Genevieve Cohn: Carrying Stones

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Carrying Stones

Interview by Shaquille Heath // Portrait by the artist

“Feminism” has unfortunately become one of those words often accompanied by a deep eye-roll. Its meaning has become warped into a cannon of hollowness—disfigured and muddled by ubiquity. But before I lose you in exasperation, take comfort in the welcoming embrace of Genevieve Cohn. Her psychoactive paintings are little portals to places where the care for womanhood just is. The idea of women co-existing, building communities and worlds without the need to be distinguished, as displayed in her work, feels a bit… futuristic, until coming to the realization that women do this kind of work every, single, day. Cohn ushered me into her world of storytelling with the same warmth and mystical magic that emanates from her paintings. Our conversation encouraged me to slow down, smell the flowers, pick their petals, mash them into my skin, and breathe deeply. I’m sure she’ll inspire you to create rituals of your own. That’s feminism, baby.

Genevieve Cohn: Carrying Stones

Shaquille Heath: I don’t know if you’ve ever heard this podcast before, but I am a very big fan of one called Ghosts in the Burbs. It’s written by this writer Liz Sower and she lives in Wellesley. 

Genevieve Cohn: Oh, that’s where I teach!

Yes, exactly! She refers to Wellesley College at some point, suggesting that the college itself is haunted. As a fictionalized podcast, she writes as if the experiences are real, based on places in Wellesley. It’s one of my favorite podcasts, so when I realized that you taught at Wellesley, I had to ask!

It’s very wild there, haha. Oh my gosh! I’m so gonna listen to it. I love fiction podcasts.

I actually listen to podcasts and audiobooks when I’m painting.

That’s so interesting! I feel like most artists that I interact with typically listen to music or nothing at all. I don’t think I’ve come across someone who listens to audiobooks. 

Actually, I can’t really listen to music when I work. Unless the feeling of the music that I’m listening to is particular… it just isn’t settling for me. 

So, this is embarrassing, but I got on the Hamilton train when I was part way through grad school. And I had a major breakthrough in my practice, where I realized I could work for so much longer, and just be more present with my paintings. I think it was because the story and the critical part of my brain were kept a little bit busy. I could work a bit more fluidly. I’m very story oriented.

Genevieve Cohn: Carrying Stones

Have you ever found that little things start to pop up in your paintings, based on something that you listened to?

Well, in July I listened to all seven Harry Potter books…. And so I’m, like, looking around my paintings and waiting for something to come out, haha. But I think it depends on what I listen to. Because sometimes I’m just listening to stories that are easy to listen to. Sometimes I listen to “InvisibIlia” or something about psychology, and I’m sure that in some way that sneaks into the work.

It’s like a mini-mind-treasure hunt! Sorry I got distracted, on to my real questions… I feel like 2022 has been kind of a whirlwind of a year. Has it felt that way for you? How have you taken care of yourself and found joy this year? 

Oh, I love that as the first “real” question. What a grounding way to start. Yeah, this year has been wild and time has just been expanding and contracting in the wildest ways, where all of a sudden it’s three months down the road. It’s been really busy and has felt especially kind of complicated because, for me personally, I’ve been busy with so many beautiful things. Like very busy painting and preparing for teaching. I’ve gone to seven weddings this summer… it’s been jam-packed with a real, active life.

I think being in the studio for me, as complicated and hard as it can be, always feels like the deepest form of self-care. I also read a lot. I try to keep this as a constant ritual, but this summer I really hammered into that, starting my morning every day with a short story, and finishing my day with a short story. Those are really grounding practices for me. And then I’ve been kayaking and going for walks and just trying to be outside as much as possible, too. 

Seven weddings and seven Harry Potter books. I feel like that’s a feat in itself, not to mention the painting! And speaking of which, I love asking artists how they would describe their work in their own words. So may I ask that of you? 

Of course! So, I make figurative paintings of communities of women, that throughout the span of my career, have been engaging with their worlds in different ways and engaging with acts of ritual practice. I think of them as imagined communities that are pulling from real histories and real observations, but also projecting into the future a bit. So it’s like this parallel history of both known and unknown possibilities for the way that we can, and do, occupy space.

Genevieve Cohn: Carrying Stones

What are some of those histories that you pull from?

I think with a lot of artists working figuratively, it started with a self-portrait, and then worlds start building out from there. For example, I was researching the Women’s Land Army and the Spanish Civil War. During those wars, the men would go off to fight and women took on all the agricultural roles, so it was women who sustained the economy and became the force for those places. They also had amazing overalls! So I pull stylistically, along with the ideas of these women coming together.

I think with any of this, I’m considering who’s permitted in and who’s left out, so am trying to be really thoughtful about the ways that I construct these communities. And slowly and intentionally building in more research and more conversations. I’m starting to think more intentionally about indigenous communities who have been doing this work forever. Then there’s magical fiction, so I think about imagined histories and even post-apocalyptic novels and short stories, magical realism, and Carmen Maria Machado’s writing. All of this constructs my work.

Yes! I’m a huge Carmen Maria Machado fan. Reading her book Her Body and Other Parties a few months ago, I lost my mind. She’s the type of writer I strive to be.

Yeah, sometimes I think of my paintings a little bit like short stories, just in the way that they are felt before anything else. And her writing is just my whole heart. I have the biggest writer crush in the world on her.

Absolute same. I’m glad that I clued into this because I felt like there was something that was really… mystical about your work. When I engage with it, I feel like there’s a balance between light and dark, a duality of energies. Is this a tightrope that you intentionally balance?

Yes! And I’m so glad that you picked up on that because I think sometimes my fear is that… they read almost like they’re colorful paintings. I never want them to feel like, “Oh, they’re pretty paintings,” but that, there’s a weight to them. That there’s a heaviness or a grounding, and that they are beautiful and luminous, but only because they’re held by the weight of the work. I’m really glad to hear that you picked up on that because it’s something that I think about all the time in my practice. And just imagining that these paintings are intentional communities that are big and complicated and that they need space to exist because the world is big and complicated.

Genevieve Cohn: Carrying Stones

There’s definitely a moodiness that emanates from them. I felt like your work was really perfect for the Winter issue because it connects with that feeling, that time of year when it feels like the rush starts to slow down, and our movements feel a bit more listless and intentional. 

That totally resonates with me. I did a show in September of last year with the Mindy Solomon Gallery in Miami. It was about that transition of holding space, taking breath, turning inwards, transitioning, and how we hold ourselves, especially, I think, in this time when the world is only getting wilder. You know, there was this time deep in the pandemic, for those of us who were fortunate enough to be able to really step back, when we were forced to slow down, and forced to be still, and forced to be with ourselves, and are now trying to figure out how to hold that space in order to pull in, recharge and proceed to the work, even as everything else continues to be wild, busy and loud. Which I think is that idea of wintering. 

Absolutely. Speaking of “the work,” I notice that many subjects in your paintings are always “doing,” whether gardening, building, or even braiding hair. To me, I guess, as a woman, there isn’t really a moment when I’m not thinking about what needs to be done next.

Yeah, completely. In some of the paintings… oh! My mom is calling!

Hi mom!

Haha, yeah, she shows up in some of these works. I’ll tell you about the process in a while… But, I feel that in some of the paintings, especially early on, you’re not really sure what they’re doing. You just trust that they’re doing something that is worthwhile, and the fact that they’re doing it as part of the community. They’re intentional, and not necessarily with a sense of urgency, but that it’s just engagement, as in, “I’m engaging with the world,” “I’m engaging with the things that I’m doing.”

And that’s why the show I did in Miami was so wild because I think it was the first time I’ve ever painted women just being still. And they were listening—like they were actively listening. They weren’t turned off, it was still a very active position to be in. But yeah, I think it’s important that the women are constantly taking part. They’re really connecting to the world that they’re a part of.

Genevieve Cohn: Carrying Stones

Yeah, some of the work feels like movement that’s kind of happening behind the scenes, even in the way that a lot of the subjects aren’t angled directly in front of the portrait. It’s as if you’re coming upon them in the midst. 

I think of them as little portals. Like you’re getting these little snippets into this other world, where they’re going to be doing what they’re doing, whether we as a viewer are here or not. They don’t need to be witnessed in order to be active. 

I know that you pull from different places, but do the women featured in your work come from your own community?

In so many ways! Most specifically, what I’ve been doing for years now, and I think it’s my favorite part of the practice, is that I’ll do a lot of research. I’ll do a lot of reading. I’m very idea-heavy. I like to have a storyline or a thematic arc to the work that I’m doing, and then I’ll bring together a group of women. I have a poet friend I’ve collaborated with, and sometimes she’ll come up with writing prompts. As a little collective we’ll discuss the ideas and collaborate, kind of build the world out together. And then I’ll do photo shoots where I’ll say, “Okay, we’re gonna build. Get ready to play.”

They’ll build and they’ll garden, imagine rituals, and then go through the rituals. And I document that, and those become the jumping-off points for the paintings. It’s really beautiful because… I think of my painting practice as something that I hope will be a lifelong venture. You know, we can never say where we know the work is going. But I love this idea of it just slowly building and evolving. And that it started with just my very close community. My mom often comes, and sometimes brings her friends, so it becomes intergenerational. 

I think I’m just very, very lucky to know I’m in a community with really incredible women, who choose to identify however they wish with their identity, like the most inclusive idea of womanhood. Teaching at Wellesley, which is historically a women’s college, where a lot of the faculty are women, I feel especially lucky.

In addition to women, I feel like nature also plays a huge starring role in your work. Sometimes as I’m looking at them, some works can feel kind of like illusory landscape paintings.

I grew up in rural Vermont, and I think it was one of the first ways that I really came to know the world. I spent my entire childhood just in the woods. Like, I grew up on a dead-end dirt road and was in the woods building forts, and constructing spaces… it became a real foundation for imaginative play. I think, for me, personally, going into the woods and being out in nature is how I feel most at peace and grounded. I think about what a privilege it’s been to have that as a foundational growing-up space. 

When I was growing up, I didn’t really have a lot of art classes. I went to a really rural school. I didn’t go to art museums. A lot of the work that I knew was local landscape painting, so it was my first way of accessing art. Also, being outside, I think of fairy tales and imaginative play. There are just so many possibilities for world building.

Genevieve Cohn: Carrying Stones

Totally, and that takes us back to the mystical and magical themes within your work. One thing I see repeated is these illuminated stones. I’m actually not sure if they’re stones or maybe just tiny sparks of light…

I think it’s something a bit in between. The actual glowing stones started with the show that I did with Mindy Solomon. It was a group show called Fairyland. I think about light a lot in my paintings. That’s a really important element that I intentionally try to construct, where the light can feel almost like it’s coming from inside the canvas and the painting, in a lot of ways, is its own light source. In some paintings, the figures actually take on the role of light source. That idea of light is something that, you know, exists in spaces of darkness. Kind of harnessing it, following it, being intentional with it.. and just formally the way that you can play with light. 

It also can feel like energy—that they are channeling energy within their hands.

Yeah, totally. My mom always says, “We carry each other’s stones.” You know, we take each other’s burdens and we put them in our pockets and carry them around, and everybody lessens each other’s loads a little bit. I think that was kind of an original feeling. How do we share each other’s burdens, as well as the light? How do we carry that through our communities in different ways? 

Genevieve Cohn: Carrying Stones

You should have answered the phone! I want to hear more from mom, that’s amazing! Growing up, given you didn’t have a lot of access to traditional art, did you always know you wanted to be an artist? Or was that something you found through the process of making?

No, I was super late to the game. Looking at it now, it’s like, how did I not know? But I think I didn’t have examples. I didn’t even know that it was a possibility, in terms of building a life around something that I love to do.

I was always kind of painting and drawing, but I wasn’t really one of those kids that were like, “I knew I was going to be an artist.” I had so many different interests. I played soccer in high school and I tore my ACL in my junior year. That was the first time that I started painting. Then in college, I majored in culture and communication, so it was an interdisciplinary major with anthropology and sociology, and politics. But I just kept on taking art classes because I really loved them. It wasn’t until my senior year that I had a conversation with a professor and asked, “What should I take my last semester?” And she was, like, “Oh, you need to take yourself more seriously. Have you considered grad school?” And as soon as she gave me permission to see myself, it changed everything. As soon as I started painting, there was just no other way to be in the world. But it was wild, because it came very personally first, and then it’s been a lot of world-building and understanding the world of art. It feels really backward, and sometimes I still have impostor syndrome, where I’m like, “Oh, I didn’t know when I was seven that this was what I was going to do!” But now that I’m here, I’m so glad that I had all of those different formative experiences and ways of thinking, ways of being critical, ways of connecting to people, ways of understanding, and writing. I think that’s what made the work what it is.

I love what you just said about “permission to see myself.” It does often feel when there is someone we adore, or who is a mentor, or we highly respect, that they play this “awareness” role. It goes back to community. They give you that understanding that what you may not have seen has been there all along.

Yeah, completely. And I’m so grateful. Now I teach and I take the role so seriously. For me, personally, I know so many people have these stories, so you have a lot of power as an educator, to be really thoughtful, and to take that responsibility seriously!

What are the things that are influencing you right now? 

I’m developing a new body of work for a show with Hashimoto Contemporary in New York. It’s been really all-consuming for the last few months. The catalyst was this book called Einstein’s Dreams by Alan Lightman. It’s a book of short stories where each story is a world in which time exists in a different way. It’s so magical. I read it in college, and it was one of those before-and-after books.

I was thinking about this one story in particular, where time is shaped in such a way that you only live for one rotation of the light. So if you’re born in the morning, you live 24 hours worth of light—but you live a full lifetime. And I was also thinking about Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave”, one of his writings, where there’s a group of people who are chained in a cave and can only stare at the wall ahead of them. So, they can only know the world through shadows and only through projections of the world happening behind them. One person escapes and sees the world in real life, so there’s the experience of “What is knowledge? What is truth?”

There’s also a forever favorite, Italo Calvino. He has a collection of short stories called Cosmicomics, that start with some scientific facts about the origins of the universe. But then he goes on to write this bizarre magical, fictionalized short story about the origin of the universe. So, in thinking about those things, this body of work is two communities of women—one who was born in the night and one who was born in the light, and they’re trying to record the life that they know. They’re chasing shadows, they’re measuring the tides, they’re observing the sensory experience of trying to understand the light because it’s leaving and going to pass on soon. 

Genevieve Cohn’s solo show at Hashimoto Contemporary, Tracing Shadows, will be on view through December 10, 2022 in NYC. 

This feature was originally published in our Winter 2023 Quarterly, available here. 

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