Painting the edges

Reno artist and advocate Valerie Cohen brings social awareness to Reno’s art scene

“Silence on My Mind” by Valerie Cohen.

“Silence on My Mind” by Valerie Cohen.

The painting exudes the chill of a high desert morning, during that time when the floor of the valley begins to absorb the growing warmth of the sun rising against the mountains in the distance. As I marvel at the vibrancy, I hear a person next to me whisper, “The color is so rich. I can’t believe this is watercolor.”

We are looking at Valerie Cohen’s “Silence On My Mind: Hungry Valley Series #11."As a student of renowned Western watercolorist Milford Zornes, Cohen’s work incorporates deep, broad strokes that come close to the borders of abstraction.

“I like painting the edges,” Cohen says, smiling. “Although my approach in the use of materials has changed over the years, the salient characteristic of these works is their strong design.”

“Silence on My Mind” is part of Cohen’s 45-piece show of watercolor landscapes and three-dimensional assemblages, which opened at the Patagonia Service Center on Oct. 26. This is Cohen’s eighth solo exhibition. A skilled backcountry skier and mountaineer, Cohen’s work has appeared in numerous national and international juried competitions, as well as American Artist Magazine and The Arts Magazine.

As in “Silence on My Mind,” Cohen’s other landscapes are visual perceptions of wind, temperature and time of day. “Range of Light: Bristlecone” (watercolor on paper) is striking, with the texture and color of a tree’s bark reflecting the intrigue of life above 10,000 feet.

In addition to her Great Basin and Sierra Nevada landscapes, Cohen’s work also deals with social issues. One of her three-dimensional pieces, “On the Road: Driving into Nevada,” explores automobile crash fatalities by combining photographs, toy cars, beer bottle caps, splintered safety glass and newspaper headlines.

Cohen believes that, in many ways, traditional landscapes are lies. Landscape artists who choose not to paint the roads and telephone poles that run through the landscape create a view of nature as untouched.

“I try to communicate how I feel about a place,” Cohen says. “But I also feel it’s necessary to acknowledge that I am a human in that landscape, and there are other humans around me.”

Cohen has been actively involved in the fight to stop Oil-Dri Corporation from establishing two open-pit clay mines in Hungry Valley near the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony. Cohen’s opening reception featured a raffle of one of her paintings, the proceeds of which will benefit The Coalition for Safe and Healthy Neighborhoods in their efforts to stop the “kitty litter” mines.

“When I paint, it’s not with a political agenda," Cohen says. "But you can’t separate landscape from the people or politics that inhabit it—they go hand in hand."