Cathedral artist interweaves many images

Interfaith Art Project highlights Philadelphia community's diversity
September 11, 2009

For Zoe Cohen, it was the opportunity to create something at her own initiative that first attracted her to the one-year residency offered to artists by the Philadelphia Cathedral, the Episcopal cathedral in West Philadelphia.

For members of the cathedral's art council, it was the 31-year-old artist's public projects involving members of the community that drew her work to their attention.

Cohen was at her "Listening Station" installation at the corner of 4th and Chestnut in Philadelphia's Old City neighborhood two years ago when she first heard from a fellow artist about the residency program. (The station is used by two people who take turns listening and speaking to each other for equal lengths of time and then reflect on their experience.)

A second ongoing project Cohen initiated, "Show Someone How You Feel About Something," encourages people in a public space to make a drawing to express how they feel and mail it to a recipient of their choice.

"One of the things about my work that the cathedral was most interested in was its participatory nature. I involve people in my role as a facilitator in public projects," she said during an interview in June as the cathedral unveiled a permanent installation at the conclusion of her residency.

The artwork, titled Sacred Origins: An Interfaith Art Project for West Philadelphia, combines images from 45 individuals, enhanced by the creative contributions of the artist herself.

A personal struggle
"When I started thinking about an installation piece, I wanted to create something of my own. But I had to honor the cathedral's decision to bring people's viewpoints into the space," Cohen said. As her residency progressed, she considered how she could involve the community, while she co-curated shows by local artists with Dr. Riyehee Hong, director of music and the arts at the cathedral, and encouraged other artists to exhibit their work there.

As she approached the time to make her proposal to the cathedral, she realized there was risk involved. "But I had to trust that the council was interested enough that they would accept what I created," she said, "even though I didn't know what it was going to look like."

She approached a group of individuals, including family members and acquaintances as well as members of the West Philadelphia community with diverse faith traditions. "I invited them to make a small drawing symbolic of some aspect of their faith practice or background, with an emphasis on origins – the origins of their faith practice in their own life or imagery from origin stories from their religion," she said.

The challenge Cohen faced was where to place each of the images and how each piece would connect with the others. She took each individual's work and made high-quality, color photocopies on acid-free paper, sizing some of them differently. "A theme started to emerge as I worked with the drawings," said the artist, who grew up outside of Boston, graduated from Haverford College, Pa., and now calls Philadelphia her home.

From the drawings she created a 5-foot by 5-foot mixed-media artwork mounted on a wooden panel. It incorporates the collected drawings and Cohen's own imagery and religious images based on her visual research process.

In unifying the separate pieces and adding color, she used watercolors, acrylics, gouache (a water-based paint with reflective quality), colored markers and pencils, and wax crayons.

Faith traditions honored Visitors to the cathedral have described the work as dynamic, colorful and quilt-like, reflecting the diverse and interconnected faith practices of the West Philadelphia community.

"It is the creation of peoples from all walks of life" said the Very Rev. Lloyd Casson, interim dean. "We like it not just because of its artistic beauty, but it goes with this particular place – this is a place of worship for all peoples.

"This really beautiful sacred space is conducive to various genres of art that are exhibited here, both permanently and on a periodic basis," Casson said, describing past exhibits that have included photography, painting, a lighting installation and a silk hanging.

Cohen looks back on the past year with gratitude. "My studio was the top floor of Cathedral House, a large open space with windows along both sides," she said, calling it a "great privilege" to have her art on prominent display.

"I feel I got the better part of the deal," she said.

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