Jeane Cohen is an artist based in Brunswick, Maine. As a painter, teacher, and community organizer, Jeane creates pictorial and psychological dreamscapes, where patterns crackle, data disintegrates, and spirits unfold. After this conversation, I can see that her intellect swirls and churns as much as her paintings!
ES: If you could paint anywhere at any time in the past, present, or future, where, when, and what would you paint?
JC: I’ve always been inspired by life-like depictions such as the natural drawings of Maria Sibylla Merian in the 1700s and the Villa of Livia painted garden in Rome in the first century BC. So I might choose to depict at a time when rendering felt more like a magical conveyance of the subject and when perception itself was a kind of art. The Fayum mummy portraits come to mind. I think those working-class portrait artists had such an amazing mix of responsibilities. They honored the dead, evoking their spiritual presence and creating a living portrait for family members. That is art at its best.
ES: Wow, I love the idea of perception itself being a kind of art. It makes me think about your background and interest in psychology and consciousness. Do you perform rituals to connect spiritually and magically to your subjects? And if so, are these actions particular to the practice of painting, or could you apply them to other artistic modes and mediums?
JC: I spend a lot of time absorbing what comes into my optical field, particularly from natural environments. I focus on intuitively rearranging what I see into patterns and systems of integration, so much so that I often can’t describe what I have been looking at afterwards, because it is an entirely visual experience. I am alone when I practice this, and it takes a lot of time and patience, but it comes naturally.
When I paint, I’m trying to become my subjects or become the sensations I absorb so that I can translate them and make an imprint. In that way, my painting process is as deep and as intense as a ritual, and the resulting paintings can leave a residue of my enchantment.
Painting is so impressionable that it is conducive to imprinting these intervals and integrating them in the pictorial field, but I can imagine this process could take shape in other mediums. Whatever form it takes needs to be imprintable with the connections I am making between processes of sensing, imaging, knowing, and recreating.
ES: Thinking about this idea of you becoming your subjects, do your subjects need to initiate or receive the work for it to have import? And does a successful imprint need a participant?
JC: That’s a good question. I’m not sure who is initiating. Often, I am struck by something I see, and then it goes into the painting. Is something striking out at me, or am I looking for something to be struck by? It’s nice to think the things I paint might know or respond to their being painted in some way. As you know, I’ve been reading a lot about consciousness, and one theory posits consciousness as a kind of fabric within the universe in which each human consciousness is partitioned off like a bubble from other consciousness systems, but it is still connected. That’s how I’m thinking about myself and my subjects. For me, imprinting is about being open to the connections that are already there. Usually, the more connected I am, the more successful the painting is.
ES: Your process sounds enchanting, exhilarating, and exhausting. If you could give yourself a cosmic booster shot what would it be?
JC: I could definitely use that. I would take the booster that restores my awareness of the individual memory of all the particles in my body, from their origin to their current form in me. That way, we would all have an understanding of how we have come together in a body and what we might accomplish during this lifetime. I imagine this would bring more clarity and a lot less stumbling around in the dark as the different parts of me jangle around.
ES: Taking into consideration all of these particles, if you could design a viewing habitat for your work, what would it look like and how would it function?
JC: The museum is one thing, and the forest is another. I would probably design an arboreal garden that could teach itself how to biodiversity by harnessing creative capacities on a microscopic level. For example, stem cells, which are a unit of flexibility and creative capacity on the cellular level, could be employed creatively.
There’s this scene in the movie Annihilation where the radioactivity in the environment causes a reaction in plants, so they learn to spring up into living imitations of the forms they come into contact with, almost like ice sculptures in a winter garden. Similarly, things in my arboreal garden environment might not be where or how you expect to find them. The milky way might be in the shadows of trees at high noon, and refracting prisms might intensify in luminosity instead of dissipating, growing into their own glowing rainbows, like lightning bugs. Everything would be churning with a quality of aliveness.
According to theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli’s quantum loop theory, the momentum of the big bang might actually have been rebounding from the previous activity and not an origin without a past. Similarly, this garden would reflect boomerang-like patterns of physics, with an internal capacity for call and response and conscious creative design.
ES: Thank you, Jeane. I love the way your brain works!
Image at top: Jeane Cohen, Portrait.