If anyone needs a reminder to turn off the ringer, close the social media tabs, shut the door, and get back to the task at hand already, it’s me. I recently got such a reminder—a thoroughly convincing one—in the form of Valerie Cohen’s ink drawings.
Cohen lives in Reno and spends a lot of time in high-altitude locales—her cabin at June Lake near Yosemite, a research station in the White Mountains—drawing the rugged contours and concentric rings of junipers, bristlecones and other high-elevation conifers.
She grew up in California, the daughter of one of the few woman mountain climbers of the 1930s. And later, Cohen herself ended up in a male-dominated field.
“I was Yosemite’s first female law enforcement officer,” she said, curled up on her living room couch, wearing Patagonia fleece. “I finally quit because the sexism in the agency was absolutely unbearable, even for somebody as strong as I am.” That was in the late ’70s, and by then she and her husband had a young child.
“I had to have something else to do,” Cohen recalled. She became a writer—but that led to an unexpected road block.
“I wrote and published short fiction for a couple of years until I realized that to become a better writer, I was going to have to show myself and expose myself, and I didn’t want to do that,” she said.
Then later, as a painter, Cohen realized her landscapes were more personal and revealing than she’d intended them to be.
“By the time I realized that I wasn’t hiding in my paintings, it was too late,” she said. She was already committed to a life as an artist.
Here’s how she works: “I’ll choose a place, no trails, I’ll just choose a mountainside to go up,” she said. “And I wander until the right tree says, ’Vaaallerieeeee.’ It’s got to speak to me.” She’ll sit in her Crazy Creek folding chair, adjustable to just about any kind of slope, and sketch the tree for an hour or two.
“No photographs, ever,” she said. “They’re a completely different language.”
Later, she copies the sketch onto heavy, textured watercolor paper using India ink and 10 or 15 different pen nibs.
“I do the finished stuff inside, so there’s no wind, no freezing, no mosquitoes, no snakes or whatever,” she said. “I’ve got to work in total silence. You can’t do watercolor or ink very well in the mountains.”
Within these strict limits—just black and white lines, just trees, no whistles, no bells, no flourishes—Cohen makes beautifully expressive drawings of weathered conifers. The pictures are realistic and precise but nothing like technical drawings. They convey hours of wonder, worlds of thought, and whichever emotion Cohen decides to impart into each piece, whether upbeat or melancholy.
Currently, her drawings comprise an exhibit titled Tree Lines at the University of Nevada, Reno’s Sheppard Gallery—a book with the same title, for which her husband, Michael Cohen, wrote page- or half-page-long meditations on the drawings and the conditions surrounding them—for example, ecosystems are simplified, therefore concentrated, at high elevations, just like abstraction can simplify a scene, distilling it into its essential parts.
And one of his passages summarizes perfectly the payoff for the type of ringer-off, door-closed contemplation that Cohen has made a longtime habit of: “If you want to know what you think, write it. If you want to know how to see, draw it.”