On the Enduring Beauty, Power and Fragility of Water

American sculptor and installation artist Nancy Cohen is passionate about water, so much so that much of her work for the past 12 years has focused on the topic. Her large-scale installations are the product of significant research on the history and ecosystems of individual waterways that have been damaged by human interventions and climate change.

I spoke to Cohen recently about her motivation for addressing the nature of waterways, her choice of materials and her fundamental approach to creating what she called, “beauty with an edge.” 

Why Water?

Cohen has spent most of her life observing the rivers near where she has lived and worked, both as a child and as an adult. These include the East and Hudson Rivers in New York and the Mullica and Hackensack Rivers in New Jersey, where she now resides. As a result of this day-to-day exposure to rivers, Cohen began examining “what was going on in the water” and addressing in her work the changing ecosystems of the waterways around her. At times in collaboration with environmental scientists and landscape architects, she witnessed the causes of the changes (industrial development, overbuilding, overfishing, littering, chemical waste dumping, dredging, etc.) as well as their consequences (polluted water, loss of habitats, loss of species, invasive species intrusion, flooding, salt water intrusion, etc.). 

Although Cohen clearly acknowledges the negative, man-made impact on waterways, her installations, sculptures and drawings are filled with a sense of awe at the ability of some plants and animals to adapt and survive in their altered conditions, as well as recognize both the strength and fragility of water. Despite her tendency to focus on nature’s remarkable capacity for adaptation and to create works of immense beauty, Cohen admits that she is “not a blind optimist” when it comes to the future of the environment. She is making artwork that has an “edge,” and though alluring, often receives responses from viewers suggesting that her installations appear to be dystopian habitats.

Materials

Cohen’s installations and paintings are comprised primarily of paper and glass that she makes herself, along with other media chosen to serve her vision for the pieces. Her decision to use paper and glass as the foundation for her work is based on her commitment to materials that reflect a connection to water and to the waterway sites themselves. Cohen explains:

Water is an intrinsic component in making paper. During the paper-making process, the artist is literally immersed in water. Paper also allows for the reflection of water’s movements and color changes and can accommodate grasses and other natural materials that are embedded in the paper itself. In addition, many of the waterways I have addressed, such as the Mullica River in South Jersey, have had a long history of paper-making along their shores. Similarly, sand is a major component used in glass-making, which also took place in factories along these waterways.

Elements of a General Theory of Hydrodynamics

Cohen’s installation Elements of a General Theory of Hydrodynamics is part of an exhibition entitled “Summation and Absence,” on view through August 16, 2019 at the BioBat Art Space on the Brooklyn waterfront in New York. According to the curators, “each installation opens a fresh portal into what is at stake for life on this planet, inviting the viewer to reflect on the beauty and complexity of life within a vulnerable ecosystem.” Elements of a General Theory of Hydrodynamics was originally created in 2008 for the Holland Paper Biennale at the CODA Museum in Apeldoorn, Netherlands.

The installation reflects Cohen’s understanding of the current state of the Mullica River in the Pine Barrens of Southern New Jersey. As she described it, 

In coming to know the Pine Barrens –  from readings, from conversations with marine biologists and environmentalists and, more directly, from a winter boat ride through the marshes – I began to feel the fragile ecosystem as a fragile presence in itself. As in our own lives, elements hang in the balance, each one necessary, vulnerable, beautiful and above all, interdependent…

I am struck by the endless planes of both still and undulating water and the deep equilibrium and balance of the place. As just one example, the waters of the estuary are of many kinds, distinct but intermingled. The browns and blues – and yellows and greens – of the gradual progression from river to sea find their way into sculptural forms of handmade paper that look as if they might have been stained by the passage.

More generally, the waterways are in slow and constant evolution, much as we are. Form, space and color are never static. In its movement the water changes what it touches – it quite literally moves the environment that gives it form. And, lastly, the nature-in-itself of the estuary does not exist alone. A man-made world impinges and is impinged upon. But the necessity of evolution, of impact and especially of inescapable but perilous interaction – this is what each of us confronts in every moment of our lives. In its moods and modes, I have found the ways of the water very human. 

Nancy Cohen, Elements of a General Theory of Hydrodynamics. Handmade paper and wire, 47 x 11 x 8 inches, 2008. CODA Museum, Apeldoorn, Netherlands.

Works on Paper

Not confining herself to installations and sculpture, Cohen is a prolific creator of mixed media works on paper. Her most recent paper images, along with mixed media glass sculptures, were shown at Kathryn Markel Fine Arts gallery in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York City from March through May of this year. The seven works on paper were based on waters observed during two artist’s residencies this past summer in Samara, Dominican Republic and in Eastport, Maine. The images shown below and at the beginning of this article are based on Cohen’s examination of the shoreline of Eastport, Maine. Both pieces address what’s left of the fishing and canning factories, which have been abandoned as a result of overfishing in the area and have since fallen into the ocean. Underside depicts how the water is reclaiming the architecture; Remnant reveals the remaining pieces of the wooden piers that supported the factories and have become covered with “seaweed creatures.”

Cohen’s process in creating these works incorporates water at every stage. She first made the blue background paper from the fiber of abaca, an herbaceous plant similar to the banana plant. Then, using wet pulp from various fibers, she formed the surface imagery, which leaves the impression that it has been stitched. Even the irregular, undulating quality of the paper evokes the intrinsic movement of water.

Nancy Cohen, Remnant. Paper, pulp and handmade paper, 54 x 54 inches, 2018.

Hackensack Dreaming

Hackensack Dreamingis a monumental installation inspired by the post-industrial landscape of the Mill Creek Marsh, a highly polluted section of the Hackensack River near a popular mall in Secaucus, New Jersey. Cohen described her first look at the site during the winter of 2014 in the following way:

A few steps from the shopping center parking lot, we entered a quiet space where pools of flat, still water gave way to the tops of wooden tree stumps that seemed to break free from thin sheets of ice while simultaneously appearing to encapsulate them as they ruptured the surface of the pale blue water. The stump forms are inexplicable, magical, sculptural. They seem to embody fragility, perseverance and a caught moment. Conceptual ideas I have been moving around in my work for years were suddenly presented to me besides the New Jersey Turnpike.

Crafted from handmade glass, rubber, metal and handmade paper, Hackensack Dreaminghas been exhibited in a number of venues including the Visual Arts Gallery of the New Jersey City University in Jersey City, NJ (2015) and the Agnes Varis Art Center at UrbanGlass in Brooklyn, NY (2016). In a review of the installation for ArteFuse, an on-line contemporary art blog, A. Bascove described his impression of the room-sized piece:

This is a dream of thousands of years ago, before mammals walked the earth, when these waters teemed with trilobites, brachiopods, jellyfish, early crustaceans and sea sponges, the earliest forms of life…

Cohen’s skill and virtuosity are in full command as she finds the poetry in the ruins and memories of a forgotten, once vital, living body of water. The passage of time, the impersonal destruction by human encroachment never entirely supersedes the recognition of sublime beauty and the pulse of life in the most unexpected places.

Nancy Cohen, Hackensack Dreaming. Handmade paper, glass, rubber, monofilament,  
2014-2015. Detail.

After reading numerous articles and looking at many images in preparation for this article, I was impressed by both the evolution and clear focus of Cohen’s work over the past twelve years as she developed a body of work on the enduring beauty, power and fragility of water. It was also clear to me that Cohen has perfected her craft in papermaking and glassmaking to the point where it effectively evokes the state of our environment today. As she told me in my interview with her, this is, as a human being and as an artist, her contribution to the critical conversation on climate change, the most important existential issue of our time.

(Top image: Nancy Cohen, Underside. Paper, pulp and ink on handmade paper, 25 x 50 inches.)

This article is part of Imagining Water, a series on artists of all genres who are making the topic of water a focus of their work and on the growing number of exhibitions, performances, projects and publications that are appearing in museums, galleries and public spaces around the world with water as a theme. 

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Susan Hoffman Fishman is a painter, public artist, writer, and educator whose work has been exhibited in numerous museums and galleries throughout the U.S. Her latest bodies of work focus on the threat of rising tides, our new plastic seas and the wars that are predicted to occur in the future over access to clean water. She is also the co-creator of two interactive public art projects: The Wave, which addresses our mutual need for and interdependence on water and Home, which calls attention to homelessness and the lack of affordable housing in our cities and towns.

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Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

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