Wandering Around, With Water, With Paper

By Nancy Cohen

Nancy Cohen’s work has been widely exhibited throughout the United States and is represented in important collections, such as The Montclair Museum, The Weatherspoon Art Gallery, Yale University Art Gallery and The Zimmerli Museum. She has completed site-specific projects for Thomas Paine Park in lower Manhattan, The Noyes Museum of Art, The Katonah Museum of Art and for Howard University in Washington DC.

Her most recent installation, “Hackensack Dreaming” in handmade paper and glass, has traveled to venues throughout the United States. In September of 2016 it will be on view at UrbanGlass in Brooklyn, NY.

Awards include fellowships from the NJ State Council on the Arts, the Brodsky Center, a Pollock Krasner Foundation Grant, an ISE Cultural Foundation Grant and a workspace residency from Dieu Donné. She has been awarded residencies at the MacDowell Colony, Yaddo, The Millay Colony, The Archie Bray Foundation, The Pilchuck Glass School, s and The Studio at Corning. Cohen received her MFA from Columbia University and attended the Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture. She currently teaches at Queens College and Pratt Institute.


My work has changed in many ways over the years, in materials and scale and in subject matter but I would say that the overarching ideas I have consciously been working with are the fragility and strength of human experience, resilience in the face of struggle and the joy and precariousness of life overall. My work has always been relatively abstract with references to the human body, organic form and water. I have done five large scale installations in handmade paper, all based on extended studies of rivers and I am going to talk about three of them here.

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About seven years ago I was invited to make a site specific installation for the Noyes Museum of Art in the Pine Barrens of South Jersey. That was when I started thinking about the specificity of particular bodies of water – rather than just watery colors and shapes. I began learning about the geological, industrial and environmental history of the Mullica River and the Great Bay Estuary of Southern New Jersey. I met with marine biologists studying estuarine habitats, park rangers overseeing the largest bird migration path in the North East and scientists from the Environmental Protection Agency who were working to restore the oyster population – an assortment of people whose work interfaced with the surrounding waterways in various ways. I went to lectures, collected water and sea grass samples and ran my ideas by all of the people mentioned above. I absorbed what I could and tried integrating that information into my own visual responses.

My early ideas for that installation had me thinking about piping water through tubes in the galleries or using abandoned fishing nets as part of the structure of the piece. The more I thought about it the more important it was for me to have the materials I used to make the piece be as organic as the ideas I was working with. Research on the industrial history of the Pine Barrens pointed to a very early paper-making industry and that led me to collect sea grasses and try making paper from them. That paper was too coarse for a very large installation but I did end up using bits and pieces of those grasses interspersed in the paper I did use. I ended up using sheets of pigmented abacá draped over armatures of garden fencing. The abacá was flexible and strong enough to create the shapes I was interested in working with while still delicate and unassuming as a material.

In the Pine Barrens of New Jersey the pigment of the water changes from tea colored to blue over the course of the river due to leaching of tannin from cedar trees into the water – it is tea colored at the start of the river growing greener and then blue as it heads towards the Atlantic Ocean. That transformation is visible to the eye and I wanted to simulate that in my work as well. With pigmenting my own pulp I was able to have buckets of tea colored pulp and buckets of ocean blue and mix them in ever changing combinations. I think the resulting piece, “Estuary: Moods and Modes” caught the spirit of the place – its beauty, complexity and delicacy.

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Several years later I was invited by the Katonah Museum to make a site-specific installation based on the Hudson River for that river’s quadrennial. The Hudson River was my neighborhood – I grew up near it and had a studio in Jersey City overlooking it for twenty years. I was familiar with its beauty, its majesty and its pollution from my childhood growing up in its midst. Again I looked to scientific research as well as direct observation to develop my project. This time, for “Perspectives on Salinity: River from Within” I focused on the relationship between the salt in the river around New York City and the fresh water coming down from upstate and what happened as those separate bodies of water intermingled and transformed each other. Again I used handmade paper – both pulp on wire armatures evoking the salt crystals themselves and billowing sheets of handmade paper. The paper meant to evoke the salty part of the river did have salt crystals formed on the sheets, when the paper was still wet I sprinkled table salt on the paper and crystals form and adhered to the sheets. The paper meant to stand in for fresh water was all watermarked so that when light came into the galleries new colors and patterns emerged in the work. Over the course of a light filled day the palette of the work would transform. In this piece I was able to use watermarked handmade paper as a way to capture light and naturally incorporate that into the work.