Brian D. Cohen became president of Idyllwild Arts Academy (IA) on July 1. One of his stated goals is to expand outreach to the Idyllwild community and create more avenues of cooperation and connection between town and gown. “The town’s [residents] are welcome here and I hope they take advantage of it,” he said.
Cohen noted that IA Dean of Students John Newman serves in the Idyllwild Rotary Club. Cohen said he would begin attending meetings of some of the local service organizations. “I’d like to have some [Academy] representation on town organizations,” he said. Cohen also hopes to see IA student and faculty more involved in forwarding the arts in the wider Idyllwild community, possibly with the smARTS program at Idyllwild School. “Students learn so much when they work with younger learners,” he said. “Teaching helps you better understand what you do in your own art.”
Cohen is a visual artist, painter and printmaker used to working with often unforgiving materials, where mistakes can open unintended avenues and produce unexpected results. “Not knowing where you’re going [in creating art] is not a bad thing,” he noted. “Being open to possibilities as they develop, staying aware of constantly changing circumstances [is helpful]. If you’ve made up your mind at the beginning of the process, you eliminate many possibilities.” His favorite quote is from Samuel Beckett: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.” Through failing, said Cohen, comes learning.
Cohen founded Bridge Press, which publishes and prints limited edition artists’ books and etchings. He was also the founding artistic director of Two Rivers Printmaking Studio, a nonprofit cooperative studio for professional and aspiring artists. He established Bridge Press in 1989 to “further the association and integration of visual image, original text and book structure. Cohen’s books and etchings are in collections at Harvard University, Mills College, Dartmouth, Smith and Wellesley colleges, Yale University, Stanford University, the Library of Congress and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. He is also an amateur violist.
In a preface to a collection of Cohen’s etchings, “Brian D. Cohen, Etchings and Books,” Helen Whybrow remembers first seeing his etchings at an exhibit. “ … huge, dark, arresting images of industrial relics and waste places and the poetic realms of Dante that were clearly the work of a profound imagination and deeply introspective soul …. He is drawn to the edges between light and dark, human and nature, dream and reality, presence and absence.”
In interview, Cohen exudes a quiet, unassuming confidence. He listens attentively and responds thoughtfully. He seems, like his austere black and white etchings and his books of sparse text and striking images, of another time — solid and unhurried, with a strong connection to an earlier, less frenetic and more optimistic, America. “I am attracted to large, futile and obsolete things,” he writes on his Bridge Press website. “I like things that people have made and placed in the world, and I like what we make that fails to remain vital and functioning over time, but lurks about in the collective memory (zeppelins, steam locomotives, etc.)” If he could go back to any time, he said he would return to pre World War I America and Europe when, as he said, “There was a hope in technology, and a belief that society was perfectible.”
Why Idyllwild now
For over 25 years, since 1985, the same period of time that Bill Lowman has headed IA, Cohen has taught and been dean of the Faculty at Putney School in Vermont. There is a certain symmetry in the fact that both men opted to change after a 25-year tenure at one institution. Why Idyllwild now, after so many years at Putney? “At Putney there weren’t many mysteries left,” he noted. “There were frustrations, but not so many challenges.” Also, although Putney had an arts program, it was not focused primarily on the arts. “Idyllwild is about the arts and so am I,” he said.
Upon being selected to head IA, Cohen shared his thoughts about arts education: “Arts education is primarily about guiding, ordering and encouraging the impulse to create. This drive is a powerful imperative, particularly in adolescence, when the joy, self-awareness and instinct of making art, and student’s emotional lives, are especially vivid. The arts offer the discipline, extension of skills and ideas and ultimately self-confidence of visible, shared achievement. The educational model of learning by doing is nowhere better exemplified than in arts education.”
Cohen said he finds IA students both confident and capable, a good combination in his view. “They have a sense of their own agency, their own expression, their own direction, and they’re really good at what they do,” he said. “What we [as teachers] give them is guidance and a sense of possibility.”
For now, Cohen is settling in, meeting with faculty, employees and students. “This is a school with a healthy sense of its own identity, where employees understand the school’s mission,” he noted. After the fall semester, Cohen will begin traveling to some of the parts of the world from which IA draws many of its students.
Cohen is married, to Holiday, and has a young son, David. The family recently acquired a dog from ARF, Winston.