One step over the threshold of Dana Cohn’s home leads directly into the heart of his art studio. The front room that doubles as the Prescott artist’s studio is small but organized. From the table loaded with books and bits picked up from nature walks, to the portable work lamps attached to the ceiling, it’s obvious this space is devoted to creative work.
An enormous, glass-topped taboret (i.e. an artist’s cabinet and workstation) dominates the room. Oil paints are already squeezed onto the palette and clean brushes are within reach. A small picture of an elephant is taped to one of workstation legs. It’s upside down — a residual reference for a previous painting.
Cohn’s artistic style is difficult to pin down. Most of his work looks like a collage of painted images, each one a fragment of his passion for nature, art, and the internal landscape. Cohn’s art is a cross between surrealism and hyper-realism; it creates a dreamlike snapshot of inner and outer universes.
“I like conceptual art, minimalism, all of that. … It’s not something that I’ve ever done,” Cohn says. “I love it all, because it’s all connected.”
His pieces often incorporate elements of works by Renaissance and early art masters, animals, and Prescott’s landscapes. Cohn is adept at photo-realism, but it’s not unusual to find abstractions and aspects of different painting techniques within a single painting. The resulting art exudes a complex simplicity, one appreciated on multiple levels from multiple viewpoints.
Cohn enjoys letting the viewer interpret his images and intent without outside input. While he can point to areas inspired or based on ideas, he’s not particularly interested in an in-depth explanation of what a painting is supposed to mean.
“I never try to tell anybody what a painting is supposed to be about,” Cohn says. “Even I don’t know what a painting is really about until it’s finished. … Sometimes I don’t know until much later.”
Now and then
Hanging on the wall next to the taboret is Cohn’s latest work in progress.
For this painting, he incorporated a section of a shark, a bit of a bird, the head of a Zeus statue, and some imagery from previous sketches, all set against space and stars. Some parts are clearly defined while others idle as sketches.
Next to the canvas, a pencil drawing is taped to the wall for reference. There’s a significant evolution in process from one medium to the next.
“I always start with a drawing,” Cohn says. “Color is so emotional. … A drawing lets me get the image right first, although the painting always changes and surprises me.”
He walks a few steps to the table on the other side of the room and pulls out numerous sketches to show how the final composition has evolved. A magazine photo of a shark, a book with photos of Greek statues, a sketchbook — all hold the germs of a completely original image.
The space and star background is anchored in real life, Cohn explains. He had an epiphany while hiking recently. While looking at a tree, he was struck by the enormity of the idea that every single thing he saw was essentially made of the same thing: stardust. His creative mind lept into overdrive. As Cohn thought about “everything being made of the same stuff,” he noticed how often circle shapes appear in nature.
“When you think about it, when you shrink it down, almost everything is round, like cells,” Cohn says. “And then you look up, and everything is round: The stars are round; the moon is round; the earth is round; we’re round when we’re in the embryo stage.”
Circles and dots are the unifying visual motif in his latest work.
An artist’s path
Although there’s a clear relationship between Cohn’s last series of paintings and his latest pieces, there’s an optimism and openness that’s new.
His current compositions are less crowded. The additional space allows for deeper reflection on the relationship between the shapes and images. Through his paintings, Cohn can better communicate that the enormity of the universe makes everything in life “seem so much more special, even if it’s painful,” he says.
When asked what he considers the most important part of making art, Cohn demurs at dogma.
“I don’t think the magic is in anything more than in your heart and your need to do it,” he says.
But Cohn is clear that what separates the artist and the wannabe is the work that person puts into the process.
“It’s 99 percent work, like Edison said,” Cohn says, adding, “I never knew it was such a huge reward for having pushed so hard for so long.”
Cohn worked in restaurants off and on for more than 18 years to make ends meet while he created art. Then he was commissioned to paint a mural on a yacht in La Jolla, Calif. When he finished, he returned to Prescott to care for his parents and began teaching art classes. Cohn’s grateful his restaurant days are over, that now he can devote substantially more time to his work.
Left to his own devices, he says he would “probably be a hermit … (and would) stay home and paint for 10 to 12 hours a day.”
He’s kidding. Partially.
One of the reasons Cohn likes having his studio at home is because he can get up and work whenever the spirit moves him. It’s not uncommon for him to wake up in the middle of the night with an idea. His workspace is only a few feet from his bedroom, so he can roll seamlessly into work.
Cohn’s artwork has shown locally in several venues. You can see the fruits of his current creative labors through mid-March at the Raven Café. It’s a rare opportunity to view an artist’s work as he transitions from one style and focus to another. Cohn’s art is also on perpetual display at the Prescott Public Library; he’s one of the four artists who worked on the “Beyond Words” mural that was dedicated in 2009-09.
Cohn currently teaches art as an adjunct professor of printmaking at Yavapai College.
Find him online at DanaCohn.Com.
Angie Johnson-Schmit is a Prescott-based freelance writer and movie producer who works with the arts and zombies. She is deeply amused that these “about” bits are typically written in third person. Follow her online at DeadVotesSociety.Com.