My interview series, REMARKABLE PEOPLE 2015 includes experts in technology, the arts, transformative business innovation, and social good. It is an exciting group of creative thought leaders and enlightened personalities. Some are extraordinary examples of humanity and social responsibility; others are creating game-changing paradigm shifts in their respective fields.
Nancy Cohen has an MFA from Columbia University. Over the past twenty-five years, Nancy Cohen has explored sculptural formations and created installations, glass drawings and works on paper. She has established a compelling body of work from small sculptures to large installations. The range and application of materials are explored here. She is also a collaborator, most recently with environmentalists, and lectures widely.
The following interview with Nancy Cohen is available as a multi-channel user experience. The format for your exploration and engagement is entirely up to you.
Mary Olson: How has your work emerged?
Nancy Cohen: "Over the years my work has emerged in two parallel directions and through two rather distinct approaches to creating art.
This first one is very personal, and I think of as being related to the body – to how I/we as human beings exist and survive in the world. In the 80’s I was making an abstract sculpture that I thought of almost as characters in a short story – engaging with each other in various situations. Those pieces were juxtapositions of opposing materials, textures, forms, etc."
The next group of work was more evocative of particular aspects of the body – internal organs – cellular or breast forms. About 15 years ago I began making work that I thought of as containers or some kinds of support systems for the body. I began with a Chariot form and then moved on to Hammocks, Wheel Chairs, Gurneys, Chaise Lounges, Cradles, Scooters, and Crutches and am now working on Walkers.
Some of these pieces are quite literal and others more abstract. Some are large enough to house an actual body, others quite intimate. I often think that I have completed the work, and then an issue arises in some aspect of my personal life, which feels as if it has broader implications, and I am at it again. I think this return to the human, intimate and personal will continue as I, and those around me, become ill, struggle and age.
The second direction of my work has had to do with water. I have an intuitive connection to the shapes, color, and textures of the sea. I spent a great deal of time at the ocean as a child, and that made an impact. I never set out to evolve work evocative of water, but others were often observing it in my work.
In 2007, I was invited to make a site-specific installation for the Noyes Museum of Art in the Pine Barrens of South Jersey. It was an open-ended invitation, but I had just finished a satisfying collaboration with Shirley Tilghman (President of Princeton University and Professor of Molecular Biology and Jim Sturm (Professor of Electrical Engineering at Princeton University) so I was looking to make a connection with other people doing serious work relevant to my interests. I also wanted to make a connection to their location in a meaningful way.
That was when I started thinking about specific bodies of water –learning about the geological, industrial and environmental history of the Mullica River and the Great Bay Estuary. I met with marine biologists, park rangers and scientists from the EPA, who were working to restore the oyster population – an assortment of people whose work interfaced with the surrounding waterways in various ways.”
Nancy absorbed what she could and tried integrating that information into her visual responses. She has done four installations based on rivers previous to her current show. The first were three based on NJ rivers- the fourth on the Cuyahoga River in Ohio. Each of these large projects evolved over time and took various finished forms. Nancy’s current installation on the Hackensack is her fifth based on a river.
“I have always loved canoeing and hiking and being out in nature, but I was getting equally interested in experiencing those things within the city. Five or six years ago I took a kayak ride with my husband and son in the Hackensack River in Secaucus, NJ. We could see and hear all kinds of water birds as we paddled between high grasses (and some abandoned tires, as well). It felt very wild, but the contradictions of paddling through and on the same level as a functioning seemingly natural habitat in the middle of the noise of the NJ Turnpike, and the congestion and garbage of Hudson County and with NYC as a backdrop is fascinating and made a mark on my consciousness.
With that kayak ride as my first acknowledged reference point to how interesting the Hackensack River might be to me, three years ago I began a series of explorations of the River with Robin Michals, a photographer friend of mine studying sea level rise.
Our first day out was winter. We mapped out some parks and what seemed like access points to the Hackensack River. We found a few semi- interesting official places – parks of some sort that were near, not always on the river and some boat launches. Places with lots of tires and other junk and where you could walk out away near the shore. We came across many places where you couldn’t get to the river because there were factories there with big chain link fences keeping you out or private roads or other inaccessible routes. We tried to talk our way into one or two of these places – showing the guards our cameras and claiming we were birders, but it didn’t work terribly well.
We did find a few interesting places we weren’t sure we were allowed to be there, and that added to the mystery and adventure of the search. The Meadowlands is a series of odd and interesting places. We spent a lot of that first day getting lost going in circles on the NJ Turnpike and Paterson Plank Road.
We kept looking for access to the river and pulling off the road to try and find it. At some point in one of our circles, we found ourselves in the Secaucus shopping outlet neighborhood, parking behind Bob’s furniture store and entering a clearly designed fenced in a place called Mill Creek Marsh. There were little birdhouses scattered everywhere. It was sunny and cold and we felt as if we had landed on the moon.
In between meandering paths were small lake like marshes with vertical remnants of trees seemingly floating or growing in the water and partially encased in ice. They were compelling sculptural forms, beautiful and strange and evocative. The entire place was visually surprising –tree forms breaking free of ice and circles of ice floating on otherwise unfrozen water. I had never seen anything like that landscape before, and it felt as if time had somehow stopped. This installation is my attempt to capture that experience.
The mystery of what these tree stumps were and how they got in the middle of the water was intriguing. They were sad and majestic at the same time.
Some of the tree forms were isolated; others clustered together – it felt like being in the middle of a completely unknown place except that you could hear the NJ Turnpike. Looking down at water level – kind of where people sitting on the floor are now was a dystopian scene entirely unknown. Looking up beyond the marshes and in a 360-degree view you saw Walmart and the Empire State Building and a sewage treatment plant and some oil refineries.
Here was New Jersey – full out in contradiction – beautiful, spooky, ugly, noisy, known and unknown and strangely compelling. All aspects of life in Hudson County I had been experiencing for years but never quite took in so completely until that moment.
Over the next few years, Robin and I continued to visit spots along the Hackensack every few months – different seasons, different times of day, during low and high tide. Each outing we came back to this place for some part of the day taking it in different ways.
There were winter days to see completely encased forms, summer days where plant forms had taken root and things were growing from the dead stumps. One evening at dusk all of the stumps were carpeted in birds. The place was almost always void of people.
At high tide, most of the stumps were invisible. At low tide there were tons of them – each had a weathered formation. I developed a personal connection with specific shapes and their placement.
We tried, not too successfully at first to learn about the place. Our first attempts told us that it was originally a white cedar forest burned down intentionally during the 1500’s to root out pirates who were hiding there. I learned that was an urban legend.
I later learned from reading, and from conversations with Environmental Scientist and Rutgers University Professor Beth Ravit, that the cedar forests were chopped down beginning in colonial times and the cedar wood, due to its strength and water resistance was used to build ships and roads – including Paterson Plank Road. So here was another of many contradictions – a survival mechanism is also a destructive mechanism – the trees were chopped down because their water resistance was so useful, that resilience eviscerated the forest, but the remnants of it lasted hundreds of years because of their water resistance. They stand as witnesses to their destruction. A forest alongside a fresh water river became, over time, with development, pollution, destruction and sea level rise, a saltwater marsh.
The Hackensack River, like most New Jersey rivers, was, for good and bad, a place of constant development. The Meadowlands being marshland was never plausible to develop so instead of being destroyed in one way it became an enormous unregulated place for dumping every kind of toxic garbage. It was so polluted that in the 1960’s plans were drafted to fill it all in with concrete.
Fortunately in the 1970’s the first environmental laws came into being. Garbage dumping stopped, and the water started getting cleaner, birds and fish came back, and saltwater plants started growing. Lawsuits against polluters led to more cleaning and now the water is much healthier – not great but better. Garbage and industrial waste still get dumped in the river but it is illegal now, and there are methods for reporting and methods for cleaning. It is not an environmental paradise by a long shot but the Hackensack, like the more familiar Hudson River, is much healthier now than it has been for many years.
Back in my studio, I started making individual elements that I didn’t intend to make a large installation. At first I was simply trying to capture momentary images of my memory of it – of the idea of forms rising from the water or embedded in ice. In the end, I found that isolated pieces didn’t capture what I was trying to evoke. I began grouping the forms and trying to evoke spaces (rather than just shapes). It took two years for the current installation to develop.
With the piece complete, out of my studio and currently on exhibition I can reflect on the installation as a whole and my overall experience of making it. I see that it pulled together – in a full circle – my separate interests and made me see more clearly how the fragility of the human body and the fragility of our ecosystem are one interest on a macro and micro scale. It is all about resilience and perseverance, continuity and change and existing with contradictions.
This installation reads one way standing back when you are taking it all in, and it reads on many other levels when you get up close. In my studio visitors wandered among the elements and that would be an ideal experience of this piece but not workable here. Still there is a lot to look at from the edges of the groupings. I want the up-close readings to add information to the experience. That also ‘duplicates’ my experience of the site.
'Hackensack Dreaming' also unites many things in my process of making art. For years, I have made distinct drawings and sculptures and installation – but they were never united in one piece before. Bringing my separate ways of making art together was significant and opens up new directions in my work.
I also am a wanderer as an artist in terms of the materials I work with and how I use them. A studio neighbor calls me a mad scientist from the way I play around with materials. I’ve worked in clay, steel, wood and cement, and now it’s largely handmade paper and glass. I am sure that will take other directions at some point but for now these materials connect very directly in what I want to express in this work. They are fragile and strong, ancient and contemporary, industrial and handmade, and they transform in the process of using them.
I know much more about working with handmade paper then I do about working with glass. That said this installation led me to make many discoveries in working with a material that I thought I already knew pretty well. I embedded rubber in it; I made stenciled images in wet sheets of paper, I layered wet paper to make a large quilt like drawing, and I poured pulp on the floor.
I don’t know much about working with glass. It is entirely trial and error for me, but I feel I have captured many thoughts and visual experiences of the site in this material. It seems the perfect material for ice. I wanted to capture the ice shimmering on a sunny winter day – I wanted to capture the form of the stumps with the ice coming off of them. I also didn’t want this piece to be just some kind of romantic homage to a beautiful place or natural survival because the site is also really ugly – noisy and distracting and in the midst of one the least visually appealing places I have ever seen. So while I am attempting to create my organic ecosystem here, I also tried to bring the viewer back into the real world in some ways.
Although I made all the paper I for this piece and for that reason it could have been any shape I kept much of it rectangular so the making of the individual sheets would be evident, and so it might make some reference to the history of industrial production. I put it on the floor as well as the wall to make the viewer more aware of the juxtaposition and the shapes.
There is another thing to add about Mill Creek Marsh that I didn’t know until about a month ago and probably contributes to why it is such a weird and inexplicable place. I mentioned earlier it was a designed place – the birdhouses made me think it was somehow made as a resting place for migratory birds because it recreated some aspects of a place I am more familiar with in South Jersey, designated for that purpose. Beth said that the organization, "Ducks Unlimited site designed the site, rather than the U. S. National Park Service or another government protective agency. Their motivation was to create an environment that would encourage waterfowl to return to the area for duck hunting. It is surely more complicated than this, but they were seemingly looking to repopulate the duck population to shoot them. It seems like another bizarre contradiction to me and adds to the overall oddness of the site.
Robin and I must never have managed to visit in duck hunting season. That is the reason we never saw any people there. So the obvious and more hidden aspects of the interaction of people in this natural environment are layered in innumerable ways.
In homage to that back and forth I left some of the industrial components and materials that I used to make this work (like medicine bottles in some of the particularly transparent forms) evident in the finished shape. It is meant to speak to the grittiness and industrial aspects of the site.
This installation will travel from New Jersey City University in Jersey City, NJ where it is physically close to the Hackensack River to The Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education Center that works with artists on land reclamation projects to Duke University where it is going to the Center for Documentary Studies. I had a very interesting conversation with the curator there about the concept of documenting a place and the ways my current installation is and isn’t that. A photograph or a video or maybe even a painting would capture what Mill Creek Marsh looks like more than my art does – I am attempting to document its impression on me.”
Mary Olson: What are your thoughts as you look forward?
Nancy Cohen: “It is never easy to predict exactly where my work is heading next. I am still thinking about trying to evoke the dependence, independence and fear that a Walker brings into someone’s life.
I am continuing to think about the Hackensack River and other ways to reflect on the contradictions and situation of the River beyond the specificity of Mill Creek Marsh and I am in conversation with members of the Hackensack River Keeper to see about working with them on an arts oriented project to bring attention to the River. I love collaboration and find it endlessly stimulating. I am pretty open to what might come next.”
Nancy Cohen, Artist