For Jewish American Heritage month, we're highlighting the practice of California-based artist Aliza Cohen. In discussing how heritage impacts her work, Aliza reflects on her experiences as a first-generation American, and the influence her Jewish, Latino, and Moroccan roots have on her painting practice. Watch the full interview on Instagram, or continue reading below.
Please introduce yourself, including where you are from and currently based.
I was born in Oakland California, but am currently living and working in Berkeley. I’m a first-generation American — my parents are from Cuba and Venezuela.
Describe the kind of work you create - how is it made, what inspires you?
I make paintings, oil and acrylic, that have many layers, some of which are transparent. The paintings lately are based on images of water (harbors, the ocean, etc) and the experiences I have had while interacting with water in the places I’ve worked.
How long have you been working in this style or with these materials? How did you first begin working in this way?
I have been painting for almost 20 years! In the beginning I mostly used oil paint, but I became impatient waiting for layers to dry so now I start with acrylic and finish with oil. I have also recently started using my iPad and Procreate to work through some layers that I used to do directly on the canvas; this allows me to try out many different colors until I find one that works for me and then I mix it up in paint. I have painted a lot of things in the past, such as figures and landscapes, but abstraction based on the landscape is what I really love and have been doing for the last 10-15 years.
What moments in your process do you enjoy the most?
I enjoy mixing colors and trying new combinations. I enjoy being surprised by the painting process, so whether that comes as the way a color looks on top of another playing with transparency or by making connections between the abstract shapes in my paintings and my experiences in nature.
The painting process is very organic for me and I think about it like a conversation that I have no idea how or when it will end. I never know what a painting will look like when it's done, and I delight in that element of surprise.
What is a typical day in your studio?
Get in and do some cleaning up. Usually I clean my palette because it allows me to think about what I want to do and study what I’m in the middle of. Sometimes I’ll photograph the paintings and try out new layers on my iPad. After about an hour of being there I’ll start mixing colors and laying things down. The painting process is very organic for me and I think about it like a conversation that I have no idea how or when it will end. I never know what a painting will look like when it's done, and I delight in that element of surprise. After a few hours I’ll take a break, take the dog for a walk, and then come back for more!
What does 'heritage' mean to you?
For me heritage is about personal and family history and how that history has become a part of my own identity. Heritage is also a thing that connects me to my community, a shared experience or understanding that connects me to others.
How do you think about culture and identity in relation to your work?
Culture and identity are what make up my voice and my voice is what makes my work individual and my own. My identity is multi-faceted and includes Jewish, Latino, and Moroccan roots. These roots and my experience as a first-generation American have deeply influenced the way I see and move through the world. My paintings are the ultimate self-reflection so they convey this experience in little ways such as the colors I am drawn to or in larger ways, such as my beliefs about the value of art in our world.