Marieken Cochius is a prolific visual artist, deeply inspired by the natural world around her. A painter, sculptor, and photographer, Marieken is an expert in letting her inspiration lead her to whatever form of expression suits it best. Currents and Shadows #7 and #8 are two oil painting contributions to Bloom that examine memories, patterns, and movement.
I had the joy of speaking with Marieken over the phone about her history as an artist, the connection between place and art, internal versus external experiences in art, and her relationship with nature.
Interview with Marieken Cochius
Can you share how you would like to introduce yourself in terms of you as an artist? How do you think of yourself as an artist?
I never set out to become an artist. When I went to art school in the Netherlands, I was really focused on starting a profession to make a living with, so I settled on still photography. During those years, (’87-’93) I was able to spend summers in New York City where I worked as an assistant for photographer Eddie Adams, which was very life changing. I loved New York City and felt inspired and at home there.
Back in that art school I was not in a good spot. Apart from me not yet realizing that I work subconsciously, not via a thought-out plan which is the academic way, I didn’t have the right teachers. I quit the art academy and immigrated to New York City. I took any job I could get my hands on: working in art galleries, a bookstore, welding, working as a cabinet maker and more. I occasionally photographed for Dutch newspapers and magazines.
As a photographer I also took a lot of self portraits, but they were not about me. They were about a feeling or an emotion about something larger than me. An un-selfie, in a way.
In 1996 I started making sculptures from found objects on the street, including broken car glass, things found while dumpster diving. I continued in a way to visualize inside feelings versus outside anatomy, experience versus perception.
Then 9/11 happened, I obviously was also very much in shock and also became really angry about the political aftermath.
I was very depressed, and I couldn’t make art. I felt I had no arms, that I had nothing to say. In January of ’02, I talked to a friend of mine who was traveling somewhere. He was bitching that he “drove hours and hours and there was nothing there.” I said “That sounds great, where are you?” He was somewhere in West Texas, and I was like “Okay, I need to go there”.
I got a flight to El Paso, rented a car, and bought a cheap tent to go camping. It was the first time I had ever traveled as a woman by myself in the States.
I was absolutely terrified. I had never been to a desert and barely dared to leave my tent for the first day. I ended up at Chinati Hot Springs and came back there that summer and stayed with friends in a tiny (14 people) village called Ruidosa. One day at Chinati Hot Springs, I was kind of wishing out loud to the woman working there, saying “I would love to have your job” And she said, “Well, if you’re serious, let’s talk.” I ended up being a caretaker there for three months while they looked for someone long term.
It was really wonderful. Being out there in the desert, smelling and listening to it, enjoying solitude and wonder, I hiked and looked at plants and fossils and animals, and started making art again. From then on, I worked only with natural elements, things I found in nature, instead of man-made materials.
During the following 10 summers I would sublet my apartment and leave NYC for remote places where I would make art for 2-3 months at a time. I spent a summer living in a teepee in Colorado, on a ranch in the complete western part of Arizona, in a cabin in Montana near Yellowstone, in Nova Scotia and more. Remote areas which each inspired my art.
As we’re talking about nature and a connection to nature in your art, how would you describe what it is in nature that you like to express in your art?
When I make art, I step aside in a way. I work very intuitively, so I never know what I’m going to make beforehand. I might know some of the materials I’m going to start with, but I “think” with my hands. I listen to music in languages I don’t understand. African music, Mongolian, Tibetan, Portuguese, or Classical music. I occupy a part of my mind and am then able to let work flow through me.
What inspires me in nature is energy, growth, movement, light and shadows, change that you may not see from second to second but that is going on. Kind of an interconnection of things. Lately I’ve been thinking more of the interconnectedness within an ecosystem. Kind of like a large brain that you’re walking around in where everything is connected and self-regulates. Growth forms, plant roots, animal architecture.
I’ve always collected things in my pockets or on photos when I go on hikes. Even now on the table behind me there’s a huge—it must be bigger than from wasps—honeycomb. Birds’ nests, snakeskin, pinecones, rocks. All kinds of things that fascinate and inspire me. I work with pine needles or I use ash from the stove, I collect various colors of rust that I grind and use as pigment, you name it.
Part of what you were saying about light and shadow reminds me of Currents and Shadows, the pieces you contributed to Bloom. I was wondering if you could talk more about the Currents and Shadows series specifically, and the ideas you had behind the series in general. I’m also wondering more about the relationship of #7 and #8, the pieces you had in Bloom, to the other pieces in the series.
I started painting in 2017. I had made drawings for over 10 years, but the act of oil painting was alien to me. When you draw, you can have anything that makes a mark on paper and that is a drawing. That was much easier to understand. But when you paint, and you put paint on a brush and make a line or a mark, is that a painting? Or is that background? It’s such a different media that I had no idea how to start at first. It changed the way I look at the world. Not in contours or patterns, but now more in gradations and layers.
I never work from photographs, and when I first started painting, landscapes appeared on my canvasses, clouds, skies. I was mortified. I’m an abstract artist! I could not understand, but listened to that kept going. The series is ‘Empty Skies, Empty Lands, Empty Waters’. Movement of skies, clouds, water.
I kayak, which fueled inspiration for the series ‘Currents and Shadows’. Undulations, shadows, currents, reflection and changing shapes of water, waves and ripples. Also, when you are in motion, and you look at your surroundings, sometimes trees stand between you and the horizon. The eye can see both, but in a photograph, the trees are blurry shapes, obstructing part of the view. At the time I was going through a difficult period emotionally. All this combined resulted in this series.
I started using oil paint with my fingers, applying it really thick, molding it and sculpting it on wooden panels. Dark densely textured shadows became obscuring subjects.
And I loved what you, Megan, said actually, when you wrote about my paintings in the Bloom show at Awakenings; you said that you saw the light, the colors come from behind the dark shapes. That was a wonderful, because I was so focused on the shapes of the darkness. Your comment was lovely and insightful. It gave me a new way of looking at my work. Thank you for that!
That’s beautiful, I’m honored! And I guess that brings me to another question I had, which is how often does that sort of thing happen where someone will observe something about your art that you weren’t necessarily expecting? If your art is very intuitive, you might discover certain things as you’re creating it, and other people might discover things as they’re viewing it. How often does that happen and what is that like for you?
The difference between when I’m making it and when someone else sees it is actually very important. When I’m working on it, I listen to what the artwork ‘wants’. That is very frustrating at times. I have to listen, otherwise the piece will not become alive. At some point the work feels finished and I will cover it with a white cloth to let it stew it in its own juices, let it ‘gather’ its energy for a while so to speak. Sometimes I invite my husband to look at a new work but not react, just so I can see how the piece ‘reacts’ to somebody else looking at it. I can then perceive if it still needs work or is complete.
And it’s wonderful to experience people reacting to my work. I am honored to have a very diverse audience, ranging from people with no particular interest in art who react and articulate as strong to my work as ardent collectors. Some are moved, others confused or fascinated, and the feedback I get contains treasures that gives me a new angles into my works and often incorporates itself into new creations.
I want to circle back around to Bloom a little bit. I know that you grew up in The Netherlands, and there are some differences in sex education there versus in the US. Since that’s part of the concept of Bloom, I’m wondering if you would like to chat about that experience or if any part of that background finds its way into the way you make art now?
Growing up in the Netherlands, in the 70s, sex education was a part of life very early on. It started early, I was 4, 5, 6, and there were books around the house about how babies were made. And we were taught sex ed through high school.
For me sex education is a no-brainer. But this has to be combined with talks about consent, boundaries, acceptance and respect and caring for yourself and others. Sex education can prevent some but not all shit from happening. I’ve been thinking about that since I started this conversation with Bloom and Awakening. Preying on people, abuse and violence occurs in every society, and we have to grow through traumas, big or small. So I think education in general should be linked with a lot more psychology, a lot more help with who you are as a whole person. Psychology or a self–help variant should be taught from an early age on as well.
How that translates into my work? Some works have definitely to do with trauma. What is happening inside my mind is not visible on the outside. There may be no actual scars of events, but its shadows can cloud my days and they do come out in my work.
What are you currently working on? Is there something you’re excited about working on next? Where are you in this moment as an artist?
In the last year, I started a series of paintings with collage that I’m still working on. It’s titled ‘Elements of the Motherboard’ and refers to ways a motherboard functions in a computer, by allowing communication between various electronic components, and to the motherboard as ‘Mother Earth’ an ecosystem where it represents networks that are formed between a community of living organisms and nonliving components. In both examples, if one element isn’t working or is out of balance, the whole system breaks down.
The collages contain geometric forms referencing the earliest computer chips and suggest comparisons between natural ecosystems and artificial intelligence. They also refer to the destruction of the environment, as man-made systems collapse and damage the world around them.
Because of the pandemic, my regular income stopped. To stay sane, I became even more disciplined in my studio work. Every morning I tried to be in my studio at 9am and start working on my art, in the afternoon I would work on my computer and apply to for calls for art. I must have applied to more than 100 opportunities in 2020, which is crazy, but it paid off. I received a grant, got work published in about 20 art/poetry and flash journals. My work was shown in over 20 shows. Applying for things is a numbers game and you get better at it the more you do it. There’s a lot of rejection. For me, it is “ apply and forget, apply and forget”. I recommend treating it as a part of your art practice.
One thing I want to mention is that for me 2021 will be about collaborations! Poets, writers, artists, musicians, scientists, designers, approach me, share ideas and I will add mine! I look forward to that.
All best, and thank you for your time!