Some folks spend their entire lives trying to be seen as a serious artist, but Nancy Cohen is over it. At 72 years of age, the still life painter prefers not to take herself too seriously. Hence the tongue-and-cheek title of her latest body of work, “How I Got So Fat,” showing at the Morean Arts Center this holiday season. The exhibition, which features about 20 paintings of dessert and other food items, isn’t about eating too much dessert and gaining weight. It’s about self-acceptance.
This is How I Got So Fat: Paintings by Nancy Cohen
Nov. 13-Dec. 31
Opening reception Sat. Nov. 13, 5 p.m.-8 p.m.
The Morean Arts Center, 719 Central Ave., St. Petersburg
“I've met so many people who have one little thing that bothers them about themselves—they didn't go to college or whatever—and it colored everything. It makes them discount everything about themselves,” Cohen told Creative Loafing Tampa Bay. “And so my show is really about that. Be who you are and accept whatever you've got and be proud of who you are.”
This begs the question, “Who is Nancy Cohen?”
Cohen is the great granddaughter of famous New York City shoe designer Israel Miller, the daughter of an anorexic mother, a practical joker, and as I learned in a recent phone interview, an all-around fun person to chat with. She’s also part of a wave of artists who’ve come from the New York City metropolitan area to Tampa Bay in search of more affordable living and working space.
“Artists got priced out of Manhattan long ago, and then they got priced out of SoHo and Tribeca and Long Island City,” Cohen told CL. “And even Hoboken and Jersey City have become too expensive for artists. When you talk about New York, it's really random who gets recognized to be in those very fancy galleries. And it's not affordable for almost any other artist unless you luck out and get discovered by some gallery there.”
St. Petersburg is the new artists’ dream, which might explain why I’ve interviewed so many artists coming out of New York over the past few years.
“St. Pete is really a great city for emerging artists and for established artists,” says Cohen. “It's very friendly to artists. They have a commitment in St. Pete to keep the area [and its] art studios affordable, so people can be here.”
Cohen moved to St. Pete as the ArtsXchange planned its 2017 opening in the Warehouse Arts District.
“I had been down here as a snowbird, and I really was looking for a studio,” Cohen told CL, “[so] I Googled 'studios in St. Pete' and there came up this announcement of a building they were about to start building. You could put your name on a list and I did. A couple of years later, they called me and said ‘We're ready to start interviewing people to get studios.' I was very shocked that it came to anything, but it did, and I was happy to be chosen. I really love where I work."
Moving to Florida brightened Cohen’s work in ways she hadn’t anticipated.
"When I came down to Florida, I was a very classically-trained oil painter, very in the style of the old masters, and kind of dark paintings like Rembrandt-like paintings,” Cohen added. “When I got down here, it's sunny and everybody's happy. It's not New York. I felt like I needed to lighten up a little bit."
Between the Florida sun and the bright colors prevalent in Florida art, Cohen started to think differently about her work. (Cohen’s not the first artist from up north to tell me that Florida brightened up their work—Florida is shaping the art world in ways most non-artists probably haven’t noticed yet.)
“I painted a few donuts and cupcakes and I realized I like painting food,” Cohen told CL. “It's not the only thing I like painting, but I like it. It's pretty and it's fun; it's whimsical; it's not so serious. I kind of think that the not-so-serious part suits me at this point in my life.”
Cohen, who doesn’t bake herself, acquired the pastries mainly from local bakeries.
“When I would go to Dunkin' Donuts, I would explain to them that this is for a painting, so I need the best-looking donut you've got, and don't squish it,” Cohen told CL. “Then I would go back for the next round of donuts, and I would show them the painting of the donut and they would get all excited.”
Cohen’s also used some fake food, which she discovered while searching for a fake cake to top a Martha Stewart cake plate years ago. Although initially meant to adorn her newly-renovated kitchen, it wasn’t long before Cohen painted the cake into one of her still lifes. Then she started using the cake to prank her friends.
“I used it when I was having dinner parties. I would carry it out and pretend to trip, and the cake would almost fall over,” Cohen told CL. “Everybody would gasp. Of course people were quite irritated with me when it turned out we weren't having cake…"
Cohen paints most of her desserts from life, as opposed to from photographs. This allows her to get the dramatic lights and darks seen in chiaroscuro paintings that are sometimes difficult to capture in a photograph. Occasionally this means doing creative things like hammering a nail into the wall next to a window and hanging a donut from it. Or keeping a freezer full of year-old cupcakes. Cohen’s favorite dessert is ice cream, but melting is a problem when you paint from life, so she’s only painted it once and that was using fake ice cream.
Though the title of Cohen’s upcoming exhibition at the Morean is “This Is How I Got So Fat,” Cohen didn’t eat all those desserts she painted. It takes about three sessions for Cohen to complete one of her still lifes. So those pastries wouldn’t exactly be fresh when she finished. Who wants to eat a three-day-old donut that’s been hanging on a nail? Not me, but I look forward to seeing these paintings in person.
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