Episode 132: Every Box Tells a Story: Marc Cohen’s Box Art Jewelry with Art Jeweler, Marc Cohen- Part 2
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 Paula Wagner; and why his pieces are more than just shadow boxes. Read the episode transcript for part 2 below.
Sharon: You’ve arrived, it sounds like.
Marc: It’s kind of an affirmation.
Sharon: Absolutely. Do you think the boxes would be as effective if you hadn’t had this experience as a set designer or stage manager in the theater? If I sat down and made a box, I could just stick some figures in it. Do you think that really impacted your work?
Marc: To answer you in an honest way, I think if I hadn’t done those things—all I did before was put little seashells in boxes. I’m skirting away from your answer, so excuse me. I think because I already was someone who had been traveling around the world and already had experiences that were theatrical, because I was meeting people and talking to people standing in the middle of the street in Paris, I was already getting the idea. It was being planted. When I got involved in theater—I also did film—I saw what that was about and how everything was in a frame. A stage in a theater on Broadway, it’s in a box.
Sharon: That’s true.
Marc: It all made a lot of sense to me. There are also ironies about it for me. For example, when I talked about when I was going to high school and people would look at me and think I’m an artist, what they were doing was putting me in a box. I like to think the boxes I create are about that, but they’re beyond. Once someone engages themselves in looking at it and then they end up talking to somebody, it opens up a whole other kind of thing. It breaks down that barrier that a lot of us have with each other. It came from working in theater with someone like Tom O’Horgan, who was way ahead of his time as a Broadway theater director. He did a lot of avant garde, off-off Broadway stuff. He’s no longer alive. He was my best friend in the entire world. There’s not a moment I don’t have gratitude about that friendship, but since then I’ve married. I have a beautiful wife.
My wife is a filmmaker, and she and I are developing another kind of box art. I know; we don’t make jewelry. I’m doing video with her. We have a series called Traveler’s Ball. It’s on YouTube. People can watch it if they want. It’s very cutting edge. She was inspired by what I do, where I do images layered in a box. A lot of our videos have layered images.
Along those lines, I have always wanted to create a box video on a small scale. A long time ago, when I first started making these things—I’m a man with a lot of information and ideas in my brain—the technology wasn’t there yet. The nanos and the microscopic things, images on the head of a pin, that wasn’t around when I first started. For example, I made three-dimensional, two-inch-square watches on a band. I don’t have one to show you—Lisa might have one—but I made these. When I was selling on the street, I would wear one and boxes on my lapel. People would see this thing on my wrist and go, “What is that?” I would show them, and they would all go, “Wow, that’s unreal! It’s big, but that’s amazing! When are you going to sell these?” I said, “I’m not ready to sell them yet.” I did eventually sell some. I only made two dozen of them in my life.
If you look at an Apple Watch, they finally did what I was thinking about doing in 1985. The only difference is theirs is a one-dimensional object you wear on your wrist. It is amazing to see somebody with an Apple Watch and all the different things it does, but for me, there’s a missing ingredient. The missing ingredient is a point of view. A point of view is putting characters in front of something, like we are in real life; people standing on the street corner talking, meanwhile the bus is going by. I always wanted to take that idea and put it on a small scale and add the element of art to it. I didn’t want it to be cookie cutter, we’re making five million Apple Watches and everybody’s going to have one. Not everyone’s going to have a Marc Cohen version of that, and I want to keep it that way. I’m famous for a lot of things, but I’m also famous for the fact that I never like to make any of these things more than once or twice. There’s something about that I only made one-of-a-kind images.
In the beginning, I used other people’s images—the fine art of appropriation. There’s a guy who’s no longer alive who I learned a lot about; his name was Joseph Cornell. Joseph Cornell is probably the grandfather of appropriation art. Rauschenberg and Warhol, when they talk about their own art and their influences, they always bring up the name Joseph Cornell. Joseph Cornell made boxes. He handmade them himself. He was an eccentric guy who lived in Utopia, New York. Think about that: Utopia, New York. Joseph Cornell was this rather interesting guy. He was a poet. He was curious. He made all these different boxes, and you can’t buy one. They’re incredibly expensive. But I’ve had people along the way say, “You’re like a modern-day Joseph Cornell.” I don’t know what that exactly means. I’m a modern-day Joseph Cornell? But they talk about what I’ve done and what I’ve accomplished. It’s an interesting thing for me that has followed me in this jewelry story. What else could I tell you?
Sharon: I’m curious. Do people commission you and say, “It’s my husband’s anniversary. I want a box with us and our wedding picture with it.”
Marc: Exactly. For example, Lisa Berman has a relative whose name is Virginia Apgar. Virginia Apgar is famous because she created the Apgar Score. I don’t know if your viewers know what that is, but they can look it up. There was an event Lisa was going to be doing. Lisa, being an old friend of mine, I felt like I wanted to give her a memento. There’s a forever stamp, and this is Virginia Apgar.
Sharon: A frame with the brooch.
Marc: A frame with the brooch in the middle, and all around are these images of Virginia. Warhol and Hockney did this thing where they took a person’s face—I don’t know if you’ve ever seen any of those silkscreens that Warhol used to do. I’m influenced by that too. That’s how I came up with this idea of making Lisa a one-of-a-kind, object of art concept.
Sharon, I want to tell you another thing: how the box art thing really started. Originally, when I first started doing things, I started a company called Still Life. Still Life was the early stages of box art, but it wasn’t in a box. It was a flat piece of plastic, circular most of the time, and it was either blue or white or green. On top of that, I would marry other things. I had little three-dimensional palm trees, and I would glue them to the surface of this round, circular piece of plastic, and then I would glue those figures I’m telling you about. I would have people at the beach. If it was a travel map, I would have people with suitcases. I had a whole series. I had like Still Life Creations Beach, Still Life Creations Travel, on and on. Still Life creation stages is how it evolved to the boxes. The point is that when I was doing Still Life, one night, I came across the idea of taking a little box and turning it into something you wear. That doorway I was speaking about earlier opened me up even further into where I am to this day. I’m still very fertile with a lot of ideas. You live in this visual world.
Sharon: Right, absolutely. I love the idea that they’re door openers and conversation starters that break down barriers. It’s not easy to do in New York or anywhere, but I don’t think New York is the conversation-starting capital of the world, let’s say.
Marc: Right. All the world’s a stage, and all of us are players on that stage. Some people have the ability to get on that stage and act and do, while other people are off on the side watching. They’re not as easily going to jump in. Ruth Bader Ginsberg whom we all love—who didn’t love Ruth Bader Ginsberg? What an incredibly magnificent woman. When she was out of being a Supreme Court justice, Lisa had this idea for a show. She invited all her wearable art friends to come up with a collar idea. She mentioned it to me, and I was trying to figure out what I could do with boxes to make a collar. I’m going to try to do this carefully. Behind me—
Sharon: We’ll show a picture of this when we post the podcast so people can see it.
Marc: Right, behind me is this. This is a series of 18 boxes in a square. I mounted it on leather. I made it in such a way that you could take this off and wear it around your neck as a necklace. My wife, who is very gorgeous—she used to be a model, among other things in her life—she wore it. Lisa has a picture of her wearing it. It’s one of those objects that, if you wear it among the other incredible collars that all of Lisa’s artists made, this is even more of a conversation piece because of the image of Ruth. In each box I put her most-known rulings, the titles of them. Wearing that, going to an opening somewhere, it’s going to draw people’s attention. That’s why I keep on saying the same thing over again: every box tells a story.
Sharon: Where do you get the little figures? Do you buy them at doll stores where people make doll houses, or do you go to the toy store?
Marc: It used to be a trade secret. I tried in the beginning to keep everything I did very secret, but if you’re a creative person and you buy one of my boxes, if you really want to know how I made it, you can take it all apart and figure it out. If they’re really curious, they could look at the figures, and now that we Google everything, they could find out that the figures are made in Europe. When I first started, I bought the figures at a model train store. Model train stores have everything for making dioramas.
Sharon: They’re too large for what you’re doing, but I was thinking about the little plastic toy soldiers my brother used to have.
Marc: Exactly. I have made boxes bigger than two inches square to be worn. That’s easy to wear, but suddenly six inches to wear—that’s a major statement. I used to take top hats and other hats and make a whole diorama around the hat, one-of-a-kind. I made a whole bunch of those, and I sold those pretty quickly. I made sunglasses that had a whole scene in the rim of the sunglasses. They didn’t last very long because they’re fragile; the wrong windstorm and they break. That’s why the box, in the end, became the most utilitarian object to protect what was inside, the image and the little characters. There’s meaning in that, protecting ourselves.
Sharon: Where are you getting your ideas from? Are you walking down the street and seeing the World Trade Center and saying, “Oh, that would be great”?
Marc: That’s interesting, too. I don’t live in New York City anymore. I really wish I was living in New York City. I can’t afford it right now, but in the early days when I first was doing this, the mid-80s, early 90s when I was selling on the street, I would walk up and down all the fashion streets where all the storefronts are, a million different shops. There are boxes, but they have mannequins inside them. They are large versions of what I was doing on a small scale, and I would get inspired just by seeing what other window display people were doing. I would go to Barney’s. Barney’s uptown was amazing, the designers of the windows there. So were the windows in Tiffany. Because I’m a box artist, I see these things and they inspire me. I’d hear political news of the day, and then I’d try to match something with what was happening in the world with an image, either one I would create or one I would find and appropriate.
Sharon: Do you call yourself a box artist if people ask, “What do you do?” Do you say you’re an artist or a maker of jewelry? What do you call yourself?
Marc: I call myself a box artist.
Sharon: A box artist.
Marc: I want to call myself a box artist. First of all, I like to think I created that name. Let’s put it another way. When I was doing what I was doing, people used to say, “Oh, it’s a shadow box,” because that’s how people can connect with the idea. Shadow boxes, if you know what they are, are mostly that. They are cardboard most of the time, and people put things in them and they create shadows against the inside of the box. When I first started making these things, everybody was asking, “What is it? What do you call it?” and I would say, “It’s a box and it has a little bit of art inside of it. It’s box art.” The name stuck, and every time people would come up to me, they’d say, “What’s your latest box art?” When you could get on the internet and Google things, I never saw the word box art in relationship to what I do, but I also never saw the word box art in relationship to anything. Once I started using the name, and when I would make my business cards and they would say, “Marc Cohen, Box Art,” then people would have that. You know how it is. The buzz gets out, so the word eventually stuck. So, I claim box art and I claim myself as a box artist. I claim myself as a lot of other things too, but some of them I can’t mention.
It’s a funny journey, all of this. Now, it’s Box Art Dreams. What is Box Art Dreams? Box Art Dreams is video, because that’s the next level. I want to get even more intimate. I’d like the store to be even bigger in its depth and in its message. One image can do that on a certain level. For the person that’s looking at it, one image can stimulate a lot of images in their head, but think about on top of it. If I have a two-inch square box and it has a little video screen inside of it, and there’s a little movie in there and there are characters standing in front of it looking at it, I don’t think I’m going to be able to make them fast enough.
Sharon: It’s an interesting idea.
Marc: That’s the goal. Now, I can’t do that alone. My wife is a video maker and editor. I’m plugging Julia Danielle—she’s a genius at video. One of our goals is to take the wearable art idea and give it even more of an attraction. It’s not just on your lapel; there’s something flickering in the box.
Sharon: That would be really cool, yes.
Marc: If it lights up, God almighty, what people would think. That’s where I’m at. Once I do that, I don’t know. Then, the next is large-scale exhibition. Starting with little boxes and leading me on a journey of jewelry and art.
Sharon: I do want to mention, for those who are interested, that your boxes at this stage are with Lisa at Sculpture to Wear. We’ll also be posting a link and a lot of other information about today. It’ll be with the podcast. Marc, thank you so much. That was just so interesting.
Marc: I appreciate it. Thank you. I want to tell you I’m honored for what you’re doing.
Sharon: Thank you very much. I appreciate that.
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