Artist Carolyn Cohen’s hope with this most unusual exhibit is to bring the homeless to people’s attention.

by Len Lear

Like many art lovers and museum buffs, I love gorgeous paintings of flowers, landscapes, smiling children, wild animals and pets, etc. On the other hand, there is Carolyn Harper Cohen, 51, an award-winning Montgomery County artist for the past 14 years whose works have been exhibited in galleries, art centers and other venues in Manhattan, Brooklyn, New Hope, Wichita, Kansas; Fort Collins, Colorado; College Station, Texas; Rochester, New York, and numerous Philadelphia sites, among others.

Cohen’s haunting paintings will not make you smile, but you are unlikely to forget them. Faces of people in shock, horror, depression, etc., which you will be able to see in the extraordinarily powerful collection of her works, “The Dispossessed,” which are currently on exhibit through Nov. 27 at the Muse Gallery, 52 N. 2nd St. in Old City,

Cohen’s work has a strong social justice component as she creates images of people or groups who have been marginalized, discriminated against or abused. Each of the works in this exhibit is of a real Philadelphian, someone living in an area homeless shelter or on the streets. Many of these individuals are children. The works provide faces to those who are faceless, nameless and powerless, and bear witness to those who are suffering. The beauty that Cohen’s skill brings to the images creates a tension with the inherent cruelty of the lives of the subjects.

Cohen met Darla (seen here) and her mother, Kendra, “asking for money on Germantown Avenue in March of 2016 … I invited them to have lunch with me, but Kendra refused abruptly, saying she just needed money. It is difficult to know in these situations whether in giving money one is just feeding a drug habit, but I did give them money.”

The works consist of either hand-embroidered batiks or hand-sewn large art quilts. The methods are layered, as are the colors. The work is tactile and raw rather than slick; the fabric hand-dyed, each stitch obsessively sewn by hand.

Craft has traditionally been viewed as “women’s work” and as such has been marginalized and undervalued, but the craft techniques in this work can be seen as subverting the traditional genre of portraiture. Piecing fabric together creates an image that is quite different, and less real, than a painting, which oftentimes seeks to imitate and/or idealize the person being portrayed. Instead, Cohen has searched to find the individual and emotional human character of each individual.

“I had been thinking about doing an exhibition of homeless people for many years,” Cohen said in a recent interview, “beginning when I met a homeless woman named Michelle. I first met Michelle outside of 30th Street Station in 2013. We spoke for a long time, and she told me that she alternated between living on the streets and living with a sister in North Philadelphia. She admitted that she and her sister didn’t get along, and it was often easier for her to be alone.

“She also stated that she did not trust the city shelters. I saw her at 30th Street Station two more times and then met her again six months later wandering down Market Street near City Hall. I have not seen her since early 2014, although I have spent hours looking for her. Michelle had a face that just captured me as an artist. I have made several portraits of her over the years, all based on a single photograph I took of her.

“One thing I learned about the homeless is how resilient and humble they are. As I spoke to people, both on the streets and in the shelters, one word kept coming up: grateful. Many of the homeless people I met spoke about being grateful for food, grateful for having a place to sleep, grateful for family. This was particularly true of those living in the shelters.

“One Salvation Army shelter I went to has a weekly meeting, and at the meeting everyone speaks briefly, stating one thing they are grateful for. At that meeting, out of maybe 30 individuals, only one person had nothing to say. Everyone else had something that they were grateful for. This has certainly made me reassess my own life and way of living.”

Cohen’s hope with this most unusual exhibit is to bring the homeless to people’s attention. Sadly, as she and many others have observed, these are people we walk by in center city and try NOT to see. “We try not to make eye contact and walk a little faster when passing them by,” she said. “I would like to show their humanity, and I hope that while people may still decide that giving money to the homeless is not what they want to do, they might at least learn to treat the homeless with some common courtesy and dignity. Look them in the eye. Say ‘Hello, how are you?’ Perhaps buy a homeless individual a meal. Treat them with respect and acknowledge their humanity.”

Cohen, who always wanted to create art that told a story, grew up in a suburb just outside of Rochester, New York (Brighton). She went to Kenyon College, where she received a B.A. in Fine Arts/Painting, graduating in 1987. She received an MFA from the University of Pennsylvania in 1992.

Cohen’s large art quilts will be for sale at the exhibit in the $2,500 range; the small black and white pieces for about $225. She concedes that she does not expect to sell much, but a portion of the proceeds from anything she does sell will go to a local homeless shelter where Carolyn volunteers her time.

What are Carolyn’s biggest pet peeves? “People who don’t recycle; people who drive oversized vehicles; people who only like Impressionist art and refuse to be open to more contemporary, less beautiful art. A lot of contemporary art is difficult to view, difficult to understand, and I really appreciate people, especially non-art people, who are moved to try to understand this.”

For more information about “The Dispossessed,” call 215-627-5310 or visit www.carolyncohenart.com

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