Cohn, 42, grew up in a Chicago suburb and attended a humanistic Jewish congregation; her parents were married by a rabbi affiliated with the movement, which emphasizes Jewish history and ethics, and downplays the use of theistic language. But from 1989 to 1994, she lived on the islands of Bali and Java in Indonesia, a nation whose history has been shaped by Hinduism and Buddhism, and happens to have more Muslim citizens than any country on the planet.
The painting itself combines classical brush techniques with batik, an art form that forgoes brushes, and instead utilizes dye and hot wax to produce both brilliant and subtle colors. The technique originated in India, and for centuries has been practiced widely in Indonesia, where to this day it's used to decorate clothing, wood carvings and, of course, canvases, according to Cohn.
The title of this particular painting of Cohn's alludes to her Jewish identity, but the women depicted wear traditional Indonesian clothing. She said the juxtaposition is evidence of how the lines between the country where she grew up and the place she considers a second home have become blurred in her art.
"The reason I still love batik – even though I've been [using] it for almost 20 years – is that it's really very ethereal," said Cohn, a member of Shir Shalom (A Community for Humanistic Judaism), a Cheltenham-based congregation that has no permanent home. "Painting is always the verb I use, even though I'm painting with hot wax."
One thing she likes about the process is its unpredictability: Often, Cohn paints with solar-activated dyes, which produce muted colors on cloudy days, but emit stunning hues in sunlight. She started experimenting with batik because oil did not work well in the tropical Indonesian climate.
After graduating from the College of the Atlantic in Maine – a small, nontraditional school where every student majors in human ecology – Cohn traveled to the Indonesian archipelago for what was supposed to be a two-month stay, but she fell in love with the culture's way of infusing art and creativity, along with spirituality, into daily life.
She lived there for the better part of five years, spending about $300 a year on rent, and painted full-time. She supported her $5- a-day living expenses from working at a local nonprofit organization and university. She returned stateside periodically to sell her work, and wound up meeting her husband on one of those trips.
Now she lives in the Belmont Hills section of Bala Cynwyd with her freelance grant-writer husband and their 8-year-old-son, and returns to Indonesia for about three weeks every year, often with her family. There, she collects handicrafts that she sells along with her own paintings at an annual show, "From Bali to Bala." A portion of the proceeds go to Yayasan IDEP Foundation, a nonprofit group working in Indonesia's Ache province, which was devastated by the 2004 tsunami.
Cohn, who runs batik workshops in grade schools throughout the area, wants to educate people not only about the art form, but about Indonesia itself.
"A lot of my outreach is committed to the fact that it is the largest Muslim country, and we have a very limited impression of this country," explained Cohn, who argued that while parts of the 17,000-member island nation serve as hotbeds of Islamic fundamentalism, the region has a strong fabric of tolerance and cosmopolitanism. "I honestly can say I have never had anyone say anything negative about me being there."
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