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How discovering the doodle saved Kate Cohen

By MARRIE STONE

Photos by Jeff Rovner

When mixed media artist Kate Cohen was studying at the Cleveland Institute of Art, working toward a BFA in ceramics, her instructor imparted an invaluable lesson. For their first critique of the semester, the professor walked the room, asking each student to select their favorite creation. Then he smashed it. The purpose? To teach young artists that nothing is precious. “If you think your work is precious, you’re not going to grow,” he told them. 

Intermittently, throughout the semester, the class threw bowling parties in the hallways. They lined up their favorite pieces and destroyed them. More than four decades later, the message stuck. Cohen freely lets things go if they aren’t working. “I’ll invest hundreds of hours in some pieces, and I’ll think, ‘Can I fix this?’ I realize that, in some cases, I can’t,” said Cohen. 

In addition to this being a visceral moment for artists-in-the-making, the experience became a powerful metaphor for a later life trauma for Cohen. In 2011, after suffering for five years with debilitating pain (but with no insurance to investigate its source), an oncologist diagnosed Cohen with stage IV head and neck cancer. Her first reaction – Good. Cut it out of there and let me move on. It wasn’t that simple. Cohen discovered months of chemotherapy and radiation lay ahead of her. She turned to her husband and said, “Can I make art now?”

Cohen hadn’t worked for a few years, too mired in pain to focus. But when she found her life upended and her health hanging in the balance, she took the opportunity to create something new. 

Now her one-woman exhibition, Explanation of the Doodle, is on display at foaSouth Gallery (located in Active Culture at 1006 S. Coast Highway). More than a dozen pieces showcase Cohen’s use of acrylics, inks, oils and oil pastel on either paper or raw linen. The pieces brim with whimsy and joy. A flying saucer soars over a strongman, whose barbell has floated away. There are blimps and clouds, birds and dogs, naked female torsos and the man in the moon. It’s Cohen’s mind making sense of a senseless world in the aftermath of trauma, and it conveys a kind of innocence grafted onto hard-earned wisdom. 

How discovering exterior

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“Explanation of the Doodle” is on display at foaSouth Gallery through January 30, 2022

The process of Cohen’s discovery – how her creative mind works and how she’s learned to trust it – is nearly as interesting as the artistic outcome. She invited Stu News into the foaSouth Gallery as she hung her exhibition, grappling over wall compositions, color and balance as she anticipated the audience’s experience. We watched her process in action and heard her incredible backstory. 

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“Big Mama’s Party Dress Yay” opens Cohen’s exhibition on the doodle

Growing up under the easel

Nature and nurture both played a role in cultivating Cohen’s talent. Her mother was a portrait artist who painted live subjects. When Cohen was small, she sat beneath her mother’s easel, watching the people watch her mother work. She was also watching, absorbing her mother’s process.

“From two years old, my first recollection was, ‘I’m going to be an artist,’” Cohen says. “I knew it in my bones, in my DNA. I drew on walls, I got in trouble. I carved into the furniture, I got in trouble.” None of this punishment deterred Cohen, who remembers her father ordering her to remain at the dinner table until she finished her vegetables while her mother sneaked in art supplies – wonderful papers and pastels from her attic studio – to keep Cohen company.

How discovering portrait

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Kate Cohen exhibits her mixed media work at the Festival of Arts summer show

Cohen’s brother (now deceased) was also an artist. All three family members attended the Cleveland Institute of Art. He was the most talented, Cohen says. An intaglio printmaker, he went on to own and operate a custom picture framing shop that specialized in old, hand-carved gilded frames. He framed the Irvine Museum Collection. “These were beautiful frames. Absolutely stunning,” Cohen said. “It’s a lost art.”

Her own five-year program at the Cleveland Institute (where she received her BFA) and her time studying at Washington State University (where she acquired two master’s degrees in both sculpture and painting) gave Cohen a solid foundation in artistic rules. “The first two years taught heavy-duty color theory, life drawing and creative drawing,” she said. Cohen even studied art through the lens of medical drawings, working with cadavers at Case Western Reserve Medical School. “I would pass out every time,” Cohen laughs. “There was no future for me in medical illustrations.” 

Since mastering the form, Cohen’s style has been pure play. You can see evidence of all this rigorous training in her work – including hints of these medical drawings – but now it’s in doodle form.

Learning to trust “the flash”

Cohen describes many of her artistic inspirations as “flashes.” They come anytime, day or night. “I can be sound asleep, dreaming about something else, and this flash will come forward and wake me up,” she said. They usually begin at the periphery of her vision and don’t last long. “Then I have to figure out how to make them. What materials would be best suited for them? I become like a scientist in my studio, experimenting with different materials.” 

Cohen has had these flashes for as long as she can remember. “I’ve learned to trust them and follow them. Sometimes I’ll be looking at an older piece of mine, and I’ll look at maybe just a little segment of it, and a flash will come forward and that will lead to another body of work.”

Those flashes have led to some of her favorite pieces. “I have this one piece that I love. It’s a mysterious sculpture called ‘Magpie.’ It’s colored concrete. I had never worked with concrete before, so it was challenging,” she said. “I had to keep a recipe book of different colors, and how much concrete, how much acrylic to put in so it wouldn’t fall apart. Now, over time, because I’ve worked with so many different mediums because of these flashes, I have a full vocabulary of materials I can use.”

The flashes eventually led Cohen to the doodle. She attempted to make quick sketches of the flashes before they disappeared from her memory. “At first, I was using my doodles as a sketch, as opposed to actual art. I wasn’t showing my doodles because I wasn’t confident they would be taken seriously. Then I decided I could tell my story: ‘This is what happened – I got cancer and the doodle basically saved my life.’”

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“Strongman” is mixed media oil on linen

Compartmentalizing cancer

“When you’re really ill, you have to be the leader,” said Cohen. “Meaning if I fell apart, then my husband would fall apart, and my friends would fall apart. I knew that. I knew I had to get – and stay – in joy. The only way to do that was to compartmentalize the cancer. I said to the doctors, ‘You take my body. Please give it back to me if you can. I’m going to stay over here in joy because I need to protect my essence.’”

In some ways, Cohen recalled, cancer allowed her to become a braver artist. “Cancer freed me. I didn’t care anymore because I didn’t know if I was going to be here much longer. I thought, “Is this going to be the last piece of art I make? If so, then screw it. I’m going to make it fearlessly. Like I’d never done before.” 

Not only did cancer give Cohen the mental freedom to surrender to art, but it also gave her the time. “I sat in this infusion room, every day for four- and five-hour stretches, for four months. So, I started doodling,” she said. Although Cohen is dyslexic, her mind has an amazing ability to transcribe rhythms and sounds into shapes and lines. “Everything is mathematical. Music is math. Visual arts are math. Everything has a rhythm. I was listening to the people in this infusion room – they were laughing or crying, or there were footsteps. The sounds around me became a rhythm. I started doodling those rhythms because they were so abstract.”

The move into abstraction

There’s a common thread that runs throughout Cohen’s work. “No matter what body of work it is, no matter what medium, you can tell it’s made by me,” said Cohen. “At first I was more illustrative. My paintings, prints and sculptures were all illustrative. I slowly moved away from that style and into abstracts. Now I’ve gone full abstract. Except for my birds and balls a go-go. You must have birds and balls a go-go.” 

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Soaring birds, symbols of freedom and eternity, appear throughout Cohen’s work

Today, the first thing Cohen tells her students is, “Don’t be afraid to make ugly.” She’s watched generations of art teachers destroy children’s innate creativity with arbitrary rules and restrictions on their artistic freedoms. “I love to experiment,” said Cohen. “Once you’ve made a lot of ugly, that’s when the beauty arrives. It frees you and it makes you fearless.” 

Cohen’s works feels fearless. Her canvases contain entire universes of possibility. Outer space meets the mind’s inner world. Many of her pieces use labels to call out specific objects (much like those anatomical illustrations in her past). “Crow,” “hand,” “blimp” and “dog” appear alongside clear images of a crow, hand, blimp and dog. It’s as if Cohen, after her diagnosis, had to start with first principles. Perhaps she’s saying to the viewer, “I don’t know how life works and it may feel chaotic, but I do know this…” 

How discovering Crow

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“Follow the crow” exemplifies Cohen’s hallmark of labeling her doodles (an influence that may also have come from studying medical illustrations)

Her pieces appear like a children’s picture book of words juxtaposed against something profoundly rich and mysterious. An airplane’s wing slices through the back of a man’s head. A dog falls, headfirst, out of his house. A clothesline looks ready to catch falling objects. They are the doodles of an artist’s mind who’s working life out – fearlessly, joyfully and with nothing left to lose. 

“The Explanation of the Doodle” will be on display at foaSouth through January 30, 2022. Cohen will also host a monthly series at the exhibition called “Artists on Artists” – one-on-one conversations with artists across mediums. The first event will take place on Thursday, Nov. 4 at 7 p.m. with mixed media artist Bruce Burr. 

Learn more about Cohen and her process by watching Rick Graves’ video production here: 

Cohen credits photographer and filmmaker Rick Graves for his sensitive interviewing style and video production skills in allowing her to talk about cancer’s impact on her art.