As much as society, culture and technology have advanced over the years, there are still some horrific statistics that illustrate the inhumane treatment of women and children across the globe: 1.2 million children trafficked every year. 27 million slaves. 35 percent of women subject to abuse. 100 million street children. And one billion children living in poverty. Those harrowing figures are not only emblazoned onto the back of postcards displaying Philadelphia-based artist Carolyn Cohen’s wondrous work; they’ve bled into her psyche, inspiring the haunting collection of artworks she’s created since January dubbed Oblivious, meant to reawaken hearts and minds to the realities of far too many of society’s most vulnerable and desperate citizens. It debuts Friday at Old City’s Muse Gallery.
Utilizing textile mediums, photography and watercolors, Cohen’s look at rampant violent acts of physical and sexual abuse and the suffering left in their wake is also a means to help its victims: Proceeds from all sales of her on-paper art will benefit the non-profit organization Camfed, which aims to educate and empower young women in parts of Africa where many of these atrocities take place. “If there is a key to ending violence and poverty,” she says, “it is through education.”
PW: How long have you been a professional artist? Are you formally trained or self-taught?
CAROLYN COHEN: I feel like I have been an artist for practically my whole life; some of my earliest memories are of drawing and painting and making things. Because art was always my passion, it seemed natural that I would major in art in college, and then go on to get an MFA in painting. This I did at the University of Pennsylvania, and for me, it was both a wonderful experience and a waste of time. It was a wonderful experience, in that I was able to devote my time to making art; however, some of the faculty at that time was less interested in teaching than they were in pontificating about their own artwork.
After graduating, I actually became interested in self-taught artists, and I began experimenting on my own with different media. I tried to forget the things I had been told in art school and focus on what was in my head and my heart. I love the almost brutal, “un-beautiful” quality that many self-taught or outsider artists possess. I also became very interested in African art and masks, which I began collecting on a very small scale. Another artist who influenced me greatly was Leon Golub. He created huge paintings that were very violent in nature, yet his painting technique of creating layers of scraped paint was very beautiful, and I liked that juxtaposition of violence and beauty.
What mediums do you enjoy using to convey your messages?
This current show consists of batiks and paintings. Batiks are textiles created by dying over a wax resist; the areas that are waxed do not take the dye. In the end, the wax is removed, leaving a work of art with multiple layers of color. I then hand-embroider each work in order to accentuate certain parts. The paintings are mostly watercolor. This is a very new medium for me, and I found that I loved the immediacy of the process. Unlike batik, which can take hours or days, a watercolor painting can be done in a matter of minutes.
Oblivious sheds light on abuse here and around the world. What led to that as a focus?
Originally, my idea for this exhibition was something quite different: It was to be all photography, exploring contemporary notions of feminine beauty. However, I was listening to NPR one afternoon in early January as I was driving home from my parents’ home in upstate NY—a six-hour drive. I listened to a story of a woman in Bengal who was gang-raped, twice, and then set on fire. This was followed by a story of a young woman in Texas who was expelled from her school for lewd behavior, the behavior being reporting her own rape. I felt a sense of despair and hopelessness—and helplessness—come over me as I listened. I felt, and I do feel, that in certain places, there is a war, almost, against women, against children and certainly against the LGBT community. That afternoon, I knew that I needed to do something, to protest, but I did not know how. I could send another check to Save the Children or Amnesty, but there was a certain hollowness to this. So I decided to make a stand through my art; to try to give faces to those I had been hearing about, those who are completely powerless.
The exhibit consists of small series of works. One series portrays women who have been scarred by acid. Another series is about child abuse; another is about the trafficking of women and children, and another one honors the LGBT community. My hope is that people will come to see the art and leave with a little bit more knowledge about what is happening in the world today and how to get involved in supporting people who need support.
What projects do you have in store for the future?
I am not quite sure what my next exhibition will be like, although I know that whatever it is, it will have a social justice component to it. Putting together this exhibit has been exhausting. It has also been depressing, and even demoralizing, to educate myself and then create works of art about oppressed and abused people. The next actual work of art I am planning is a quilt which will juxtapose the lives of middle- and upper-class Americans with those who make things for said Americans: the sweat shop workers and child laborers.
Through Sun., Aug. 31. First Friday reception: Aug. 1, 5pm. Free. Muse Gallery, 52 N. Second St. 215.627.5310. musegalleryphiladelphia.com