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PROFILE: Dawn Cohen

Painting from Life’s Palette 
Perched on the side of the road off a snowbank, oblivious to the flurries swirling around her, Dawn Cohen squints at the crystalline-enshrouded scenery stretching out before her, dabs a brush to her palette of colors and transfers the view to her canvas. 

No, her oil paints don’t freeze nor does she, bundled into her pigment-splattered snowsuit and boots for walking on the moon. She’s thoroughly focused and somewhat impervious to the cars, buses and people whizzing by on their way to ski. On Cohen’s canvas is a mirrored reflection of an artist’s perspective of paradise. Those who use the great outdoors to create their works reap the rewards of plein air painting. Cohen confesses that summer is far easier to paint in than winter. But she’s seasoned, so she hardly notices anymore. As a young schoolgirl growing up in both Savannah and Atlanta, Georgia, Cohen was reprimanded for drawing in class. “I did draw a lot in class,” she confesses. “I created soap operas with my cartoon drawings. I would create this world and I wasn’t the type of person who could doodle and listen at the same time, especially since in my stories people were fighting, dating, and having conversations. I’d assign all of them names.” Cohen created an intricate myriad of situations and lives. “I drew mostly profiles and rarely drew the front of their faces unless it was a very important person. It was easier and quicker to draw the profiles and people were facing each other in conversations.” “I would get in trouble to the point that one teacher had a conference with my parents and told them ‘She’s not learning or listening, she’s doodling in her book.’ I needed to listen and raise my grade and I did well in other classes but not hers. She was boring,” Cohen laughs about her middle school habit that later turned into a profitable career. She fantasizes about what that teacher would say today if she could see what all the doodling ultimately led to. Cohen’s dad was a lawyer and her mom was a third grade teacher. After they divorced, Cohen recalls, “The thing that I loved that my mom did was, we would go to restaurants when I was very young and mom would entertain me and my brother by drawing clowns on the napkins. It was magical the way she just created these clowns and I loved it. I could see how that could have led to me drawing people and what I called soap operas.” After graduating from high school in 1990, Cohen left Atlanta to attend Armstrong State College in Savannah where, while taking the usual core classes, she enrolled in art class and did very well. “I was trying to decide whether to go into art or chemistry. I decided to go into art because the harder chemistry got, the less interested I became in it,” Cohen laughs. She signed up for more art classes because, she says, “They were just more fun.” And she transferred to the creative campus at the University of Georgia in Athens, known as the Liverpool of the south, and responsible for bands like the B-52s, R.E.M., Drive By Truckers and Widespread Panic. Cohen flourished and graduated with a bachelor of fine arts degree, majoring in art education. Back in Savannah, Cohen took more painting classes at Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) while substitute teaching and waitressing. That spring Cohen and a girlfriend took off for a road trip to Colorado because her college roomie was living in Fort Collins. “She said I would like it and she was right, I needed to get out my rut,” Cohen recalls. “We went skiing at Copper Mountain. I had skied in North Carolina and had really enjoyed it.” The thought of having to return to the southland and sit forever in the sweltering Atlanta traffic every day propelled Cohen to pack up and move to Fort Collins. “I thought there was more to life than having to deal with that and plan my day around not getting stuck in traffic. I didn’t have the same city values as those who lived there. Fort Collins was beautiful non-traffic land. Colorado for me was like Adventureland.” Cohen came out for a full year, getting involved in the art department at Colorado State University (CSU) and meeting her husband-to-be, Shaun Horne, there. “He took me extreme hiking, camping, off road, all kinds of backcountry stuff and all these things that I had fantasized about doing but didn’t know how because I was from Georgia. I didn’t know how to do anything.” But, Cohen points out, “I had been denied admission at CSU and I had a big life learning experience after my first year in Colorado because I played so hard with skiing, hiking and adventuring that I felt that I wasn’t progressing in my academics like I had wanted to.” So she moved back to Georgia and applied to Georgia State but found herself missing Colorado and Shaun. “I was really sad and Shaun told me, ‘If you stop trying to get into CSU you’ll never get in,’” so she packed up went back to CSU, finally getting admitted and everything started to come together. She notes that at 26 she got in to grad school, got engaged, got married and in her last year of school, had a baby, her daughter Linda. She earned her master of fine arts degree in painting in 2002. That August, the new family moved to Crested Butte. “Shaun had done a lot of time here, working in Gothic because he had been a biology and genetics major. One of the reasons I had moved to Colorado was because I wanted to be a ski bum and I never got the chance to do that since school was a priority and it wasn’t on my parents’ agenda for me,” Cohen smiles. “After grad school I realized I never had the chance to live in a ski town and now I’m married with a baby, but Shaun said, ‘Well, I’ve got the perfect ski town for you… you can ski and have a baby.’ The first time I saw Crested Butte I thought it was really cute. I thought it was so country, there were people riding around in trucks with horses and trailers. There were flowers everywhere. It seemed quiet and slow-paced. I was a little nervous at first about moving out here because it was so far away from civilization. My friends called it ‘Out Where the Cows Don’t Go,’” Cohen laughs. She quickly realized Crested Butte was just what she had been looking for. “The snows came and I got a pass and skied a lot. I tutored history and art at the Crested Butte Academy, but I wasn’t painting much at this time.” She had her second daughter, Essie, in 2003. Coming from the south, Cohen still wasn’t hopped up to paint plein air winter scenes quite yet. She did a lot of life painting indoors, which she had done in grad school, but she found that type of art wasn’t selling. “If I wanted to devote my time to painting, I had to eventually make money,” she says. “If I was going to spend my time painting I needed to do landscape and I didn’t want to go out in the snow. I didn’t understand how that could happen.” She started out slow, painting from the upstairs window at Rijk’s Gallery in the winter and going outdoors in the summer. “In the winter I would go and find windows to paint from, but it would get really hot in those windows and there was nowhere for the paint fumes to go so I finally gave in and decided I was gonna get a ‘dork’ suit and Mickey Mouse boots and I stepped out into the snow. And it was fun. Snow is so beautiful and it’s rare to be able to be comfortable and stare at it for hours. I try to find a certain part of day when the light isn’t changing that fast, like a morning or afternoon view.” In November 2007 Cohen and Shaun opened Oh Be Joyful Gallery on Third off Elk. “We would talk and think about opening a gallery and the day came after an Arts Festival when sales were going strong. Business has been steadily rising. The longer a gallery has been in business, the more of a reputation and recognition you get,” Cohen says. She adds that they now have a Telluride Gallery as well, which they opened in 2012. She works constantly, splitting her time between the family, the gallery and painting. “It fluctuates for how many paintings I get done with the raising of kids. There were six or seven years of ten-hour days painting. It was great. Once the kids were in school I could paint more.” Cohen had the schedule pretty dialed in and then in 2013 an unexpected package of joy—daughter Monet popped into their lives in August. “She was the surprise,” Cohen laughs as Monet breaks out in little infant chuckles on the floor. “So time is now much more precious and I have to paint way faster,” she grins and jokes, “Monet [the artist] was an inspiration to me and I always wanted to have a Monet, and now I do.” Mom and baby Monet both giggle in a mutual understanding of their world of shifting color and light in an impressionistic life. As for Cohen’s own expressionist style she says, “I want people to feel happy when they see it and to see through my eyes and admire the beauty in nature.”

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