward Fausty

AS:  Can you tell me about your collaborative projects with Anna Boothe?

Nancy Cohen: Anna and I are old friends. We met in the late 90’s when I was looking for someone to fabricate a glass wheelchair for an ongoing series of sculptures meant to contain/protect the body. We wanted to work together again in a collaborative way and spent years in discussion about areas of commonality.

In 2012 we completed our first major collaborative project, an expansive glass installation, “Between Seeing and Knowing,” which was the outcome of a residency at the Studio of the Corning Museum of Glass, and inspired by our joint interest in early Buddhist Thangka paintings. That project, with about 300 elements varying between 30’-50’ in length, was first exhibited at Accola Griefen Gallery in Chelsea, NYC in 2013.  We expanded and transformed the installation twice in 2017, first when it was shown at the Philadelphia Art Alliance and later for Philadelphia International Airport.

We also began a new body of collaborative work – discrete sculptures and monoprints that use the original installation as a launching point, both physically and conceptually. In October 2018 we will be showing new collaborative work at the Taplin Gallery (Paul Robeson Center for the Arts) in Princeton, NJ. This work attempts to make tactile sense of ideas about the natural and the spiritual; creating order through a reconciliation of external and internal forces.

Nancy Cohen collaboration with Anna Boothe, Between Seeing & Knowing,
at Philadelphia International Airport, 2018, Glass, metal, resin, monofilament
Dimensions Pictured: 30 x 10 x 1 ft., photo courtesy of  Philadelphia International Airport Art Program

AS:  How do you see the relationship between “art” and “craft”?

Nancy Cohen: Studying ceramics at The School for American Craftsman (at Rochester Institute of Technology) in the late 1970’s I had been immersed in a Bauhaus inspired sense of craft and purpose. I struggled at that time making sculpture in an environment where craft was more highly valued, and later I struggled as a young artist trying to find my place making sculpture using what are traditionally considered ‘craft’ materials in the wider art world.

Thirty five years later my sense of myself as an artist has matured (fortunately) and probably because of feminism, as much as anything else, the art world has expanded to allow a greater range of materials and processes. With those two changes over time the art/craft debate is not something I think much about anymore.

AS: Your work often brings to mind elements from nature, and also environmental issues. What is your take on that?

Nancy Cohen: Over many years people frequently made reference to the watery quality of my work; this had been an unconscious and intuitive development. In 2007 I was invited to make an installation for the Noyes Museum of Art in Oceanville, NJ, in response to their local environment. I chose to focus on the Mullica River and the research which followed involved conversations, walks and boat rides with marine biologists, park rangers and the Department of Environmental Protection. This led to water sampling and paper making from local sea grasses.  I made a 60 ft. interactive installation that followed the path and palette of the river and I have continued to make large scale installations in response to particular waterways. Each project involves research, interaction with people whose lives are impacted by changes in the river, as well as with those who study and work with it. I hike, kayak and investigate the waterways from a variety of perspectives, all of which inform the finished work.

My installations are personal, intuitive, tactile, visual and not at all didactic but they are informed by an appreciation and an understanding of the relevant environmental issues.

Nancy Cohen, Hackensack Dreaming at NJCU., 2014, installation detail,  2014 Glass, wire, rubber, ceramic, handmade paper and paper pulp, photo courtesy of Edward Fausty

AS: Although your work seems to be mostly abstracted, it readily conjures narrative elements – what does “narrative” mean to you?

Nancy Cohen: My work is abstract with specific references. In material, concept and form I am trying to balance a line between fragility and strength, survival and collapse. Individual bodies of work fall into distinct categories – imagery and ideas derive from memories of particular landscapes, primarily waterways in industrialized New Jersey (but at times farther afield), and more personal observations of human struggle, most recently,  human aging. The work is narrative in as much as it is a personal reflection.

Nancy Cohen, Wavering, 2017, 17 x 10 x 2 inches, Glass, metal, wire and handmade paper, photo courtesy of Edward Fausty

AS: Can you share what you are working on now?

Nancy Cohen: My work continues to move between a focus on waterways at the site of environmental disruption to one more directly about human experience. As time goes on I see more and more parallels between the two. I had two very different kinds of residencies this past summer that bring these connections home. I am currently working on trying to integrate those experiences and make work about them.

I spent two weeks on a sailboat in Samana, Dominican Republic, with the organization Ninth Wave Global. We were immersed in both a study and experience of Samana Bay. I was spending time in exquisitely isolated and beautiful places interspersed with visiting polluted sites – it made me think. We were in conversation about the source of that pollution on both a global and local scale. I also, for the first time, learned directly from members of fishing communities about the fishing industry – the struggles of fisherman and their families; issues of overfishing, sustainable fishing, methods of fishing that are both dangerous to the fisherman and the health of the ocean; the impact of invasive plants; the complexities of fishing nets – their manufacture, repair and distribution.

I then spent a month in Eastport, Maine as an artist in residence at the Tides Institute. The extraordinary beauty and isolation of that landscape is also intimately tied to the history of the local fishing industry. During daily walks along the coast I was captivated by both enormous quantities of seaweed that would encase virtually everything on site when the tide went out, and also leave behind huge amounts of industrial detritus.  The now mostly empty waterfront of Eastport was once a home to large sardine and herring industries and factories for canning those products. Overfishing and changing tastes made the industries obsolete and the factories literally crumbled into the ocean. Strong winds and tides have weathered the buildings’ bricks and they now appear as rounded stones. I was fascinated by both the piles of seaweed and the seeming return of manufactured bricks to an organic form. Forces of nature, now changed, reclaiming everything.

I am thinking about survival in a time of environmental change, on both an intimate and societal scale. I am thinking about the struggles of aging – negotiating the world, even just the day and how that connects to life’s broader problems. I am trying to put those ideas and feelings into my work.

Nancy Cohen, Remnant, 2018, 54 x 54 inches, Handmade paper, photo courtesy of the artist
Nancy Cohen, studio installation shot, 2018, photo courtesy of Tavmeet Kaur