Featured Artist: Zoe Cohen


Hometown:  Boston

Current town:  Philadelphia

Job description:  Artist / Educator / Mother ( Naftali age 3, and  Nomi age 4 months)

Select links: www.zoecohen.com // www.zoecohenart.wordpress.com

Describe your work:

I work in a wide variety of media, and I make both studio-based visual art objects as well as participatory and public art projects. Since I work conceptually, my work tends to be project-based, with some recurring themes. I love thinking about origins of things, in the deepest sense. So I’ve made work about conception and birth and breastmilk, about my Jewish heritage and the place of origin of my ancestors (Israel/Palestine), and most recently about plankton – the beginning of the oceanic food chain and some the creatures most directly impacted by global climate change.

rainfall crop


hurricane study

What are you working on now? 

I’ve just recently completed 12 images for a children’s book called The Garden of Time that I conceived of and invited Rabbi Jill Hammer to write the text for. It’s a Garden of Eden story – more origins there – and I’m now working on either getting set up with a publisher or starting a self-publishing campaign for it. I’m also in the very early stages of a public/community art project of some kind, involving buildings in my neighborhood, West Philadelphia, that used to be Jewish synagogues and are now used by African-American Church congregations.

What’s your background as an artist?

I first had the idea of being an artist when I was about 6 years old. I took a detour through the sciences, specifically Cell Biology (which still informs my work), but then decided to major in Fine Art in college. I had always been making art in addition to taking science courses. I went to Haverford College which was kind of a strange place to be an art major. The art department was very small, and very devoted to a particular way of making art. I gained a very rigorous training in painting, drawing, and sculpture from perception, but had virtually no exposure to contemporary art or other ways of making. It took me about 5 years after college to find my own way of working and to realize that as an artist, I make the rules about what and how I make. I had a fabulous 2 years in grad school at Brooklyn College. Despite a lot of drama within the art department there, I got exactly the exposure to conceptual and contemporary art that I needed. I started answering the question “What do I want my art to DO?”. I came back to Philadelphia after grad school, and even though I thought I hadn’t been connecting to artists enough here, it turned out that I knew lots of people in the arts in Philly! It really helped me to find residencies, studios, and get exhibitions here, to be able to build on relationships I had started before I left for Brooklyn.

What’s been happening in your life? What’s next for you?

I gave birth to my second child, Nomi, 4 months ago. I love being a mother, and I put a lot of thought and creativity into parenting. I thought I might have ended up wanting to make artwork around being a parent or about my children, but it turns out that it’s important to me to have my art work be a place where I get to have thoughts about things other than children! So what’s next is continually figuring out how to keep making work while parenting two young children, and how to keep reminding myself that I have my whole life and career ahead of me. I don’t need to rush through this challenging and beautiful time of my life in order to make myself bigger professionally than I have time or energy for right now. It’s helped me to get to know and talk with female artists with older or grown children to get the longer perspective on this.

listening station 3 

Any past exhibits you’d like to mention?

In 2010 and 2012 I got the chance to make large-scale wall drawings for two exhibitions as part of my Wind and Weather series, working with imagery of the weather patterns that are worsening due to global climate change ( hurricanes, rainfall, drought, and wildfires). The first one was at the Crane Arts Building, and it was great to have such huge walls to work on! I made the drawings freehand based on smaller preparatory drawings and I loved the physical work and challenge of scaling up the images. The second wall drawing was at the Museum of Art and Peace at the Germantown Mennonite Church and it was such a pleasure to work in a sacred space. That installation was more connected to my Ancient Near Eastern imagery work – but I also connected it to the weather imagery as well.

ZoeCohen Wall drawing

Is any of your work political?

Yes! Since 2005 I’ve been making work with content that is very meaningful to me, and most of it is political in one way or another. I find it hard to justify making work that doesn’t have some kind of important message to it, whether it’s subtle or more overt. I also find it so important to make work that engages people more directly than gallery installations usually do. I get so energized by showing up on the street with a concept and finding out what people make of it and with it.

How do you choose your subject matter?

I tend to work in series, and re-visit ideas that I’ve worked with before. But when I’m generating a totally new project, I do a lot of research, and follow my ideas intuitively. For my recent Ocean Life project, I started out with the idea of making a new piece related to global climate change. But instead of focusing on weather, I wanted to connect to animals. So I started thinking about how I might want to work with animals. I love working with pattern and repetitive mark-making so I was thinking about fur and other skin patterns. I started researching which animals are most impacted by global climate change. One of those animals is whales – but the impact for them is via the impact on their food source, which is plankton. When I read that, a light went off. I love working with forms and images from microbiology – I’ve done drawings based on human cell tissues in the past – and getting to the origin of the problem for larger animals felt meaningful to me. So that’s part of how I ended up making a series of over 50 small drawings of plankton.

DSC_0133 adjplankton #26

What are you reading?

I’m currently in a bit of a dip in my time spent reading, but I have a book on my desk that I’ve started and am excited to read more of called “Ancient Jewish Magic” – it’s about the practice of what we would call magic in ancient Jewish religious and social practices. I’m hoping to find some new information in there for future projects. For my synagogue project I’m also looking at some blogs and other information about ways that formerly Jewish sites have been marked or memorialized. I’m also looking at blogs that other mother-artists are writing. I’d love to be writing more about my life and work online, but I’m still looking for the right vehicle and tone to use.

Favorite artists and why?

Most of my favorite artists are those who work with interesting materials and materiality and connect it to bigger ideas and concepts , or who work more purely conceptually but with a generous attitude. Yoko Ono and Barbara Krueger are good examples of this second type. And Ana Mendieta is a good example of the first. I also appreciate artists who work in a wide variety of media, like Kiki Smith. 

What are a few of your favorite spots in Philadelphia?

I love being in nature. My favorite places to go to the woods are The Schuylkill Center, Heinz-Tinicum Nature Refuge, and the Wissahickon in Fairmount Park.

Drawing Water - Rush

If you weren’t an artist what would you be?

A permaculture farmer or backwoods survivalist.

What’s your idea of happiness?

Right now – a day where I get to play with my children, connect with my partner, AND have time to myself to make work. Oh, and also get outside in nature, and eat good food.

Your website(s):

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