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Why Native New York Artist loves DSM USA

DSM Arts

June 25, 2019

Something Unexpected 

The opening line of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, a nonfiction novel about a small-town Kansas murder, describes the colorless farm-belt town of Holcomb, Kansas as the type of place other Kansans refer to as “out there.” I suspect that if you were to grab someone from the coasts, say New York for instance, and asked them to point to “out there” on a map, their finger might end up pointing somewhere near Iowa. 

Sure, we can’t expect everyone to share the same admiration for our own state when the most significant recent depiction of Iowa in pop culture is as the backdrop of Field of Dreams— but even then, the main character is a corn farmer, and a mediocre one at that. 

On the other end of the stereotype spectrum is the outsider’s understanding of Iowa as a place where the good ole days are still alive and well. Terms like “Iowa nice” and the famed Iowa State Fair Butter Cow depict Iowans as a people of simple pleasures. The type of place where we gather around the old-timey diner counter, enjoy a root beer float and throw on Rock N’ Roll High School by The Ramones to pass the time. 

But getting sandwiched between scenes of monotony and a slice of Norman Rockwell heaven doesn’t leave us much room to carve out a real identity, and anyone who lives here knows that the real Des Moines experience exists somewhere between these extremes. 

Like the smell of our own homes, sometimes familiarity can breed blindness. When our brains become comfortable enough with a situation, it goes on autopilot and we stop perceiving things as new or interesting. It takes an outside force, like road construction on your daily commute or a stranger’s perspective, to jolt your brain back to life and allow you to find something new again in a familiar place. But what one sees as ordinary can be unexpected to another, and if there’s anything unexpected happening in our flyover state, it seems artist Monica Cohen has found it. 

New York, I Love You But . . . 

Monica Cohen is a native New Yorker, but you wouldn’t be able to tell just by talking to her. Part of me wanted to be talking to a bona-fide “I’m walking here!” New Yorker before realizing that I would be the one leaning on lazy geographic stereotypes. Monica describes her time in New York with reverence and a self-awareness that can only come from some time away from home. Her husband, whom she met in a yoga studio, was offered a year-long job in Des Moines and suggested that they make the move together. Monica was admittedly hesitant of leaving her home for life in the Midwest but eventually caved, considering a year in Des Moines as the perfect opportunity to focus on her art.   

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“Some Kind of Magic” - 24”x24”x1.5” inches, mixed media on canvas, 2018

The story of Monica Cohen, the artist, starts in the classroom, where a career as an art teacher was the sensible alternative to making ends meet as an artist alone. During a hiring freeze on art teachers in New York state, Monica got her first gig as an art teacher for students with disabilities, a job that fulfilled her personally and kept her hands stained with acrylic for the next 10 years.

However, cliché as it sounds, time as a teacher can teach a person a lot. Teachers are forced to reconsider the things they already know and repackage what they’ve already learned to best fit the approach of their students. Helping your students grasp a lesson requires you to grasp it first, and seeing a student succeed can feel a lot like your own success too. 

While Monica taught her students the formal and technical qualities of art, she was learning from them the power of art as a mode of expression. A way to share emotions and communicate feelings in ways that were once out of reach. 

“The arts started as a way to connect with my students who didn’t have verbal skills.” Cohen said. “They were really the ones who convinced me and showed me that I had nothing to be afraid of. They taught me that it doesn’t matter about the end product. Art is a process, and how you figure it out is part of the piece itself. The process becomes the art, not the result” 

In the same way process can outweigh form in art, sometimes why you leave a place is more important than where you end up. For Cohen, leaving New York was an opportunity to find new sources of inspiration, and more importantly, new people to teach and new people to learn from. 

Chance Meeting

“I start with a color composition that reminds me of a moment, a person or a story.”

Monica Cohen’s art is full of moments. To experience her art is like examining microscope slides as a child when you discover an entire secret world that didn’t exist to you before. You know that something happened on the paper to make it look this way, but the exact mechanics behind it are obscured. 

https://lh3.googleusercontent.com/_dLuFVkwBH5E_1dIVxbk6tI3DfryVQhn96lnW_RZihy0njZztJOu7-GcXfjChi5OWKRgfmqz_dpgEj2iI_o4K5CW2tL1Beunlkw03KKbsddEqEZpDVe-ujjsSqeA3worTc71iniQ

“Intentional”- 8”x10” inches, alcohol ink on yupo paper, 2018

Alcohol-based paint, Monica’s preferred medium, has a tendency toward randomness and it all but eliminates the artist’s hand from the end product. The fun of it comes from discovering something unexpected each time. Moments when colors carve out space or collide in unpredictable ways. These moments tend to be the most exciting parts of the work, and the most exciting parts of life too. 

“I know kind of where I want the color to go, but I know it’s not going to go there. I can only control so much, and at a certain point I have to let it do its own thing.”

There’s a difference between resignation and accepting a lack of control. That difference is what makes Cohen’s art possible. What ends up on the canvas might be different from what she set out for, but the awareness of this fact allows the end result to happen. Exercising too much control or clinging too close to expectations can be a detriment to the piece, and anyone who has set out with a plan, only to see things fall apart, knows the danger of measuring success based off of preconceptions. 

Who knows, where you end up or what you end up with might turn out to be better than what you set out for. 

“It’s a perfect kind of metaphor for life.” Cohen says through a laugh. “We can plan all we want, but at the end of the day, it is going to flow the way it wants.” 

The Des Moines’ Arts Community

To say that Monica Cohen did not expect much from the Des Moines’ art scene would be an understatement. She didn’t even know that the Greater Des Moines (DSM) art scene existed. 

But remember, expectations can obscure what’s really there, and once Cohen settled into Des Moines and attended her first proper event in the Des Moines art scene, she discovered right away that Des Moines is home to a community of creators and artists dedicated to the growth of the Des Moines art community and the cultural community of the city as a whole.  

“When I came here and realized what existed I was so excited,” said Cohen. “I was kind of brought into a community here, which was really nice because I thought I was going to be in my own silo.” (That wasn’t a farm joke, I checked.)

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“From Me To You” 18”x24”x1.5” inches, mixed media on gallery wrapped canvas, 2018

A stark contrast from her experience in New York, Monica found the Des Moines art scene to be open, welcoming and collaborative. Instead of competition driving progress, artists in Des Moines are more willing to share expertise and create opportunities for others to participate in the art community and allow the public experience it as well. 

“Art is a gateway to so many other things in your life...and if we put (art) on this pedestal and make it only for people who ‘understand’ it, you take away a whole language that we can’t use.” 

Flashy names, underground galleries, and international acclaim might help art scenes grow, but so does accessibility. Holding doors open is what we do in the Midwest, and the Des Moines art scene in particular is concerned with keeping art accessible to the public and helping other artists succeed. As the city of Des Moines continues to grow, the art community will grow alongside it. And as long as there are artists like Monica Cohen and other creators in Des Moines who are willing to keep the door open and barriers low, the entire Des Moines community will benefit as a result. 

Maybe there is something more to that “Iowa Nice” label after all.  

Monica Cohen’s work can be seen at these events during Des Moines Art Week June 21-28: 

Creative Chaos III- June 21, 2019 -  Curate in the East Village | Des Moines, IA

Vintage and Made Fair - June 22, 2019 at Franklin Jr. High | Des Moines, IA

Limited Space III - June 22, 2019 - Curate in the East Village | Des Moines, IA

Oliver + James Solo Art Pop Up, DSM Arts Week- June 26, 2019 at Oliver and James Salon | Des Moines, IA

Check out Art Week Des Moines and the Des Moines Arts Festival taking place this week!

Named as the #1 Metro with the Most Community Pride by Gallup, Greater Des Moines (DSM) is the fastest growing metro in the Midwest. Learn more about what it’s like to live here.