Inside the Head of Julie Cohn

Amy Adams. Portrait Debora Hunter. Photography Richard Klein.
October 02, 2012

Maybe she created your baby’s book during her Two Women Boxing days. Perhaps your toes have sunk into one of her Surya rugs. It’s even likely you’ve admired her public art project — photographic windscreens reflecting an ever-evolving history — at the Deep Ellum Dart Station. But however well you know Julie Cohn, one fact remains: She’s always capable of more.

Of late, more means a handcrafted jewelry collection that straddles the space betwixt primitive and modern. She’s attracted to bronze due to its luster and connection to traditional sculpture, but also works with sterling silver and semiprecious stones. Patterns of reflected light, a branch, shells and architecture swirl about in her head until they ultimately become tangible — and wearable. (The outcome sometimes surprises even her.) In keeping with her go-your-own-way sensibility, she’s eschewing the typical retail route for a business built on trunk shows, private events and e-commerce. The lack of a bricks-and-mortar portal doesn’t deter clients intent on collecting her stackable rings, beautifully patinated bangles, sinuous earrings and one-of-a-kind necklaces.

You’ve been a frontrunner in the artisan movement before the artisan movement had a name. Is it a conscious choice or simply part of your DNA? It’s in my DNA. I’ve made things my whole life, and it’s all I’ve ever wanted to do. I’m proud of being an American artisan and am committed to making my jewelry in America. But earning a good living working with your hands is excruciatingly hard and woefully undervalued. The low cost of hand labor from other countries has made it next to impossible to compete in certain arenas. The global marketplace — along with a gazillion knockoffs — put Two Women Boxing out of business.

You mention 20th-century sculptors Noguchi, Calder and Brancusi as inspiration. Do any particular fashion designers get your creative juices flowing? I love Issey Miyaki for his graphic and sculptural quality. I’m very inspired by the artistry in the couture work of Gaultier, Armani, Valentino and others. The precision of engineering and handwork gives me the chills.

Describe your design process. I always fantasize about keeping a regular sketchbook, but I’m just not that person. I learn a craft by doing. I did a bit of sketching with Two Women Boxing, but prototyping and experimenting with materials are more my style. Jewelry making has been all about experimenting with waxes, techniques and fabrication — a nonlinear process of trial and error, which has become my methodology. I pare away at an idea until it’s distilled down to its essence.

Surely even you get stuck on occasion. When I’m suffering from creative block, I’ll take a trip to Half Price Books. I look at everything from ethnic crafts, modern architecture, painting, jewelry, interiors and cookbooks. It’s like visual grazing at the buffet table. What those overload sessions do is push the most important idea to the top. I’m sure this is counterintuitive to people who need to clear their mental deck of visual clutter. I’m just the opposite.
I go on a feeding frenzy.

Any “What was I thinking?” moments? Two projects come to mind instantly, and they both have to do with weight. My partner in Two Women Boxing, Linda Finnell, and I made a portfolio box for Hines Development that weighed 35 pounds empty. We couldn’t get it up the stairs of their office. And a few years ago, I made a hair-on-hide bedspread for a client that seemed very glam, but it’s like sleeping under an X-ray blanket. She can barely lift it off the bed. Really embarrassing but good looking.

You and your husband, landscape designer David Rolston, clearly value creativity and self-expression. How do you impart that sensibility to your daughter? My daughter Mila is witness to both of her parents getting up every day to do what they love. I office out of the house, and she and I share my studio. She has an irreverent way of connecting the dots and is innately creative mentally and physically. I fear she will be the next Margaret Cho and do a monologue about her honky parents.

What was the first thing you can remember creating as a child? My sister and I did tons of embroidery, papier-mâché, flower making — you name it. Probably my first memory is embroidering an Aunt Martha’s iron-on pattern on a pillowcase. The image was likely something ridiculous such as a cat ironing with the day of the week printed under it, all sewn in cross-stitch.

How did your recent collaboration with The Trammell & Margaret Crow Collection of Asian Art come about? Retail consultant Mary Bloom has mentored me my entire career, championed me at every creative crossroads and hugely impacted my aesthetic — she’s also masterful at seeing the intersection between art and commerce. She has put together a series of events that coincide with different shows, which gave me the opportunity to present my new collection in tandem with the Silk Road exhibition.

You have an entire afternoon to yourself — no deadlines, no commitments, no pressure. How would you spend it? Trolling secondhand modern furniture stores or resale shops. I love treasure hunting. One of my greatest days was spent at the flea market in Arezzo, Italy: drinking great coffee, hanging out with friends and looking at Piero della Francesca frescoes in the church of San Francesco. It was an all-out feast for every sense.

You’ve been part of the Dallas art scene for more than 35 years. What is one of the more memorable moments? I’m part of an art collaborative called Toxic Shock with Frances Bagley, Debora Hunter, Susan Magilow and the late Linda Finnell. We began in the early ’80s and did some really interesting pieces that were social commentary on gender, art world hierarchy and other political issues. This year, we were asked to be part of the Oral History of Contemporary Art Collecting in Dallas, 1963 – Present Project to be housed in the DMA library. That inclusion was an incredible validation of our body of work. The dinner parties with those women — the evolution of our conversation over 35 years — is an art piece in and of itself.