Lynne Cohen: Artist & Friend

Lynne Cohen, Photographer

Lynne Cohen, Photographer

These past few years I’ve been blogging about a friend and mentor who had cancer. Last spring photographer Lynne Cohen died after a lengthy and ferocious battle with lung cancer. I say ferocious because although she was given a very short time to live she found ways to beat the odds for a long while, continuing to show her work around the world, publish books and even participate in the making of a film about her work. I watched in awe; not even cancer could stop her indomitable spirit. Lovingly supported by her partner Andrew, Lynne kept on putting her work out there until virtually the very last moment of her life.

I met Lynne Cohen at university while studying fine art. She was my photography professor and I learned much from her. What I loved about her was that she didn’t treat us like students; she viewed us as potential working professionals. She took one look at our portfolios and was able to direct us to significant artists working in a similar vein. Learning more about the lives and work of these artists enabled us to gain insight into our own work and role as artists; this helped us to grow tremendously and eventually find our place in the field. Lynne’s classes were full of lively debate. For her, art wasn’t just about making pretty pictures; it was about transforming the world; taking responsibility for the imagery we put out there as well as engaging with other artists around the world to enlarge the scope of our vision.

Lynne Cohen, Untitled Red Door, 2008

Lynne Cohen, Untitled Red Door, 2008

Originally a sculptor, Lynne switched to photography. The spaces she photographed looked very much like art installations that were already set up: a medical or corporate office, a neighbour’s quaint living room, spas, laboratories even ballrooms, but they weren’t. She ferreted them out from her own neighbourhood and around the globe! Photographing them as she found them and presenting them in the hopes that viewers would carefully observe the details within them and come to their own conclusions about the work. Some photos are disturbing while others offer a humourous glimpse of the world through her observant eye — revealing both sides of her beautifully intelligent and sensitive nature. When I look at Lynne’s prolific body of work, I feel it should have been sent off with the Voyageur space probes because it would give space aliens a pretty good idea of how our civilization is and has been shaping itself for better or worse.

Another facet of Lynne I loved was that she kept in touch with me and she supported my art for over a decade. She never scolded me for being lax but always gently nudged me to put my work out there; push it to higher levels and to apply for artist grants when I was out of work — things I wouldn’t have had the courage to do otherwise. I could ask her for a letter of reference and, no matter how busy she was, she’d have one ready for me in an instant. “I’m just flying to France tomorrow for an exhibition but I’ll have it for you first thing in the morning”, she’d say! When I applied for my masters at a local university she accompanied me to the faculty and highly recommended me as a potential student. With her backing, I was accepted on the spot. Lynne’s commitment to her students even after they graduated from school was exceptional. She never had any children of her own, but I always thought in a way that we were like her kids.

For the past several years Lynne and I had been meeting with our spouses from to time for brunch in Montreal. It was fun to get to know her on a personal level. I continued to be amazed by her generous spirit. While she taught me about creating meaningful art and being a serious artist, one of the things I ultimately learned through her example was the importance of mentoring fellow artists. No matter what level of an artist you are, I feel there’s always something you can do to assist another artist who needs help. This latter issue is important in the field of fine art which is not known for its generosity or mentorship for beginning artists (especially those over the age of 35 and beyond). During my early career I met many professional artists who saw me struggling and never bothered to advise me. Lynne, an exceptionally busy artist, always took the time to look at my latest work, whether it be fine art or craft, and offer constructive critique. If she couldn’t make my shows, she never failed to send her congratulations and support. I admired and appreciated her so much for this. It’s something I also want to extend to you today in honour of her memory… to help mentor or support an artist you know who may be in need. You can give something as simple as recommending a course, a book, a show; offering words of encouragement when they are down… even some constructive critique of their art. Not only will it help them grow, you may learn something in return as well as extend your network of artist friends. In doing so, we can create a good sense of community among artists in our communities and around the world as well as a renewed sense of goodness in humanity.

Thanks to you my dear Lynne. You have been one of the most memorable sources of influence and inspiration in my journey as an artist. Thanks too you too dear Andrew for taking such good care of her while she was here and for helping to preserve her legacy.

Other Related Links:
Part II: The Fabric & Patterns of Everyday Life

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