Artist Arris’ J. Cohen comes full circle

First pushed by the late Columbus rapper Nes Wordz to focus on artmaking full-time, Cohen recently returned to familiar stomping grounds with a residency at Urban Art Space.
Arris' J. Cohen
Arris' J. CohenCourtesy the artist

Coming out of high school, Arris’ J. Cohen received a full-ride scholarship to Ohio State. But the artist said he lacked the necessary focus at the time, and he lost his scholarship twice before eventually dropping out.

In the midst of this low point, Cohen connected with friend Sheron Colbert – better known to many as the late Columbus rapper Nes Wordz – who asked a series of probing questions, the gist of which boiled down to: Why are you not pursuing your art full-time?

“I was going through a lot of other things at the time, so I wasn’t practicing [my art] much,” Cohen said in a late July interview. “And Nes came over to my house and asked me to do an album cover for him, and I was like, damn, that’s big. And we sat there, and we cried about it, because it was something where he really inspired me to get into [art] with his music. For him to ask me to do that meant a lot to me, and I’ll always remember that. He was one of the people who was like, ‘You should be doing this all the time. You have the talent.’ And then he passed suddenly, so when I finally did make that decision, he was one of the people I was really thinking about.”

Cohen was further galvanized in the decision by the onset of the COVID pandemic, which obliterated the tourism and travel industries and led to the artist getting laid off from his job in hotel management. “It was a decision I made with my wife heavily involved,” he said. “And I really didn’t even think I needed a business plan. And I know that might sound counterintuitive, but the way I knew I could do things, and the people I knew, I trusted I could figure things out and sort of build on the fly.”

The pandemic – and in particular the at-home schooling ushered in at its onset – also changed the way Cohen worked on his art, shifting his studio hour to the late-night hours after the kids had been fed, bathed and put to bed. Only then could he put on a jazz or hip-hop record and begin to create, giving life to his vividly colored, Afrofuturist-inspired works under cover of darkness. 

Cohen, who was recently named the inaugural Community Artist-in-Residence at Urban Art Space, said that art runs in his family’s blood. His aunt now works as a curator and marketing manager for a museum in Detroit. And Cohen attended Cleveland School of the Arts alongside his brother and cousin, who played drums and sang, respectively. But Cohen’s early love for drawing was first stoked by his grandfather, who regularly carried pencils and a notebook to sketch the birds that crossed his path, and who never had the opportunity to pursue an arts career coming up as a Black man in the 1930s and ’40s.

“He won a contest for a picture that he drew,” the artist said. “Back then, you didn’t send a photograph of yourself with the piece. And we have the last name Cohen, so when the people came out, they thought they would be meeting a young Jewish boy. And then they met a young Black boy. And they told him he didn’t win. And it discouraged him, and from there he kept his art to himself. But he shared it with me, and he pushed me.”

From an early age, Cohen learned to create with the resources available to him, recalling how his mother’s dad, who worked as a carpenter, would bring home discarded bits from his workshop. “And my aunt would throw some watercolors, cardboard and those scraps of wood on the table and say, ‘Put a sculpture together,’” Cohen said. “And my grandparents still have some of those pieces she would help me build.”

In some ways, Cohen’s decision to return to artmaking early in the pandemic was a way to find a needed anchoring point amid uncertainty, returning to a discipline that brought him comfort and joy in those childhood years. And as the art again took hold, the sense of exploration Cohen discovered early on in the pursuit returned with it. As a result, the artist said he’s approaching his current residency with a newly opened mind, intent on stretching beyond the mediums and materials with which he has long been most familiar.

“There’s a creative development aspect to [the residency], and I get to experiment with different mediums that I haven’t had a chance to, like ceramics,” said Cohen, who will hold a culminating exhibit at Urban Arts Space early in 2024, shortly after the residency ends in December. “And if I can get the whole space, I’m going to fill it. … It’s really helping me to focus on things I want to focus on. Plus, it being Ohio State, I’m right back where I started, though I have more connections than when I was there the first time. There are a lot of full circle moments that are going on now. That’s what this whole journey has been.”

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