Why Nora Cohen Left School To Bring Art Into Your Home

Nora Cohen is a 22-year-old aspiring painter and textile designer living in New York City. “I don’t think my pieces have much of a narrative to them. Sometimes I think I should work on having a more direct message in my work, like other people, since I naturally focus more on technique. Although I guess my paintings are more naturally expressive, ” she said, sitting on her bed, smoothing out some material of what she calls “yardage”. It’s a term of measurement referring to the fabrics she designed, painted, and printed, mostly during her time at California College of Art and London’s Central St. Martin. She has yet to finish her college degree, however, having moved back home after her studies abroad to develop her own brand of textiles for the home that will include bags, pillows, and decorative fabrics. Neither school seemed worth the time, money, or effort that it would take to graduate. Her parents are unconventional in their unconditional amount of support for her artistic endeavors. 

The 2015 art school conundrum: These days, young people argue with themselves, each other, and then of course, with their parents about the value of a higher education in the arts. It’s tough to see the benefit of school, when, maybe, if you hashtag an Instagram post of your work just right, you might just get noticed, blow up, and laugh all the way to the bank, middle finger pointed upwards to all the kids who suffered through six hour-long studio classes, only to graduate with charcoal-stained jeans and if they’re lucky, an internship at an organization that vaguely relates to their major. Nora, without even trying, has naturally developed her own path outside the borders of this horrid, common “millennial” struggle. She did art school until it made sense, and then stopped when it didn’t. 

“I never felt like I was good at anything in high school. It always just about getting good grades and…” Always shy, her sentences tend to roll upwards in pitch, finishing themselves in audible question marks—am I answering these questions, okay? she asks me for reassurance, to which I respond, shut up, you’re great.  “In math class, you know, there was just no place for me…I really liked history, but it was so hard to do well. When I applied to college, my guidance counselor basically let me know that I should expect nothing other than to attend community college.”

I laugh, remembering when she took the SATs and did horribly, mostly due to the intense levels of stress and pressure she put on herself to do well. She’s also my sister. Nora is my younger sister by two years. Our parents, seeing how nerve-wracked she was to succeed, hired a tutor, and committed deeply to reminding Nora to do her SAT homework every night. She did notably worse the second time around. We all shook our heads and hugged her afterwards, reminding her over and over that she had got to stop internalizing ideas about standardized measurements of intelligence. When the time to apply to colleges came, the random idea of putting together an entire portfolio of artwork within six months seemed daunting, but necessary. Growing up in a household headed up by two artist parents, where boxes of colored pencils were stacked in every room alongside Degas and De Kooning books, Nora had never considered herself an artist, but understood that the option was available to her. The acceptance letters from top art schools came rolling in, one by one, reading, yes, Nora, yes. You’re good and we want you.

“I didn’t get into any of the lowest ranked city schools, but I got into every single art school I applied to. So that was reassuring.”

“So what happened once you got in?” I asked. This is my favorite part of the story.

“Art school just painted a bigger picture of like, this is what I want to do. It was the first time I felt really excited about anything I was doing. I loved what I was learning, and it just made me feel like I could explore a lot of different kinds of things I wanted to do.”

I nodded, remembering the surge in confidence in her voice, her movements, upon returning home for winter break, just after her first semester. Every time I think about it, it’s hard not to cry. But my feelings about Nora, her personal growth, my sister, and my love, end here. One of the smartest things you can do is know when to stop talking, or when to stop writing. Know when to stop giving people words, and let their work speak for itself, because it’s better than anything you could say about it. We sat on her bed for the interview, and I returned to the question of narratives in her work.

“You say that your work doesn’t present narratives, but isn’t there somewhat of basic story-like structure even in the process of making textiles? Because where you start isn’t even close to what your finished product looks like, right?”

She considered it. “Right, yeah, that’s true. There’s a whole process for printing on fabric; you have to pin down it down, burn your screens…in yardage, when you start, the fabric looks like a checkerboard, because you can’t print on to a wet part of the fabric…and I think it’s really interesting to watch a pattern grow while you’re making it. While I’m screenprinting, even if I don’t like what I’m doing, it’s really cool to see how it progresses into a full piece of work, at every step. Watching your images grow into one big unit is just really exciting.”

I was curious about how she maintained enough patience and motivation to stay present through that process.

“You have to make whatever you’re doing your own. I feel like you can always find a way to make your work into something that you like. There’s no way that you can make any work if you’re not really excited about what you’re doing.”

That blew my mind. So much of the work of an artist is establishing a personal discipline, or workflow that makes you feel valid enough to have chosen a career that champions your own expression. There are so many nights we sit, and tell ourselves, make something! make something good! and then we make nothing, because how could you, in that state of mind? Nora naturally bypasses this common and horrid struggle as well. She likes to get manicures. She likes to have coffee, to spend time with her friends and her boyfriend, to watch movies, to go to bed at 10 PM and wake up promptly seven hours later. She puts the stereotype of an manic, cigarette smoker, Jean-Michel Basquiat-die-for-my-work-or-just-die artist to bed, literally. She despises cigarettes.

“At CCA, my teacher would always tell us to take our ‘thinking brains’ off while we worked. That’s easy for me,” she said. “And you know, there are a lot of things I’m grateful to that school for teaching me. At Central St. Martins, we learned a lot about the design aspect of textile work, and it was much more rigid in some ways—for example, before printing anything, we’d have to make an entire sketchbook of drawings for our planned design.” She leafed through a black notebook, showing me ink drawings of black flowers. “But at CCA, we learned a lot about the ethical and theoretical aspect of textiles, which is really important, especially since textile craft is so based off cultural traditions.”

“Textiles are also interesting because they’re so inherently feminine, right?” I remembered that she’d schooled me on this once. “It’s all about women sewing blankets and making beautiful things to put in your home—”

“Yeah,” she laughed. “It’s funny, because there’s not really that much use for a piece of printed fabric. At school, we’d have to do these critiques, and I would just pin my work up on a white wall, and a lot of times, people wouldn’t really know how to critique it. It’s just there, you know?”

This is an aspect of Nora’s work that explains why a lot of people are very naturally drawn to it. There’s no sense that what you’re looking at is something that she’s trying to prove, or to make you believe. Intuitively, her work expresses emotion that prompts you to immediately respond, but that response is fully your own. And, intuitively, she’s got great taste. We’ll walk into Opening Ceremony or Isabel Marant and often see fabrics used by high-end designers that Nora selected months ago from scraps of cloth at PS Fabrics on Canal Street.

I asked, “What about making t-shirts, or designing some line of clothing?”

She sat upright to respond. “No, because I really like structural things, and a t-shirt feels very flat to me, or just very small, and I tend to work bigger. Actually, I don’t know why I’m saying that. I’d like to collaborate with a fashion person at least once. But it’d probably be a situation where I designed the textile and then gave it to somebody to take from there. I’m not sure. I’m not even sure yet about a lot of things, because for example, I love painting and drawing, but I don’t know how I’ll cross that over to my other work…but maybe it doesn’t even need to. We’ll see.”

“And in terms of collaborating,”—I finished up—”You’ll probably need a business partner for your textile line, right?”

“Yeah, because I’m not good at business at all. Those are the kinds of things that they don’t teach you in art school—like how to market yourself, or how to price your work. It’s hard for me to not give things away for free. I’d need someone else to help me be okay with asking a lot of money for any of my art.” •

Photos courtesy of Fanny Cohen

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