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Get Born: Worlds within Worlds in the Work of Jenny Cox

The Woodmere Museum is a small Philadelphia institution that prides itself on collecting and exhibiting the work of notable area artists. One of the artists now included in these ranks is Jenny Cox. “As many as I can,” a marker and ink drawing on paper, was selected for the 2015 Woodmere Annual Juried Exhibition by artists Billy and Steven Dufala. Unassuming yet vibrant from a distance, the piece draws the viewer from the cavernous gallery space and the riot of sculpture within it, into a mysterious, claustrophobic conglomeration of color, word, and line. Cox’s inclusion in the show at the Woodmere marks her second professional exhibition, an incredible accomplishment for an artist whose practice began only five years ago. It is also the first time that Cox’s work has been exhibited without prior consideration of her identity as an artist with developmental disabilities.

The compositions that Cox creates can be described as both playful and intense, interpreted as obsessive horror vacui, gentle abstract color fields, or noisy clusters of chattering thought-bubbles. Comprised of rounded units of color, each with a word or short phrase inside, they derive compositional form and character from the arrangement and organization of the cells, like hives built by various insects to fit different environments. Alex Baker, curator for Philadelphia’s Fleisher/Ollman Gallery (where Cox was in a group exhibition this past summer called “All Different Colors”), describes her work as “refugee text balloons from comics as if they were somehow stolen from their original sources, completely transformed by the artist, and then stacked one on top of the other.”

Jenny Cox at the Woodmere Museum

Jenny Cox at the Woodmere Museum

At the Woodmere opening, Cox oscillated shyly between a cluster of coworkers, housemates, and staff from her group home as well as admiring museum-goers who peppered her with questions about her work: what kind of markers does she use? What inspires her compositions? How much time does one drawing take? Her responses are straightforward: “Any markers I can.” “I just like doing it, it’s a good thing.” “It takes me a while.”

For those who have seen Cox in her element in the studio, it is hard to imagine her verbalizing her particular approach: the mountainous marker collection from which she chooses her tools, the meditative pace with which she executes her line, the comfort and ease with which she selects colors, and the confidence she exudes when moving on to a new composition.

When asked about her completed artwork, Cox expresses a kind of disinterested nonchalance: the work speaks for itself. “I start down here and go over here,” Cox explains, drawing a line with her finger from the center-bottom of the page (where her name is written) to the far left corner. “I try to do my best on them, I like to keep them neat. I try to use any color I can.”

That one with greens, ink and marker on paper, 18 x 24 inches, 2014

That one with greens, Ink and Marker on Paper, 18″ x 24″, 2014.

Her connection to the work lies more in the process of the drawing’s creation, the rhythm of shape and color choice. Each composition begins with her name – punctuated with an encircled “X” at beginning and end. Every word or phrase in her drawings comes from a collection of cards, which she methodically leafs through. Cox has limited reading and writing abilities, and copies the shapes of the letters from the cards as she sees them. Cards with phrases on them – ‘new babies have to wear diapers,’ ‘scratch their head,’ and ‘they scare me’ are dictated to various assistants when Cox wanted to make a composition about a particular subject, either for a commission or to draw about something she loves. Past themes include babies, dogs, and Cox’s housemate Iris. Her works in progress include references to cops and school buses, car washes, and babies

As these personalized phrases are added to the general collection of words, Cox’s drawings have become more complex. Due both to the increasingly oblong shapes of the cells, which create a different visual rhythm in the drawings, and the additional layers of context that emerge from these snippets of conversation and sentence fragments, the end result is what appears to be a topical, stylized combination of word art, obsessive drawing, and all-over compositional space.

Long ones, ink an marker on paper, 19 x 30 inches, 2014

Long ones, Ink and Marker on Paper, 19″ x 30″, 2014.

Close up on "Long ones"

Close up on “Long ones”

Cox began making art at the Center for Creative Works in 2010 but has been working at the site since 1981 at what was then the Lower Merion Vocational Training Center—a day program providing piece work employment opportunities for adults with developmental disabilities. At work, Cox’s task was to feed boxes of paper documents into a shredding machine. When LMVTC began its transition into an art studio, Cox brought the same kind of methodical focus to creating works on paper.

Art instructor Julia Huntington recalls Cox’s early experience with painting: “Jenny was initially uninterested in art making, and she worked diligently shredding as she had for years. After some time she watched [a colleague] painting a piece of Styrofoam and asked me if she could do one also … Gradually, she came up with dots and shapes as elements, and she began playing with all of these ingredients while developing her sense of color relationships, thinking about how elements and colors were distributed.” Cox discovered pens and markers independently, and her work took off—her early work on paper consisted mainly of combinations of single-mark dots and short horizontal and vertical lines. Over time, marks eventually developed into letters, and letters into words.

In the studio, Cox with her unfinished drawings

In the studio, Cox with her unfinished drawings

Cox’s workspace is recreated and broken down daily: she shares a studio at CCW with multiple other artists, and maintains her supplies with protective intensity. The first thing she does each day is retrieve a cardboard portfolio from a canvas sling tucked away in a corner of the studio. She removes papers measuring between 10 x 10 inches and 18 x 24 inches, bearing compositions in varying degrees of completion. Next, she takes ten Tupperware containers from her locker, each one filled to the brim with markers and fine-tipped pens, and empties them methodically to create a pile of colors. She places reusable bags containing slips of paper on the table, surrounding her pile of compositions with small stacks of index cards, flash cards, and various notes. Finally, Cox plugs headphones into her cherry red telephone to listen to streaming radio—B101.1 FM, Madonna, or Stevie Wonder—and sits before her desk: a wide, blank drawing surface surrounded by collections of words and colors.

“As many as I can” features a multicolored, confetti-like signature at the bottom of the page, providing a base for a centrally located column from which all other cells seem to emanate. From a hypnotic array of colorful stripes and dots—sometimes obscuring the words written beneath—the phrase get born bubbles up a number of times on a close read, alongside please, coffee, and light brown. The composition maintains vestiges of her diligent process of accumulation as well as a feeling of unbound chaos created by the random assortment of colors and phrases. In a way, this operates as an allegory for Cox’s navigation through the world around her, as a distillation of her collections. Picking out and piecing together imagery, color, and language, Cox allows this information to swarm around her paper before pulling it together into new formations. With no parameters—or at least known to no one but Cox—her process forms oscillating patterns, stacking and bending to form around the number of letters in each cell.

Lights and stuff, ink and marker on paper, 18.5 x 22.5 inches, 2012

Lights and stuff, Ink and Marker on Paper, 18.5″ x 22.5″, 2012.

Back at work in the studio the week after the opening, I spoke with Cox about the experience of seeing her piece in a museum, and about the exhibition in general. Characteristically flippant, Cox explained, “I was surprised to see it up on the wall— it was strange. Sure I liked seeing it in the show.” More interested in the other artwork, particularly, she changed the subject to “the one with hair on it,” referring to a drawing made entirely from clippings of human hair. She eventually circled back to her own work and her conversation with co-curator Billy Dufala. Finding him in the crowd, she had thanked him for her inclusion in the exhibition. “And he said, ‘Thank you. Thank you for working hard.’”

As Cox has gained more recognition for her art, her relationship to her work has changed. She still sees coming to the studio as coming to “work” and connects deeply to the value of diligent immersion in the process. But she has also begun to make plans for her compositions, plotting a course to be executed in the future. She now allows some of her drawings to remain partially empty with some space between cells, a release from the allover compositional approach she once employed. And recently, her projects have become increasingly large and more ambitious—she has brought paint back into her practice, using a combination of ink and gouache on board, and divides larger paper into loose organizational rows before introducing words, as if making a blueprint for a planned structure. Filling multiple porfolios, Cox is now developing over fifty compositions simultaneously, and rotates among them throughout her day in the studio. It seems that her vision is expanding—building an entire world of colors and hives. Although resistant to picking apart her process, talking about her own completed works, or engaging in the kind of self-descriptive analytic conversation expected of artists, Cox is embracing her emergence as a professional artist with deep sincerity, ambition, and enthusiasm.