Paul M. Hollister Collection, The Rakow Research Library of The Corning Museum of Glass
Transcribed by Bard Graduate Center
Title: Carol Cohen Lecture, 1988 (Rakow title: Carol Cohen interview [sound recording] / with Paul Hollister, BIB ID: 167958).
Recorder by Paul Hollister
Doug Heller, Introduction
Carol Cohen, Lecturer
Location: probably Heller Gallery, New York (lecture part of Heller Gallery’s Glass America 1988 seminar)
Amara Green, Transcriber
Barb Elam, Editor
Lauren Drapala, Summary
Duration: 24:32
Length: 7 pages

Note: This transcript is based upon an audiotaped recording that has been digitally converted. The recording is part of the Paul M. Hollister Collection at The Rakow Research Library at The Corning Museum of Glass, Corning, New York, and was transcribed at Bard Graduate Center, New York, New York, for the digital exhibition and archive Voices in Studio Glass History: Art and Craft, Maker and Place, and the Critical Writings and Photography of Paul Hollister. Usage requests for all or part of this transcript must be obtained from The Rakow Research Library at The Corning Museum of Glass. 

Paul Hollister often made audio recordings for research purposes in preparation for writing, including interviews with artists and curators, and lectures. The reader should bear in mind that transcriptions of these recordings reflect spoken, rather than written, prose. While every effort was made to be as accurate as possible, the sound quality of the recordings in the Paul Hollister Collection varies greatly. Transcripts have been edited for readability and occasionally condensed. They should serve as a best-effort guide to the original only and not be considered verbatim.

American artist Carol Cohen (1939–2020) developed a special technique of painting sheet glass to portray three-dimensional imagery in her glass sculptures. She trained in the Department of Painting and Design at the Carnegie Institute of Technology from 1956 to 1957 before earning her BA in anthropology and sociology from George Washington University in 1961. Cohen began her artistic career in 1970, working first as a painter and then exploring sculpture in various media before moving into glass. Prior to retiring in 2008, Cohen’s studio was based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Summary: In this recorded slide lecture for the Heller Gallery, Cohen describes her early painting practice as a “colorist” and her subsequent transitions to more sculptural work, first through shadow casting sculpture in clay and steel, and later through painting on sheet glass. Cohen cites specific examples of her work as markers of these transitions, citing many of the pieces that were on display at Heller Gallery at the time she gave this lecture.

Mentioned: airbrushing, auto body shops, Bennington College, Boston Architectural Center, Boston City Hall, Blanche E. Colman Foundation, Douglas Heller, Heller Gallery, Massachusetts Artists Fellowship Program, oxy acetylene, pinstriping, spray painting, steel, vinyl

Related asset: Paul Hollister. “Jon Kuhn and Carol Cohen—Ergründung des Innenraumes/Exploration of Inner Space.” Neues Glas, no. 4 (October/December 1988): 281-287.

[program recording begins mid-sentence]

Douglas Heller (DH): …[inaudible] to us a little over a year ago. This is the second Glass America exhibition that she’s participated in. She’s also participated in a two-person show earlier this year, and we’ll have a one-woman show coming up within the next year. She combined elements of painting and sculpture. She’s a professional artist for more than 20 years. She worked in other materials and I think she gives evidence to the fact that glass has certain unique properties that people are looking for. It can answer a question and Carol’s going to talk to us about her ideas and her approach to her art. I give you Carol Cohen. [applause]

CC: Well, I’m starting off with a piece that’s in the current show at the Heller Gallery in case you don’t connect the name Carol Cohen with any particular work. This piece is called Tea and Fruit, and it’s made of painted layers of glass that are stacked up so that as you look down through it, it forms the illusion of three-dimensional objects. There’s a long title on the flyer for this. I can’t quite remember it, but it sounded really impressive and I think it means—it refers to my search over the years for the right material for my work. Douglas [Heller] thought you might be interested in seeing where I came from in terms of art and how I came to glass. I’ve only been working in glass for five years, although I’ve been doing professional artwork for a long time before that. So what I’ll be showing you is earlier work and glass work too. Now, some artists start with a material that they love, such as clay, for example. And they learn all the techniques, and then they go into their studios, and they say, ‘What can I do with this wonderful stuff?’ But others, including me, start first with something that we want to say visually. And then we cast about for the right material to say it with. So I’m going to show you slides of work in various materials starting back when I was a painter, in early seventies, which is just the earliest that my slides started to be halfway decent. And up to my present work in stacked glass, including some of my early work in glass, and you’ll be seeing an exploration of materials: paint, clay, plastic sheet, paper, sheet steel, bar steel and glass. And the materials were used not for their own sake, but for the rightness for a particular vision. [brief pause]

This is a painting about five feet high. It’s called Sun Circles, and it was one of a long series I did based on the shadows of leaves where I’d start with the actual shadows cast on the panel and then build up lots of layers of glazing and scumbling. I was a colorist. I thought of  myself very much as a colorist and you’ll see that I threw out color totally for a long time. Well, the end result—that particular year, it got to be wintertime and all the leaves fell from the trees, and the acrylic paint was freezing in the brush. So I needed a different way to cast shadows, and I took the panels inside and set up a strong light in front of a panel and started hanging small forms—small objects, between the light and the panels. And I used clay because I had access to a kiln, so I made lots of little pieces of clay. So they cast a complicated shadow, and I used that as a taking off point for the painting. And that winter I made a series of really bad paintings, but the objects that I was hanging got to be interesting to me. And at that point, I guess I became a sculptor. This is about three feet high and it’s dozens of repeating, almost lathe-like shapes of high-fired unglazed porcelain that are thrown on stainless steel wire and suspended. And the shadows are very much part of the work. So at this point, I threw out color, and I loved [tape drops out]—it’s like candy to me, but I felt in order to really understand form in the third dimension, I had to eliminate this one aspect of it, and so I kept it out for 12 or 13 years, and I didn’t bring it back in until I got to glass.

This is also clay and about three feet high. These are the early seventies. But I needed a less breakable material than clay, which is ironic considering I’m now working in glass. So I started combining clay with other materials in these things. This is about six feet high and it’s black and brown clay and pieces of rusted steel and lengths of band saw blades that are all strung and hung up. This is from my installation in 1974 at the Boston Architectural Center [Boston, Massachusetts]. So I looked around for a less breakable material. I knew I’d phase out the clay for a while, and I looked into white Plexiglas, cutting it and heat bending it, and white felt and some other things, and for a while I settled on white vinyl sheets. This is six feet high and four feet wide, and it’s a doubled up layer. The front layer was all cut into and opened and the flap allowed it to hang forward and create a dense texture, and then they cast a shadow on the back. Again, I work a lot with shadows. The back is solid and acted like a rear projection screen. [brief pause, presumably advancing slide]

This is the shadow caster that I did for the Institute of Contemporary Art [Boston, Massachusetts] in 1974. Two 50-foot lengths of white vinyl sheet were laid down underneath the trees along the Esplanade, which is a shady leafy park along the river in Boston, and the sun circles were cut out. These are the disks, the out-of-focus images of the sun that form the disks that you call dabble in a leaf shadow. And that was hung up in front of Boston City Hall to cast a leafy dabbled shadow on the brickyard, which was Boston City Hall Plaza to make a point about shade and public space. [brief pause, presumably advancing slide]

At that point, I had to move into a smaller studio, so I worked smaller. This is a paper piece, just cut into and bent for relief work. But I got interested in a topological problem of working with one rectangular plane and opening it in the third dimension and in a variety of ways and leaving the edge intact, which will show up later in the steel work. This piece called Bird Belly, it’s about 30 inches square, and it’s slightly draped paper on the wall. I knew I had to work—at that point, I needed to learn to work in sheet steel, so I could make these thin pieces stronger and larger and more permanent. And at about that year in 1975, I got a Blanche Colman Foundation grant, which enabled me to get oxyacetylene torch cutting equipment and a compressor and spray gun and all the stuff that I could use to spray the steel to cut it with a torch the way I had been cutting paper with an X-Acto knife and then spray it so that it would look matte white like paper. [brief pause, presumably advancing slide]

This slide is not here by mistake. What happened is, I needed to get a lot of free torch cutting material and I started hanging around auto body shops because there’s a lot of dead fenders. You know, they don’t knock the dents out your fenders anymore. They just unbolt them and throw them away, put on a new one. So I was able to get lots of free material and at the same time, I got a job at a car painting place to learn the spray painting technique and the metal preparation techniques. These are very alternative to schooling ways I know, but it worked. And I’d hang around the spray booth and learn from the professionals. Then I’d go to my own space, and I’d practice all these skills. But in the meantime, I found that there was a kind of a career niche for me. I could make a living doing what is called custom automotive painting. And most of the people who do it are auto body guys, and they don’t know that much about color mixing or composition or drawing. So I was able to bring my art skills to this area and work up my own skills for the fine art later. This is a Harley Davidson motorcycle gas tank. [audience laughs] It’s a kind of spray painting technique I use, it’s called—done with an airbrush, which is a really tiny spray gun. It’s about the size of a pen and in order to control the edge so you can get a sharp edge, you have to mask off everything except where the paint is going. This is the side of it. Flames are a common automotive motif. [brief pause, presumably advancing slide]

This is another Harley tank. Using a technique, again, I started using this later in fine art work, so I put these in. This technique is called pinstriping. Now you’ve probably seen pinstriping and maybe not known it under that name. Often on those big Mack trucks, construction vehicles you’ll see just straight lines outlining the panel, and sometimes you’ll see some swirls and scrolls around the door handles or around the company name. In Boston, the swirls are sometimes called spaghetti, and I found, although I was terrible on a straight stripe, I was pretty good on the spaghetti, so I was able to get work doing this, which is a—it’s sort of decorative art, and in fact, it’s been around for a long time. I don’t know what they called it back in the eighteenth century, but the coaches were decorated like this. [brief pause, presumably advancing slide]

At this point [audience laughter], I was becoming afraid of my own customers [audience laughter] not the van people or the trucks, but the bikers. Some of them were dangerous. In fact, some of them were deliberately unpredictable, so I worked out some of my feelings by—I worked from a Frank Frazetta illustration and did this of a Viking berserker. But the pinstriping stood me in good stead, and you’ll see that later I use it on glass, as one of my—in my repertoire of brushstrokes. This was my own VW bus. It’s Winslow Homer’s The Fog Warning done in automotive lacquer with airbrush. At that point, this must have been about 1978, the gas crunch came, the oil shortage, and a lot of my business started drying up because I was doing recreational vehicles and motorcycles and people at that point took them off the road. So this is a good time for me to get back to fine art work full-time, especially because I’d been practicing all these hand-eye skills. So I worked in steel the way I had been working in paper, cutting, bending, flapping, working with a shadow, rusting it or painting it. This is Bird Belly again, four feet high, made of steel. You can focus that? Can I? This is also four feet high. It’s called Woman. This is a back view of it. Ah, let’s see. [brief pause] This is eight feet high. And when you work this large in steel, let’s say as heavy as 11 gauge, which is only an eighth inch six, you’re going to get some flexing problems. So I knew I had to work in heavier steel. See, all the way along as if I was encountering problems and then working towards solutions of materials, so I had to work in heavier steel. This was my last thin steel piece. It’s called Butte. And, also, I was finding these Canyon and terracing forms. All the layers that are now showing up in the glass were already somehow there in another form. This is a side view of it. So, I hadn’t ever been out to the Southwest, but I finally got there. And what happened was an experience of recognition. I think I saw the buttes and mesas, and I realized I was already doing forms and colors like this, but I wanted to do them bigger, so I had to learn heavier steel. But what you’re going to get in here is a five slide travelogue, because I’ve started going on solo backpacking trips to mostly to Southern Utah. And I—only once did I take a camera, there was an area I thought they might pave over. And so I put these in here for that. You’ll see some of the layering and forms that are showing up in my work cross [inaudible] and so forth. And also, I think that if you cut open my head, this is what the inside of my skull would look like. [brief pause, presumably advancing slide]

The next summer I was able to have access at Bennington College [Bennington, Vermont] to the metal sculpture facilities. And I got hold of some bar stock steel, which is quarter inch thick, and this is one-inch-wide, very long pieces. And I cut it, curved it, stacked it, an arc welded it to make forms like this. And these were much heavier. They could endure out-of-doors. This is a Buddha. [brief pause, presumably advancing slide]

This is a flat nest of the bar stock. These pieces were taken up to Plum Island, which is north of Boston and stacked up with—filled with sand and then stacked up in layers, and then the iron bands were removed. And this is Plum Island Butte. A small torso about three feet high. Airbrushed. The tool that I started using because it was a car art tool, I found a terrific device for making drawings, just using black, you can get this really dense, velvety almost charcoal quality to the paint. These drawings were mostly made during a residency I had. I was an artist-in-residence twice under the sponsorship of the Massachusetts Artists Fellowship Program and the second one was at Hudson High School [Hudson, Massachusetts] and I was able to do the airbrush drawings in the art room, and the steel work in the metal shop. This standing figure is about six feet high. It’s very loosely tack welded so the form could remain open. This reclining figure—about six feet long. [brief pause, presumably advancing slide]

And this standing figure is about five and a half feet high. It’s rusted and varnished. This is a back view of it. The steel now was becoming heavy enough so that it was—I was getting a design problem. This piece weighs close to 200 pounds. I would start the design with a front and side elevation drawing and then bend each piece, following the measurements, but pretty much guessed at what would happen around the curve. And then each piece would be stacked and weld to the one below, and I’d go up that way and I couldn’t go back. So I need to find a way to see the design before I began from all different directions. Now I looked into using a personal computer. This was about 1982. And at that time, personal computers didn’t have memories large enough to handle all the points of a really organic shape like this that I’d have to put into it to use a three dimensional rotation program, so that it would show me on a screen a form like this, from all different views. So one day in my studio, I got hold of a piece of hardware store storm door, clear plastic sheet, and I cut it into eight-inch squares. And I drew the layer number one on sheet number one and layer number two on sheet number two. And I stack them up and I spaced them out with some little chips of wood. And this is what I had. In fact, this was the original, this prototype. And I walked around it, I was amazed. I found that it looked different from all different angles. I was fascinated by what I had here. In fact, I think I must’ve walked around it all day cause I guess at that point I realized I had a new medium. But I was already working in bar steel, sheet steel, airbrush and collage, and this was going to take a great deal of time to develop. I knew that. And I wasn’t sure yet, I really wanted to spend that much time. There were a lot of problems to solve. The first being just plastic or glass, the sheet, and I can—I’ll go into that another time about all the choices and the devices I had to figure out to develop this. So I finally did decide to develop it, and I essentially locked myself into my studio for almost four years until I felt the work was ready. And came out in about a year ago, I brought my work down to the Heller Gallery and didn’t show it to anyone except a few artists. Let me show you some early pieces. 

These work boots were—this was a conscious choice of imagery. You know, a lot of times we let the images, the subject matter just flow into our work. But I found that all the earlier work, the imagery would just float in. But at this point, there were so many problems to solve, that I was deliberately choosing subjects that worked with this layering. Well, I’ve made a lot of mistakes too, which you’re not going to see, but the reason I did the work boots is that I had essentially put myself back to school in my own studio. I had so much to learn, and a lot of times our teachers in junior high school or even grade school will assign the problem with drawing a pair of old work boots or old sneakers to the art class. So I thought, well, I’m back in school. I might come back [inaudible] be doing. This is an early piece from 1983 just a bit out of focus, I think. Maybe not—here. It’s a conscious choice of imagery again—the watery medium of glass made me think of doing this. There’s one goldfish that’s inside the bowl and the other is outside of the bowl, but it’s in the medium of the glass. [brief pause]

These hands were done about that time and they’re very seaweedy. [brief pause, presumably advancing slide]

You know, there’s no color until just about now. This is a wine bottle pouring wine into a glass. It was a draft for a piece I did—I chose not to finish, but I’m just bringing color in, after 12 or 13 years. And, at this point, I thought I could afford to juggle color. I had solved a lot of the problem of technique and materials and spacers and calibration of the whole system and so forth. And I could reward myself with color, which I still loved a whole lot. So I brought it in about a year and a half ago, and it’s been an explosion. [brief pause, presumably advancing slide]

This is my studio. I thought I’d put this in here because no one’s ever seen it. You’re welcome to visit me, especially if you’ll help me carry firewood for that big wood stove that’s in the middle of the picture which is my only source of heat. These are some of my models. [brief pause, presumably advancing slide]

Now I’m going to run very quickly through some glass pieces from 1987. [brief pause presumably going through several slides]

This is tiny. It’s about five and a half inches long. [brief pause, presumably going through slides]

Oh, the pinstriping I mentioned, this head represents the element water, and it’s a very seaweedy head with a lot of goldfish swimming through it, but actually it’s 35 separate pinstriping designs, and I think I maybe should have exhibited it as 35 separate sheets of glass arrayed around the world. The gallery. [brief pause, presumably going through slides]

This is no paint. It’s just engraved. [brief pause, presumably going through slides]

And this brings us up to December ‘87. That’s it. Thank you. [applause]

[recording ends]