04 Jan Infinity and Divinity
“Our little planet floats like a mote of dust in the morning sky,” wrote the late, revered American astronomer Carl Sagan. “All that you see, all that we can see, exploded out of a star billions of years ago, and the particles slowly arranged themselves into living things, including all of us. We are made of star stuff.”
At once both scientific and spiritual, the heady yet deeply relatable meaning of those words captures the essence of the Pulitzer Prize-winning scientist’s perspective on the miracle of creation, one he shared with the largest audience in public television history on his 1980 series “Cosmos.” The words have also, of late, filled the mind, heart, and spirit of Robin Cole, a Denver-area artist who, over the past decade, had already established an admirable reputation for delving into the intricacies and depths of the natural world.
Trained with an emphasis in drawing at the Laguna College of Art and Design in Southern California, where she earned an MFA in 2013, Cole, in recent years, had been exploring plant life through exquisitely detailed, vibrantly alive oil paintings of foliage, which were highlighted in the April | May 2021 issue of Western Art & Architecture.
Around the time that article appeared, Cole, then in her mid-30s, was preparing to embark on a new journey that, though understandably profound in its own right, also led her to unexpectedly meaningful results in her career as an artist: motherhood.
“My husband Chris and I took quite a while to make up our minds,” she says. “We wanted to be settled in our lives, and I was hesitant to rock the boat with my artistic career. But then, when we finally decided, I thought that pregnancy was going to be an amazing, creative time for me, filled with fertile ideas, months of having my time all to myself, and a lot of productivity.”
Her reality, Cole quickly learned, was entirely different. “From the first day, my creative engines were suddenly pointed elsewhere,” she says. “I kept painting the ideas I’d already been thinking about because I’m a professional. But I just did not have any new ideas pretty much at all during that time. That dry spell caught me off guard and really freaked me out.”
Eventually, though, she reached a state of contentment in the realization that all her creativity was literally being channeled inward. “I was enchanted by the privilege of getting to participate in the development of this mystery in a realm I knew nothing about. The day-to-day resonance of that was much, much stronger than I’d anticipated.”
The moment her son Ansel was born in June of 2022, however, “my creativity, the inspiration and the urge to make art, came flooding back, and then some,” she says. After first allowing a few months to focus on her newborn’s needs and regain her strength, Cole began producing a prolific body of work that “is about the process of having been the vessel for this immense energy you mostly just have to surrender to, and then, later, figuring out how to re-individuate,” she says. She also found vital support for the transition to a new understanding and definition of herself as both artist and mother through “a tight-knit little community” of Denver-area friends who, like her, are both professional artists and mothers: Adrienne Stein, Anna Rose, Jane Hunt, Kathleen Hudson, and Lindsay Jane Ternes.
The resulting paintings make their public debut in a solo exhibition entitled Genesis, showing March 16 through 30 at Gallery 1261 in Denver. Says widely admired realist painter Quang Ho, a friend and mentor of Cole’s for more than a decade as well as a founder and one of the leading curators of the gallery: “Every painting from Robin has a highly personal concept behind it,” he says. “As an artist, she is constantly challenging herself, diving deeper and growing. She sees infinity and divinity in her subjects.”
A key element of Cole’s challenges for these latest works was that they sprung largely from imagination. “I usually paint from life or from a combination of photo references. So, the process was quite new and uncomfortable. How do I organize all the technical knowledge I’ve acquired painting from life and apply it to these imagined spaces?”
One of the first works to result is Ladder to the Stars, an image of a primordial fish skeleton in the process of coming to life and rising from the depths. Surrounding the skeleton are vibrant dots of light or energy connected by faint lines like, perhaps, a constellation map or some unknowable cosmic plan. While the painting began with Cole’s meditations on the life evolving inside her, she says of this and other works in her artist’s statement for the new show, “I am interested in elemental experiences that possess this added, dream-like resonance, like a vision of tiny embryonic mysteries, or the ethereal glow of a nameless light in a white landscape.” In conversation, she adds her hope that such “magical realism is present enough that it will provide a spark for other people’s stories.”
Indeed, possibilities for other narratives can be found throughout the show, perhaps most abundantly in two of the artist’s most deeply meaningful works.
Epithalamium I takes its title from the Latinized Greek term for a poem celebrating marriage, a form countless poets have assayed through the ages. Cole and her husband had celebrated their wedding with readings not only of Carl Sagan’s previously cited passage but also the contemporary short work Epithalamium by award-winning Oregon poet Carl Adamshick, which references the lives of bride and groom “folded into a paper boat.” Says Cole, “That poem always had a really strong visual resonance for me, but I couldn’t quite figure out how to paint it.” Her new surge of creativity, however, led her to “lean on nautical star charts and constellations, which I have loved since I was a little girl, enchanting stories that humans impose on things they don’t understand.” In its particular form of magical realism, the resulting painting captures the bravely uncertain excitement of a married couple’s, or a child’s, life heading into the unknown.
Cole conjured Landing Place in a similarly magical spirit. The fantastical, entirely invented landscape, she says, “is my impression of what a brand new little soul sees arriving on Earth, opening their eyes, and just thinking, ‘Where am I?’” Could it equally represent the unknown world that lies ahead for a new mother? “There’s definitely a bit of that as well,” Cole responds with a little laugh.
Yet, Cole’s own road, as both an artist and mother, has grown only clearer and ever more serene as her child has grown from newborn to infant to now toddler. That can be seen most evidently in a rare self-portrait she completed, Haven, based on reference photos her artist friend Anna Rose took one day near Standley Lake just northwest of Denver. In the painting, Cole holds then four-month-old Ansel in a woven wrap close to her heart, gazing at the viewer with a look combining serenity and a young mother’s fatigue. “As soon as I would bundle him up there, he would just snuggle right in and fall asleep every time, with total trust, total peace. With all the difficulties of motherhood, it’s so nice when you can identify a need and meet it effortlessly. So, I wanted to make a painting about that closeness, about those early mysteries you solve as a relationship grows.” Meanwhile, the ethereal glow of light on mother and child alike speaks to the fact that, as Carl Sagan observed, “We are made of star stuff.”