GILL COHN’S STUDIO in North Bondi overlooks a sandstone cliff face. Natural light streams in through the large window, and when she takes a break from her work to step outside, her eyes rest on the many layers of rock and the beauty of its natural lines and colours.
“I love that rock. Blue gums and rock are very much inspiring me these days,” she says of the lines of corrosion. “And if you look at a builder’s skip, there are incredible lines that happen in the rust. I photograph those and use those together with other elements in my work.”
Cohn has just returned to her Sydney base after a trip to Berlin and the Affordable Art Fair in Hong Kong where she gave a workshop in how to make encaustic rice paper screens. She exhibits work at a gallery there, and has sold work in Germany, the United Kingdom, Israel and South Africa. After a 30-year career teaching art to children which gave her a lot of joy, Cohn has since spent the last 15 years concentrating on her developing own work.
“It’s my bliss. It is what I look forward to doing when I get up in the morning and it’s a real privilege,” she says. “I get into this wonderful flow space and the whole morning just goes. It’s almost meditative.”
Her curiosity and fascination for the naturally occurring textures and lines she observes in rock faces, landscapes and the minute details of bark and leaves is expressed in her beautifully detailed artworks. She finds similar texture, patterns and lines everywhere and was amazed to see similarities in the sculptural work of Joseph Beuys exhibited at Hamburger Bahnhof Museum in Berlin.
“His cast animal fat sculptures reminded me of the sandstone I love,” she says. “He has the same textures and patterns in the cast animal fat as I see in the rock. It’s amazing to see these similarities in nature and these visual puns that happen in different places.”
Naturally formed textures and lines are elements that continuously find their way into Cohn’s work. Her art practice and experimental approach to her multi-layered work is Cohn’s way of understanding reality.
Encaustic work is created using melted beeswax which Cohn says works best when many layers are applied. Her current approach to creating a work begins with applying the melted beeswax and then scraping through it to make lines. Cohn then adds bitumen and allows it to seep into the crevices and the lines that she has incised. Some pieces feature a stitched line of cotton thread, images or fabric; items which are revealed when she scrapes through a layer of beeswax. The addition of these man-made elements could be interpreted as a reference to the human intervention in nature. The layering “happens intuitively. It works for me,” Cohn says.
She works on several pieces at a time to make the best practical use of materials. This enables Cohn to step away, as she does when design issues and complex problems emerge, and then return to the studio with a fresh outlook and renewed concentration. Quite often she will look at a group of unfinished pieces and get “triggers and information about the work” that enable her to move forward or inspire another avenue of experimentation.
At times, images do emerge from her work but Cohn says this is unintended. She describes her work as abstract with a reference to real life and says her default position is a neutral colour palette.
“But every now and then I get so neutral that I have to do stuff in colour. It’s like my shadow side emerging,” she laughs of the two sides to her personality. “And then I use very strong colour and then I’m ready to return to neutral again.”
Cohn is in the midst of preparing work for Decor + Design in July and organising an event called Art Hop which is scheduled for early November. She initiated Art Hop together with a friend in 2013 as a way for her local community of artists to engage with each other and the broader community by opening up their studios and exhibiting their work across the weekend.
In the meantime, she will continue to be inspired by the sandstone cliff face that watches over her as she works.