By a happy coincidence, my friend the artist Cicely Cottingham is currently having two shows of her works on exhibit in our local area. Both shows are well worth seeing. Cicely is an accomplished artist having had two one-person shows at the Jersey City Museum and is also represented in the Newark Museum permanent collection.
The first show is at Stewart Leshé Collections in Millburn. Stewart and his wife Carrie have the great idea of showing art as it's meant to be seen and experienced and that is to display it in your home as part of your everyday life - that makes their gallery doubly interesting because you will simultaneously see lovely eclectic furniture, many of which are collectors' pieces, as well. Greg is showing a series of paintings called The Marjorie series which were completed several years ago.
The second show is at Gallery Aferro in downtown Newark on Market Street and consists of very recent works on paper, most made especially for this exhibit and taking advantage of the gallery's scale. In case you are not aware, there is an interesting burgeoning art scene developing in Newark with several galleries located together on Market Street. Taken together they are all worth a visit and make for a great afternoon.
Michael Tcheyan (MT) - What got you started with painting?
Cicely Cottingham (CC) - Since the age of twelve I knew I was an artist but it took quite a while before I called myself a painter. After high school I went to Pratt Institute where I majored in an esoteric field called "Art of the Book"—but the majority of my courses were fine art, which of course included painting.
MT - Who were your teachers at Pratt and did you ever come across Mercedes Matter there?
CC - Mercedes was quite a respected teacher at Pratt. I never studied with her—she left Pratt and founded the NY Studio School when I was there. As I recall (it was a while ago) there was quite a buzz on campus because she took some students and faculty with her. My favorite teachers? The teachers that stand out in my memory are Philip Pearlstein, Jacob Lawrence and Gabriel Laderman.
MT - I know Gabriel. He has had quite an influence on many students. What was it like studying under a master like Jacob Lawrence?
CC - He was extremely kind and attentive to me. I was a very young 17 when I arrived at Pratt. I was quite shy—I had grown up in a farmhouse in the middle of the woods with loving but over protective parents. So it helped a lot to have someone of his stature and accomplishment take an active interest in me.
MT - Tell me about growing up in a farmhouse. I did not know that.
CC - We moved from Brooklyn (where I was born). My earliest childhood memory—I was about two—is of my mother taking my siblings and me to our new house, an old farmhouse in Chapel Hill, near Atlantic Highlands, NJ. My mother had prepared a picnic and we sat on the floor of the master bedroom and had our first meal there. The room had many windows and I remember the quality of the light—something I have never forgotten. My childhood environment became one of my major influences as an artist.
MT - Is light a keen interest of yours? Have you always worked with so much beautiful color and do you think of yourself foremost as a colorist?
CC - I don't necessarily think of myself as a colorist, but I've been told that I am. You may be surprised to know that in my earlier work, during the 80's, I worked entirely in charcoal on paper making very dark landscapes. Although they were very dark and had no color they were really about light. These works were the focus of my first show at the Jersey City Museum. It was at the end of the period of working in black that I made a conscious decision to become a painter. The early paintings were very dark, and although they were more abstract, continued to be about landscape. Over several bodies of work, and with a move from a rural to urban environment, my paintings have traveled toward abstraction and are full of color.
MT - That's quite interesting. I never would imagine you working in black after seeing your two shows at Stewart Leshé Collections in Millburn and Gallery Aferro in Newark. Can you tell me a bit about how you go about making a painting?
CC - I am very process oriented. For the last 15 years, and until recently, I've been working with the number four. Each body of paintings or drawings has been comprised of 16 works composed of four panels each. It has actually been very freeing to have this self-imposed structure within which to work. It helps me get to new places. Each body of sixteen works has different formal concerns and technical approaches. With the Marjorie paintings for example I decided not to work with brushes - I only used rollers and spatulas.
MT - Why do you call the Marjorie paintings by that name?
CC - It's a tribute to my mother Marjorie who died in 1999 at the age of 85. She instilled in me a deep satisfaction in the making of things and was always supportive of my desire to be an artist. When I read that Jackson Pollock attributed his becoming an artist to his mother (who was always making things) it resonated with me.
MT - How do you know when a painting is finished?
CC - I work on a piece until it feels satisfying. These days, what I don't want is for the paintings to be about layers of struggle, although that desire isn't about good or bad. Clearly the work of one of my main influences, Cezanne, is very much about the struggle and the traces of the decisions made stroke by stroke. I want to achieve finished paintings with less marks and a casual application of paint—paintings that look like they may at any moment fall apart. Making a work composed of individual panels helps me in that effort.
MT - What do you think comes next for you?
CC - I will continue the work I've begun with the "Flag" paintings now showing at Gallery Aferro. "Flags" are a break from the multiples-of-four strategy. The works are composed of three panels of different dimensions and are acrylic on tracing vellum. The gallery provided 60 running feet of wall space and as well as showing twenty or so works I did a site-specific work that is about 30 feet wide. It was a wonderful opportunity and I will look for more opportunities to produce large paper pieces as well as opportunities to show all of this work outside New Jersey.
MT - In March, after eighteen years, you completed your work at Aljira Design, the design studio that you co-founded along with Victor Davson at Aljira in Newark. How has that been going now that you have more time for art?
CC - It has been wonderful, but most of my time since then has been occupied with launching these two shows. For those who haven't yet seen them, I'm happy to report that the Aferro show has been extended to December 15 and Stewart Leshé Collections has been extended through the end of December.
MT - Thanks Cicely - good luck. The work looks terrific and I'm also looking forward to seeing what's next from you.