‘If we can imagine it, then we can create it’: Inside Pitzer student Esther Cohen’s ethereal world

Esther cohen's mural "gray ghost"
Esther Cohen PZ ’24 painted a mural just outside of Pitzer’s Mead Hall titled “The Gray Ghost.” (Courtesy: Esther Cohen)

Some of the most emblematic images of Pitzer College are the murals that dot the walls across campus, which assert the creativity of Pitzer students as they pass through the institution. It’s easy to only look at them as eye candy; however, the factors that inspire this communal form of art go deeper than the painted surface.

Last semester, Esther Cohen PZ ’24 painted a mural just outside of Mead Hall titled “The Gray Ghost.” Also adept at crochet, oil painting and mixed media collage, Cohen has tried her hand at much more than painting before creating this mural. She has been creating and mastering these various media for many years, but it wasn’t until she arrived at college that she finally felt she could share them. 

“I would always make art,” Cohen said. “But I was never really confident about it and I never really saw the value in sharing it.” 

She credits her art professors at Pitzer and fellow peers for allowing her to realize that a piece can elicit a variety of emotions and can engage the imagination of others, even as a passerby. 

Cohen was drawn to creating a mural after taking a Pitzer mural painting class that partnered with a women’s residential treatment program called Prototypes. The objective of the class was to create a collaborative mural with the residents; however, this experience was cut short due to COVID-19. Nonetheless, Cohen was still able to appreciate how engaged everyone could be about a piece of art and the variety of things the mural represented to different people. This experience inspired her to create “The Gray Ghost” in mural form on Pitzer’s campus. 

“I would often create these little paper dolls and characters that would go along with them,” Cohen said. “Almost like world-building, I was always excited when I could picture something in my head and then create it so other people could see it as well.”

 

The piece started as a smaller scale drawing, which was inspired by a book about the concept of biocentrism she picked up on the side of the street in New York. Biocentrism is the belief that all creatures on Earth deserve equal moral consideration, especially in relation to the natural world. As soon as she began reading it, Cohen was moved by its ideas of interconnectedness. Cohen related this idea to her upbringing, recalling that her childhood was spent in the woods outside her house, trying to mimic the beauty she witnessed in flowers, trees and animals. 

“I would often create these little paper dolls and characters that would go along with them,” Cohen said. “Almost like world-building, I was always excited when I could picture something in my head and then create it so other people could see it as well.”

By including elements of surrealism, Cohen depicts the naturally intersecting with the supernatural. As she created the mural, she wanted to depict the abstract feeling of being connected to a larger ecosystem of life around her. 

“We know how to create things based on the way our brain takes in color, information and emotion,” Cohen said. “Art is just such a direct reflection of what’s going on inside of our minds, which I just think is really cool.” 

Her art blurs the line between the real and unreal, with a focus on animals and the natural world. Cohen’s priority is building the world she sees in her dreams. She considers her dream life an active source of inspiration for her art and integrates the themes that often come up as a result.

“I’ve been having a lot of dreams about wild animals recently … I keep having dreams about wolves and bears, so I’ve been painting bears a lot in my work,” Cohen said. She interprets this theme of wild animals as a call to get in touch with her own internal voice, inspired by how intuitive yet untamed they are. 

Cohen credits interpreting her dream life as a way of bridging the gap between realism and surrealism in her work. She credits a class on Latin American avant garde for introducing her to the world of surrealism. Artists such as Leonora Carrington, Frida Kahlo, Remedios Varo and Kati Horna have served as her inspirations with their abstractions of feminine experiences. 

“They were depicting way more complex experiences because they were so personal and because they were simultaneously being marginalized by the male surrealists,” Cohen said.

She wants to incorporate more of these seemingly inexplicable feelings into her art in hopes that others will see parts of themselves in her work. Cohen’s philosophy is deeply interconnected with both the natural world and the abstract landscape of human nature and desire. 

She sees creating art as a vessel for portraying the depth of the human psyche: “If we can imagine it, then we can create it,” Cohen said. She has her sights set on creating her own installation for her senior seminar to allow others to experience the rich inner world she has spent her whole life creating.

To see more of Cohen’s work, follow her on Instagram @artfromes.

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