"Sovereignty" by Arris' J. Cohen
"Sovereignty" by Arris' J. CohenCourtesy the artist

The continued empowerment of artist Arris’ J. Cohen

As he prepares to wrap his residency at Urban Arts Space with a closing exhibition, the Columbus artist said he leaves better equipped for the next phase of his career.

Arris' J. Cohen had ambitious plans when he started his residency at Urban Arts Space last year, telling me in August that he hoped to create enough new work to fill the entire gallery by the time his closing show rolled around.

He nearly did it, too, amassing 18 paintings by late December for his culminating exhibition, “Fervent Fruition,” for which an opening reception will be held at Urban Arts Space today (Thursday, Jan. 11). It’s a number that might have increased since our interview a few weeks back, at which point the artist said he still hoped to finish as many as four new paintings before the opening, though more realistically he thought he would complete at least two. “I was up until 5 working on a couple of compositions that I think I can get done in the next few days,” he said. “So, we’ll see.”

Cohen, the first Community Artist in Residence at Urban Arts Space, said he is walking away from the experience with a better understanding of how to operate on the business end, including how to curate an exhibition, how to sharpen his CV (or artist’s resume) and how to build and maintain a website. It also reaffirmed a few things he already knew about himself, foremost that he has a love for artmaking that can sustain even in challenging times. “It’s still new to me, because I’ve only really been doing this for five years, but I’m so in love with it,” Cohen said. “I’ve learned I don’t have a limit in what I can take on, and there hasn’t been a point where I felt burned out.”

That’s not to say the residency wasn’t without its hiccups, particularly in the early weeks, with the artist comparing the experience of being first in the role to building the airplane as one is attempting to fly it. But once Cohen established his footing, he said, the support he received allowed him to stretch himself both inside of the studio and out, sharing that the funding from the residency enabled him to pay off past educational debt and return to school at Ohio State, where he’s currently working to complete his degree in African American studies. “It didn’t make sense to me to have this residency and not be focused on the reason I came to Columbus in the first place,” said Cohen, who was academically dismissed from OSU in 2008.

In the final weeks of the residency, Cohen experienced another full-circle moment, completing a painting, “Sovereignty,” which exists as a feminine companion to “Conduit,” one of the earliest works created for the exhibit. Both are Afrofuturist works, modeled on the types of sculptural busts most typically associated with ancient Rome but featuring strong Black figures. “With ‘Conduit,’ he looks regal, proud,” said Cohen, who credited recent courses in African American studies with helping give a similar definition to “Sovereignty.” 

“When I took those classes, I was really able to feel empowered, as opposed to just thinking of African Americans as former slaves,” he said. “I got to learn more about who we were before we were brought over here, and about the diaspora and the spreading out of people of African descent around the world. … Seeing people that look like me in history, there’s a thing called Sankofa, where you’re looking at the past, but also thinking about the present and the future. And the more I learn, the more that influences what I do.”

In August, Cohen traced his passion for art backward through his family bloodlines, attributing his early interest in the form to his grandfather, whose opportunities to pursue a career as an artist were severely curtailed by his status as a Black man living in the 1930s and ’40s. Cohen recalled the time when his grandfather, then a child, won a contest for a picture he drew only to have the award withdrawn once organizers learned he was Black and not “a young Jewish boy,” as Cohen put it. “And it discouraged him,” Cohen said. “And from there he kept his art to himself.”

Cohen said he continues to create with an awareness of these deep-embedded societal ills – “I feel like I’m doing people a disservice if I don’t include everything that’s going on,” he said – but that he tends toward optimism in his work, expressing a desire to portray people of color with a grace and dignity they aren’t often afforded in media. 

“We all have PTSD, in some way, shape or form,” he said. “So, when I looked up Afrofuturism, and I saw what artists were doing in that realm, where it was regal and beautiful, I loved it. When I turn on the TV, I can see enough of us hurting. And that’s something I’ve realized more in this time frame, too, that in my own work I’m always pulling more toward optimism, toward hope.”

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