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Quarantine Interviews: Baltimore Artist Olivia Cohen

The artist and the interviewer attended high school in Baltimore together. Cohen is a sophomore at Tufts University, where she is studying multimedia art and pursuing it as a possible career. This interview took place on September 15, 2020.

How would you define yourself as an artist? What do you do?

I would say it’s taken me a really long time to take myself seriously as an artist. When people would ask me, “Are you an artist?” I would say I do it as a hobby. Since getting to college and taking more formal classes, I’ve started to take my own art more seriously. I mostly do painting. Oil painting is what I prefer, and I’ve studied a lot of film and darkroom photography. I’m still learning and exploring different mediums—I’ve recently gotten into colored pencil… I don’t really have a style. I like to explore different things—abstract, more realistic depending on my mood.

What are you working on right now?

Since quarantine, I wanted to learn a lot more about color. I was getting really frustrated with mixing my paints and matching colors. I realized I’d never taken a color theory course. Matching colors to what you want? Or matching colors to mimic something else? Both. I’ll have ideas in my head of what I want something to look like, but it’s so hard to get that exact hue. So I bought a bunch of books and started trying to teach myself some color theory, which is super fun. I’ve been messing around with that, giving myself little projects to explore it with. I made a color wheel the other day. I’m so fascinated by it. I’m so excited about color. Color is biological, it’s in nature… so human responses to it are not preference. They’re facts.

So the science of associative emotion and thought produced by color?

Yes. It’s super scientific. Even just the harmony of colors… You can have preferences for warm colors, but what colors look good together is super scientific. You correct for those in your mind. There are experiments that artists and scientists have done proving how we perceive color… so all of that is really cool, particularly with abstract art. These artists put so much time into it and they’re actually super genius; they really know what they’re doing.

This discussion reminds me of something you posted recently — something from your color theory textbook. Red Blue Green depicts three colors in interlocking shapes. Your perspective on this painting is that it’s not as simplistic as it might seem, right?

Red Blue Green. Ellsworth Kelly. 1963.

After looking at that painting, yeah, you could easily copy it down. But the artist found these specific hues of red, blue, and green that look so amazing together. If you put red and green next to each other they create this vibrant, glowy separation because they are contrasting colors. Whereas the blue and the green will just flow into each other, because they are a mixture of one another. The shapes that he uses are very intentional. The red because it contrasts with the green is a stark square, whereas the blue is this flowy, organic shape, and it goes lower than the red. You don’t really know if the green is the background, or just a filler. If I hadn’t studied color theory, this painting would not excite me in any way. When the viewer is an artist, that matters. The idea of, you know, “That’s so stupid. I could do that,” is wrong. There’s a reason these sell for so much money. It’s groundbreaking. This was done in the 60’s, when it was a crazy thing to just put shapes on something, and say, “This can be beautiful.”

Earlier, you described getting to the point where you were taking yourself seriously as an artist. People are creative in all kinds of ways. When do you think a person is at the point where they should begin to take their pursuits seriously?

For me, the point that it happened was in my second college art class. It was a watercolor class, which was very difficult for me, and I realized I am not a watercolor artist. But my teacher would always say, you need to take yourself seriously as an artist. If you’re creating it, it has value. Even just the idea that nobody else can do this. If you’re giving your art to others, you should sell it. It’s worth money. And this made me realize I needed to go out and actually get the materials I needed, the proper brushes, dedicate the time to it, learn about color theory in order to become a better painter.

A lot of people have found quarantine to be numbing and isolating. What has the experience of quarantine done to your art?

It’s definitely given me so much more time to devote to my art. There are some weeks where I take advantage of that, but then there are weeks where I’m like, “No, not at all. I can’t even look at a painting right now.” Because of those feelings where you become so unmotivated, you know it’s going to frustrate you. I have been finding what my process is, and that it’s okay. I can work on it when I want to or need to, then stop when I don’t. Which I know isn’t necessarily, like, professional. A lot of my art teachers have talked to me about, like, “Once this becomes your career, you have to do it even when you don’t want to. You can’t just do it on your own time. It’s not a hobby.” But for now, it is. For me.

I’m not really super expressive in my art, actually. I like to do things I find beautiful. A little hint of my feelings or my life will show through, but I’m not, like, going to put masks or Purell or toilet paper into my art. I will say, I recently painted a toilet.

Instagram: @oliviavcohen

I saw that. It was a good toilet.

Thanks! A lot of that came from me looking at the toilet and realizing, you know, toilets are a lot more beautiful than I ever realized. I see them every day, and they kind of have these beautiful reflections and light bouncing o! each other. I also wanted to use that as an exploration of my color theory, because toilets are so gray and white, so figuring out those shades.

I see what you mean. Getting the colors just right would be hard. And they have the wackest shape ever.

Right? Different feelings and emotions come through, because the reason I first noticed toilets was because I was crying in the bathroom on the floor. I was sitting there looking at the toilet, and I was like, “Huh. This is something I really look at a lot.” The next morning I went and looked at it again in the daylight, and I was like, “Yeah, OK, I’m going to paint that.” Nobody would look at it and think, “Oh, this is so sad. Somebody must have painted this when they were sitting on the floor crying.” But I know what it is, and I hope that somebody else makes their own connection to it. So beautiful things I see, beautiful feelings… that’s what gets portrayed.

How have you found connection and meaning during this quarantine?

Well, through art. Art is therapeutic. When you’re lacking connection in quarantine, you can’t really do anything about it, it’s a pandemic. So, this is cheesy, but connect to yourself, get in touch with your thoughts.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.


Rockefeller is the Suggests Editor and an IPOL Junior in the SFS.


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