Episode 132: Every Box Tells a Story: Marc Cohen’s Box Art Jewelry with Art Jeweler, Marc Cohen- Part 1
What you’ll learn in this episode:
- Why Marc’s box art jewelry was inspired by his time working in the theater industry
- How Marc went from selling his work on the streets of New York City to selling them to Hollywood’s biggest celebrities
- Why artists have always borrowed from each other’s work
- Why box art is a conversation starter that breaks down barriers
- How every box tells a story
Museum of Israel Exhibition
Currently on view at SFO Airport
Marc Cohen and Lisa Berman (no relation)
About Marc Cohen:
Marc Cohen is a highly regarded artist known for his wearable box art. As a former actor, stage manager and set designer, Cohen’s two-inch-square boxes resemble stage sets with three-dimensional figures and images. His one-of-a-kind pieces sit on the shelves of numerous celebrities and can be worn like a brooch or pin. The archive of Cohen’s work is housed at California art jewelry gallery Sculpture to Wear.
Inspired by his time in theater and created to resemble a stage, Marc Cohen’s box art pieces are well-known among rare jewelry lovers and Hollywood’s most famous artists, actors and producers. Part three-dimensional art, part jewelry, the two-by-two boxes feature images and tiny figures that reflect our world. He joined the Jewelry Journey Podcast to talk about his process for creating box art; what it was like to work with theater greats like Tom O’Horgan and Robin Wagner; and why his pieces are more than just shadow boxes. Read the episode transcript for part 1 below.
Sharon: Hello, everyone. Welcome to the Jewelry Journey Podcast. Today, my guest is Marc Cohen. Marc is a former actor, set designer and stage manager. He is a highly regarded artist recognized for his box art, which graces the shelves of many celebrities. The box art pieces are often worn as brooches. We’ll hear all about his jewelry journey today, but before we do that, I want to thank Lisa Berman of Sculpture to Wear for making it possible for Marc to be with us today. Marc, so glad to have you.
Marc: As am I. Thank you for inviting me.
Sharon: Great to be with you. Tell us about your jewelry journey. It started with you traveling around the world from what you’ve said. Tell us about that and how everything worked from there.
Marc: I was a 20-year-old young man and I left America, basically, on a freight ship. That’s how I started the journey. I have a saying now, which is “Every box art tells a story.” The irony of that is that when I travel, because I was on the road for a very long time, going all over the world, I liked collecting things but I had no place to put them. I found these little, tiny boxes that I used to take candy out of, and when they were empty, I went, “Oh, this is a great thing to put little things inside of.” I already was starting the idea of collecting little objects that I might go back to at some point and use it as a part of the art. But I traveled; I went around the world all the way to India until 1970. Then in 1970, I decided to return to America and relocate myself within the country. Prior to that, I had left in 1966. It was during the Vietnam War.
I was raised in Southern California, so I came back to America and went back to my roots. I have a stepsister, and she had a friend named Tom O’Horgan. Tom O’Horgan is actually very famous in the theater world, primarily because he directed the show on Broadway called “Hair.” He directed many other shows after that, but that is the one he’s most known for. In meeting each other for the first time, he asked me about myself, and I said, “I traveled around the world and I don’t have any real direction about what I want to do next.” He said, “Well, I need a driver because I’m working on these film projects. Do you drive?” and I said, “Yeah, I drive.” So, he hired me as a driver.
During that period, which was in the mid-70s, I drove him around Los Angeles. I knew Los Angeles like the back of my hand, and we went to all these different studios and met all these different, incredibly famous people; directors, writers and the like, actors and so on and so forth. I was getting a little bit of a background, but what I didn’t know at the time, not until many years later, was how I ended up becoming a curator and jewelry maker. I was influenced by the work of Tom O’Horgan. Being a set director, he did plays. The things he worked on in LA ended up getting finished, and he said, “I’m going back to New York. Keep in touch with me. Maybe there’s some work for you in New York.”
About six months later, I called him on the phone. He said, “Marc, we’re doing this show on Broadway. It’s about Lenny Bruce and I have a great job. I’d love you to come and work on it.” I said, “Well, I’ve never lived in New York, but I do know who Lenny Bruce is. So yeah, I’m coming.” I went to New York and got a room at the Chelsea Hotel. It was during the time of Andy Warhol and a lot of other people living in the Chelsea Hotel. So here I am, in the middle of this incredible epicenter of activity; there was so much different art on the walls of the Chelsea Hotel back in those days, and all these Warhol people and other characters from the avant garde world in New York City. That’s the background of how I got to where I got. What I mean is that as a young guy, I didn’t know a lot, and I didn’t have a lot of background in art per se. I was more like a young guy who was just wandering on the planet, as I said earlier.
So, here I am in New York. I’m in the middle of an epicenter of activity, and Tom says to me, “Well, we’re in pre-production for the show, and there are a lot of other things I would like you to do for me.” He gave me a lot of different jobs, and I went around and did that for a while until the show went into production. During those pre-production meetings, he would meet with all these different designers. One of those designers is now a very famous set designer by the name of Robin Wagner. Robin Wagner went on to design “A Chorus Line” and a lot of other incredible Broadway productions. Robin, over the years, became one of my closest friends. The reason I bring him up is because we used to go his studio, which at the time was in a building called 890 Studios, which is owned by Michael Bennett, who was the director of “A Chorus Line.” I’d go to his studio with Tom, and he would have models of shows. I was picking up the incredibly creative process of how you put together an idea for a show and a stage. He would have little characters he would use to put on models of shows. I took note of those little figures, but I kept it hidden in the back of my brain, not knowing anything, nothing preplanned about what I was doing other than being Tom’s assistant.
We eventually went to Broadway with “Lenny.” “Lenny” opened. It was a big success and for about 30 years, I worked primarily with Tom O’Horgan in theater.
Sharon: Is it Tom O’Horgan?
Marc: Yes, it’s spelled O-‘-H-o-r-g-a-n. He was an artist. He always considered himself to be one of those people that didn’t do things that are the typical Broadway. I mean, when you think about “Hair”—I didn’t work on the original. I worked on a later production with Tom, but by that point, I had already worked on “Lenny Bruce,” “Jesus Christ Superstar” and so many other amazing things. We did opera. Tom did a lot of things, and Tom’s influences and Robin’s influences are guides to what I eventually ended up becoming, which is an artist who creates wearable art.
When you think about jewelry, for me, typically jewelry would be semiprecious stones, silver, gold, pearls, all that kind of stuff. I’m not the kind of creator or designer that would even know where to start to put those things together. I love beads. In the 60s, I made my own beads and necklaces, but I didn’t see that as where I wanted to go. Because of my memory of the stage and theater and stories—when I told you earlier about the boxes, during the period I was living in New York, I collected a lot of things in my little East Village apartment.
I happened to be downtown in the Soho area; I was down on Canal Street. I was walking along the street, and all the shops had things out in front of them for sale. I walked by, and there were empty boxes and lots of other things. I was just motivated to buy them, so I bought them. I brought them back to my apartment and I was sitting at my little worktable looking at all these objects. I’m thinking, “Maybe I could make something out of this. I know that this coming year, Tom has this big Christmas party, and usually he’s the guy who gives everybody something unique for a present.” There I was, looking at all these things, and I looked at the little box and glued a little figure I had inside the box. For example, this is a box. It’s an empty one.
Sharon: Like an acrylic, plastic box.
Marc: A plastic box, an acrylic plastic box. Most people would take this box. It has a lid. They would put anything in it, but they didn’t think they could put a whole story together. When I put the little figures in the box like that, and it has a lid and I put it like that, then I have a box with people standing in front of it, but they’re sort of looking through. What are they looking at? I started to figure out I needed to have an image to tell the story. This is the World Trade Center.
Sharon: So, you’re creating little worlds inside the box.
Marc: Right. Since I started the idea in 1985, I have made thousands, and out of those thousands, many of them are one-of-a-kind. How I can I put it? Because of my traveling and because I’m a very sentimental guy—with these boxes, the little characters can’t talk; they’re little plastic figures. They only way you could tell the story, as jewelry tells a story, is by what you put behind them. So, in this case, I put the World Trade Center. I had a little character standing there looking at it. I actually made this before the World Trade Center fell down.
My meaning of all of this is that it was something in the beginning I was aware of. The one I’m wearing on my lapel—this one is a door. There’s a woman standing, looking not at us; she’s looking towards the doorway. Anybody who would come up and look at my work, they would say, “Wow, that is amazing! Where did you get that?” This is how it started and how I got into fashion. “Where did you get that?” and I said, “Well, I made it.” And they said, “Really? Where can I get one?” And I said, “You can buy this one.” In the beginning, I used to sell right off my lapel. I love dressing. Double-breasted suits are my favorite attire, so I would have a box on my lapel. As I said, I would go all over New York City to openings, plays and the like. At openings and galleries and museums or wherever I went, people from across the gallery, they would see me dressed and see this thing on my lapel, curious to what it is. They would walk up to me. They wouldn’t even look at me; they would look right at the box and go, “Oh my god, what is that?” When I said, “Well, it’s a box and I made it,” they would go, “Wow! I want it.”
It got me to the point where—this is the most interesting thing—many years later, after traveling and having lived in Israel—one of the places I did live—after about 25 years, I decided to go back there for a visit. I had friends that had immigrated to Israel, and some of my friends were there to stay. I went to visit them, and they all are in the arts. When I was there, one day they said, “Why don’t we go to the Israel Museum up in Jerusalem?” I was in Tel Aviv staying with them. We go up to Jerusalem. I was wearing a box. I’m walking around the Israel Museum—this is so amazing to me—and a woman from across the room, a very tiny lady, walks up to me. She says the same thing many other people said: “Wow! What is that? Where did you get that?” I said, “Well, I made it,” as I said earlier.
The point of it is that these boxes have a story in them. For me, every story leads into another. How I mean that is that a person who I don’t even know comes up to me, looks at my work; they’re inspired by it; they talk about it; they tell me things about it that I’ve never myself, as the creator of it, imagined how significant it was or what it meant to them. As in theater, as in my relationship to Tom O’Horgan—who broke the fourth wall when he did “Hair” on Broadway—during the period I was creating these, people in New York and probably everywhere else didn’t exactly walk up to each other and start a conversation with strangers. I had the object that changed all that, and I had not realized that until I started going out and wearing them.
Getting back to Israel, this woman, who I later found out was named Tammy Schatz, she was the curator of one of the wings in the Israel Museum. She invites me the next day to come and sit and talk with them, because they were planning this show and exhibition the following year called “Heroes.” So, I went back the next day. I sat with her and bunch of other people and they started telling me what they were planning. They said, “Well, you’re an American, and you must know a lot about American pop culture. You know Superman and Batman and all the stuff like that,” and I said, “Yeah, I do.” Once they learned I worked in theater and designed sets—because by this point, I was not only making little box sets, I was also making large set pieces for shows. I have also done installations and the like. So, they invited me based on an illustration I sent to them. The next year, I went back to Israel, and I did this 10-feet-high, 25-feet-long three-dimensional cityscape. It was boxes, another version of boxes. It goes on and on from there, Sharon. It’s always been fascinating me, how these boxes have gotten me into all kinds of great trouble. As I continue to say, every box tells a story.
Sharon: We’ll have pictures of the boxes when we post the podcast, but I want to describe it to people. These are small. What, two by two?
Marc: Two-inch square, three quarters of an inch deep. When you buy them, they’re empty; they don’t have anything except the lid and the box. I basically invented an idea; up to that point, I never saw anybody else doing what I was doing. Later on, I found that I inspired other people’s creativity. There was these little boxes, and every picture tells a story. A picture’s worth a thousand words.
Sharon: Marc, before all this happened, before you befriended Tom and he befriended you, did you consider yourself artistic or creative? Was that a field you wanted to pursue?
Marc: Kind of. I didn’t literally say, “Wow, I’m an artist! I’m going to create.” When I was a young guy growing up—I grew up in Philadelphia until I was about 13. My father and mother were in the beauty business. My father was a very well-known women’s hairdresser. He had his own beauty parlor. My parents were beatniks back in the 50s in Philadelphia. They were very artistic people, and all their friends were very artistic. When you’re a 13, 14-year-old, it doesn’t register, “Oh, I’m going to grow up to be like my parents,” but they are influences. They all wore black all the time, and as I was growing up, that was my look; I wear all black. I’m going to high school during the 60s, and it’s all surfers and bleach blond hair, and here comes me with skin-tight black pants and Beatle boots and cravats. Kids who were friends, they would come up and say, “Who are you? What do you think you’re doing? You must be an artist.” The idea stuck, but as I said about journeys through life, the fascinating thing for me is that I could go around the world, have all these different things happening in my 20s, return to New York and be on this journey where I’m still at.
I know your podcast has to do with why we’re here: to talk about jewelry. I came up with a way for people to wear jewelry that has a story in it and it isn’t just a beautiful necklace. Most of my clients over the years have been women, and women know something much more than men know about wearing an object that attracts attention. Women know how to find beautiful objects and adorn themselves, whether it’s a necklace or earrings or the like. What I also found was interesting—and this actually happened; I neglected to mention this, but at one point when I stopped doing theater with Tom and only focused on making box art, I ended up becoming a street artist.
I was selling in the beginning to every major department store, and I was getting orders for thousands of boxes that I had to come up with. I was a one-man factory, so I was pulling my hair out of my head thinking, “How the hell am I going to get all these boxes out?” Eventually I discovered there’s no way I can be a manufacturer of these things; they’re all one-of-a-kind. I’m not going to make 12 of the same thing. A friend of my said, “There’s a street fair down on Broadway. Maybe you should go there and sell on the street.” That opened a doorway, like this doorway that’s on my lapel, into a world that I have never been able to look back on. What I mean by that is that once I discovered going to Soho, which was in the early stages of its evolution to become an epicenter for artists, many of them very famous—Keith Haring, David Hockney, the list is incredible of the people that were living in Soho during this period.
I went down there; on West Broadway there were very few artists, and I was one of them. I would be standing there all dressed, and people would be walking up and down the street. It was the most incredible way for them to find out if I was marketing what I had on my lapel. People would walk by, they’d see this guy with a fedora all in black, wearing a box, and they’d be curious. “What’s he wearing?” They’d come up. They wanted to ask me a about them and how much they were. They would say, “I’ll take that one, that one and that one,” and that used to happen to me constantly. I never could make enough. The thousands I had made that never got sold in department stores were being sold like crazy on the streets of Soho. I started to get a reputation as the box man. One of the clients that bought from me called me the box man. There were times I would go down to Soho in the early morning on Saturday or Sunday, and there were people milling around where I would stand, waiting for me. They would go, “Here comes the box man.” It was crazy.
Among all those people, some of the people that stopped and looked at my work were people like David Hockney. David Hockney actually came up to me one day, after a lot of people walked away buying my stuff, and he was looking at them real close up. He started talking to me and giving me suggestions about what I could do with them and how I could display them. He said, “You’ve got this little box. Where are you going to put it? Maybe you should put it in something, like a frame?” That was the most incredibly brilliant selling idea for my boxes. What I did with the frame idea, when I figured out how to do it—there are many of them behind me; they’re all frames. The idea was that you can wear it, but you can also put it on your wall, and your wall can wear your art. I made it so the frame had an opening in it that the box sat inside of. If you’re going out to an opening or a fashion show or something like that, “I think tonight I’ll wear one of the Marc Cohens.” That was the idea, and that took off like crazy from there.
I have to also tell you I didn’t have any agents. I didn’t have a rep or anything like that. The only rep I had was Marc Cohen. So, it was a cool journey through art. I evolved the idea of being an artist selling on the street, where I just had an easel, to having a pushcart. It was like immigrants coming to America way, way back, my family being some of them that went to Philadelphia. My great, great grandmother, she had a pushcart on South Street in Philadelphia. It’s another part of the story of jewelry. It bridged into me getting even more known.
I went back to California where I grew up. I found that in Santa Monica, they had a promenade they were developing. They actually had people with carts they rented they would put out on the promenade. I found out I could rent carts, so I rented one and came up with this idea. It actually came from people on the street. People would walk by and say, “Wow, you’re like a tiny gallery with all your art.” I came up with this name, the World’s Smallest Art Gallery. I took the cart and turned it into a miniature to scale, like if you went into a gallery, but it was open to the people to see it from all different sides. I had walls and characters that were larger than the ones in my boxes. They were standing looking at the art. It was all on that level; it was very interactive. People would walk by, and there would be a lot of celebrities all the time on the street. Suddenly, not only was it regular people buying work, not only David Hockney, but very famous people in Hollywood. Along the way, I reconnected with a friend of mine who was very famous, Paula Wagner. She’s now very famous for being a producer with Tom Cruise; they had a company called Cruise Wagner. She’s a friend of mine from all the way back to the “Lenny” days. We rekindled our friendship in LA. She knows everybody in Hollywood, and once she saw my work, she flipped out and said, “We’ve got to do something with this.” She hired me, and the first thing I did for her was wearable box art in a frame. It was for Oliver Stone.
Sharon: I’m sorry, who it was for? I didn’t hear.
Marc: Oliver Stone the director.
Sharon: Oliver Stone, oh wow!
Marc: She also represented Val Kilmer and Tom Cruise and Demi Moore. Before you know it, she’s asking me if I can make a box for this person, on and on. The biggest thing for me at the time was Madonna. I knew Madonna from a long time ago. When I say I knew her, I lived in New York in the early 70s and 80s, and I used to go to all these clubs. I would go to this one called Danceteria. At the time, Madonna was a coat check girl there, and eventually she did a show there, which I saw with a bunch of my friends. Then she went on to do whatever she wanted on her own.
Somehow or another, a friend of hers bought one my pieces to give to her as a gift, but this is the best part of it. I didn’t know this until much later on. One night in LA, I went to this private photo exhibition; it was a photographer who had done all the photography for Rudi Gernreich, the fashion designer with those bathing suits. I’m going to the exhibition with friends. I had my box on my lapel. I’m walking around and it’s a tiny, little gallery, so people don’t follow each other—everybody goes wherever they’re going. A bunch of people are coming that way and we’re walking, walking, walking. We come to this one, most famous photograph of a topless model. I’m looking at photograph, and standing next to me is Madonna. I turn and right away, she looks at me and goes, “I have one of those boxes.” I said, “I’m the artist. I made it,” and she said to me, “I Iove that box and I have it right by my bed,” and I said, “Oh, how cool.” She asked me a few questions and I filled her in on my background. I didn’t bring up the fact that I remember her from Danceteria.
Then it was like an avalanche. I got picked up by Maxfield’s Clothing Store in LA when I started the frames. Everybody saw how cool it is as an art piece, but you can wear it. Maxfield loved what I was doing, and he took me on and carried my stuff in his store. This is another amazing thing: the dresser for Arsenio Hall was in the store one day buying things for him to wear on the show. I don’t know whether it was a man or a woman, but they bought an outfit for Arsenio, and the salesperson said, “We just got this new wearable art piece in. You’ve got to see this.” They looked at it and bought one. That night on the Arsenio Hall Show—if you ever watch his talk show, there’s intro music, and then the curtain goes away and he stands there; it’s Arsenio Hall. On that particular night, he’s standing there, wearing a collarless Armani suit, and on his jacket is a square.
From a distance you can’t tell what it is. I found out this afterwards. I got the tape. It was amazing; he didn’t himself know what it really was, but he came out and the camera zooms up on him. When I saw what the box was, I got a chill. It was a period where I started to not just do people standing in the box, looking at the image or looking out away from the image; it was a period where I was putting images up against the face, so it would be a three-dimensional idea. In this particular one, it was Martin Luther King. I had done part of his face in profile in the foreground, and then I had done some backdrop. It had something to do about racial issues.
I didn’t just make cutesy box art. I really am not about cutesy box art. I’m very passionate about a lot of things in life. I’m very political about certain things, and I want people to have an opportunity to talk with each other about things that are meaningful, particularly where we live these days. It’s important to have that doorway of how people get through it and interact with each other without being sensitive and thinking you’re going to be judged by whatever they say or do. We are in a period where people have to be careful about that. So, it amazes me that this tool—because it is a tool—is, in a way, much different than things made by other jewelry designers that Lisa Berman curates or represents. That is mostly what Lisa represents, like Robert Lee Morris. I knew Robert Lee Morris personally. He’s a genius and he’s a friend. Thomas Mann is one of my closest friends. I’m friends with others as well because of how we interact with each other.
The image is what it’s about. It’s how the characters are placed within the box. Along the way, I started thinking, “I want to get out even more than what I’ve done. I want to try to make work even more original.” We live in a period where they have this thing called a 3D printer. It prints pretty much anything. I can create a series of my own characters, which is something I always wanted to do. I’ve only just started doing this. I started developing this idea, where I custom make three-dimensional boxes on this scale and a much larger scale. That’s where I’m headed. I have lots of collectors. They would be more than happy if I started making little box art again. My newest work is much larger. I make boxes now that are 20 feet big, installation pieces.
Sharon: They’re hard to wear.
Marc: They’re hard to wear, right? I know your program is primarily about jewelry. The thing about that, though, is what I am planning to do. When I do have that exhibition, the large-scale Marc Cohen box art exhibition, I will have miniatures of that exhibition, like many other people do when they market things. The Van Gogh Experience—I don’t know if you’ve seen this, but there’s a thing on the road right now that’s video mapping Van Gogh’s paintings on a building. When you go to the gift shop, they’ve marketed Van Gogh’s work to death. I would do something similar as a collectable.
I had Sotheby’s in London; they heard about me through our people in Israel. I was invited to do this big exhibition at Sotheby’s. It’s a big auction and a silent auction. I got commissioned to make three boxes with lights. There weren’t any more wearable, but I did that, and it sold for the equivalent to $10,000. Suddenly, my prices are changing. The people that bought my boxes on the street from the beginning—it’s embarrassing to say—but when I first started selling them, my boxes were $20. They’re no longer $20. They have been selling at auction for a lot more than $20. Now there’s talk about me in way that I never, ever imagined, and it’s joyful. After 40 years of doing nothing but making boxes, I don’t know what—
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