Donald Cohen’s ‘Inside Ride’ Collecting ‘Outsider Art’

“My fantasy life in my room and my interest in sports were my only means of feeling important,” admits Family Therapist Dr. Donald Cohen about his boyhood. Decades later those juvenile feelings sparked an unyielding desire to transform his love of “toy soldiers, cowboys, and other little men” into a massive collection of Outsider art.

“My fantasy life in my room and my interest in sports were my only means of feeling important,” admits Family Therapist, Dr. Donald Cohen about his boyhood. Decades later those juvenile feelings sparked an unyielding desire to transform his love of “toy soldiers, cowboys, and other little men” into a massive collection of Outsider art.

“Outsider art”, sometimes thought of as untrained “Folk art,” are the creative expressions of humble, untrained artmakers who produce objects out of their own eccentric visions. Beyond the realms of highbrow, academic, or fine arts training, these common folk talents often shine in their primary, directness exploring their own fantasies and cultural icons.

Ignited by his own clinical training in Dr. Carl Jung’s symbolic mythology, Cohen’s art collection vividly projects his memories and dreams brought to life. It intersects a living playground of cartoon characters, funky signage, sports legends with his own quest in transforming the banality of daily existence into a Pop art universe of fantasy statues, rock stars, and comic book super heroes.

Nestled within the bucolic serenity of Weston, Connecticut’s woods, Cohen has resurrected Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s “Coney Island of the Mind.” Cheerfully, a real estate agent (like his successful wife Dee) might recommend for clients to tweak up a home’s “curb appeal” to “wow’em” for that all important “first impression.” So how about a fresh coat of white paint on the mailbox or upgrading the windowbox plantings? But who expects to wind down a quiet, leafy residential street and see over-life-sized metal cut-out sculptures of Jimi Hendrix, the Beatles, and Jackie Robinson?

Prepare yourself: pulling into the Donald and Dee Cohen’s untypical driveway, a visitor is immediately dumbstruck: “am I visiting a residential family home or a Disney-theme-park of the imagination?” No zoning restrictions or historic district prohibitions thwarted Cohen’s obsession of hunting/gathering/hoarding an art collection beyond any reasonable limitation.

While more sedate backyards in Weston might include a bar-b-que grill, pool, umbrellas and chaise lounges – the Cohen property is loaded to the brim with fairytale characters, toys, murals, midway carousels, paintings, folk carvings, neon signs, totem poles and miniaturized models of every MLB home park from the historic NY Giants Polo Grounds in the Bronx to San Francisco’s now defunct Candlestick Park.

If a tornado swept up most of the antiques-bric-a-brac/swap/barter/flea-markets like Brimfield, Massachusetts – you’d think most of it touchdown on Cohen’s property. And be certain – there is a total sense of cohesion and order in this eccentric, potpourri of lovingly curated Outsider Art artifacts. Some might be overwhelmed by its outlandishness. Others will respond in a state of “Namaste” tranquility in this mindscape garden chock full of wildly designed, folk art zaniness.

Festooning every tree, hanging from every fencepost, installed across every square yard both outside and inside of this property, Outsider Art sculptures, artifacts and objects leave visitors bewildered. Beyond the initial “WTF is this?” first jolt – one comes to realize that the man and the myth have fused into the organic totality of these mind-blowing-Salvador-Dali-psychedelic-colored-Peter-Max-hallucinatory-psycho-therapeutic toys.

After the initial shock of an hour-long guided tour, Cohen smiles like a Cheshire cat taking pleasure like Mr. Natural in R. Crumb’s psychedelicized “Zap comics.” Cohen quietly quips, “it’s just a whiff of what’s going on inside my collective unconscious being transformed into pursuing lots of cool stuff.” If you are booked for an hour session with the good doctor, remember to “find your own archetype” among this all-star collection of sports Hall of Famers and superheroes for grownups.

Cohen, the author of 7 previous publications including poetry and prose, has just published his latest meditation of self-analysis: The Inside Ride: A Journey to Manhood, (Nicholas Hays Publishers, 2020). It’s a poignantly penned epistolary exchange between two therapists – Dr. Max Cohen, M.D. [father and son] and Donald, PhD. In this heart-warming study of compassion, empathy, and family dynamics – we come to appreciate how and why Donald Cohen’s “inside ride” brought him into the archetypal realm of “Outsider art.”

Exploring his inner thoughts while sharing a sense of innocence and wonder, VENÜ’s Philip Eliasoph sat down to interview Cohen giving time and space for him to escort us through a short stroll across the universe:

PE: Donald, can you offer us some background about your early introduction to psychotherapy as a devoted student of Dr. Carl Jung?

DC: My introduction to psychology and art began when I read Carl Jung’s, Memories, Dreams and Reflections, his autobiography. After seeing there was a man that cherished the journey of the soul, I began to appreciate the marriage of word and image. This inspiration led me to the last book he wrote, Man and His Symbols. His respect for archetypes and psychology was refreshing. I began to travel to different parts of the world and began seeing the universal ideas and different images being reflected in what I saw.

PE: And how did Jungian theory then translate into acquiring ‘Outsider’ or ‘Folk’ art?

DC: My earliest pieces were an Eskimo sculpture, a mother and child made in stone. Following that, I saw a piece that combined Lucite and bronze and began to appreciate how different materials in art objects can be integrated as one. My very first piece was an Indian hanging that had beautiful symmetry and order reflecting the spiritual wedding. It was at that moment in my twenties that I saw the power of the mandala and the order of the universe manifested in all these archetypal images. As I began to have my own places to live there was a desire to surround myself in beauty and the comfort it brought to me. During this time, my wife and I, newly married, splurged on a Calder lithograph for $100. My mother-in-law introduced us to the magic of the art world on the Lower Eastside in Manhattan. My mother-in-law was an artist and a collector. She taught me how to sculpt in soapstone and was a major influence for me because of her passion for art. While visiting us in Mill Valley, California, she bought an outsider, Botero-like, woman eating an ice cream made out of ceramic. This was my first introduction to folk art.

Later on, I was introduced to my first assemblage metal artist, Sonny Cardinali, from Milford, Connecticut. I was drawn to his humor and brilliant ability to tap into the creative mind. His masterpieces surround my yard with a life-size jester, a contemporary Coney Island sculpture, baseball players and many others; all whimsical and playful. His creative spirit lives on in his work and continues to make all who see his pieces smile.

PE: The history of Outsider Art is often linked to some famous European psychiatrists of the early 20th century. Those early pioneers analyzed and interpreted the art – then called Art Brut or Raw Art – enjoying the inventiveness and creativity of these unsophisticated artmakers. What was your first exposure?

DC: When I traveled to Europe I visited some psychiatric hospitals and viewed the patient’s artwork. I felt so inspired I began to collect outsider art and bought some artwork from many different types of patients in the hospital suffering from disorders and of course drawn to Jung’s famous Red Book when he was depressed he produced some powerful pieces. I also read books analyzing Jungian interpretations of the artist Jackson Pollock and Henry Moore. It was impressive how the power of their images reflected a way to express their inner struggles. When I opened my private practice, I became aware of how much my office reflected so many pieces of my psyche and memories of my travels and my desire to capture the synchronicity of my inner dialogue, and how so often simultaneously I would find a piece of art that mirrored what was going on inside me at that moment. My moods governed my collecting. The outsider artist spoke to my own feelings of being different and was drawn to the originality and ability to assemble different materials to express a powerful statement about themselves and their individuation. In my practice, I encourage my patients to draw and keep a journal. My books of poetry became a document for combining word and image. My office is a universe of symbols and memories of my personal experiences and reflections from travel, flea markets, galleries, backyards, art fairs and various unexpected surroundings. Remarkably, they all found a place to live together in my office and home environment. It is as if the pieces came to me knowing I had a place for them. As my indoor art evolved, I was organically starting to bring it outdoors as it now is a huge sculpture garden. It is as if my childhood bedroom of privacy became an outdoor playroom to share my private imagination with others. When my patients arrive in my office, I always ask them what is their favorite piece of art and why. Then, we discuss the others that move them and the dialogue takes us to their own inner dreams. The projections of my collection become their own private Rorschach. I did not need the inkblots because I had my own collection.

PE: Whether one is collecting Old Master paintings or contemporary “unknown” up-and-coming artists, everybody loves to hear stories about a great
discovery – and very low-cost purchase! What are your favorite acquisition tales?

DC: One of my favorite stomping grounds was Billy’s Antiques down in SoHo. It was the perfect marriage for me of outsider artist with his outsider art tent pitched on the sidewalk of New York City. Billy was closing his gallery and my wife and I decided to say goodbye. When I walked into his gallery, I witnessed this amazing mural of a Coney Island hanging on the rafters and I went crazy wanting to own it. He said it was $6000 and was painted by Mimi Gross. I left frustrated knowing I could not afford it. The next day like a true collector, I was determined to have it and called Billy finding him on a plane on the runway as he was about ready to takeoff for Europe. When he came back I persuaded him to bring it up to my house in Connecticut and bought it for $900. We placed it outside on my bottom deck, my own personal Coney Island boardwalk. I was excited about the process and story about the piece as much as the art; the classic experience of a collector. I knew exactly how to place it in my landscape. Installation is part of the fun and magic of it all.

The stories and meaning are the essence for the collector. This mural is 20 feet long and tells the story of Coney Island, which is now the cover of my new book with my father; The Inside Ride: Letters between Father and Son. My father was from Coney Island and although I only remember visiting a few times it has left a deep impression on me. Mimi Gross’ mural was donated to Coney Island as were many known artists sponsored by a non-profit arts organization, Creative Time. It was hanging outside an Italian restaurant on the boardwalk of Coney Island and fell off the building rolling down Bowery Street during a hurricane. It almost got thrown out. The mural ended up in The Museum of Coney Island and Billy from Billy’s Antiques purchased it from there. Since being in my collection, the piece called, Mexico Plaza, was supposed to be the entranceway for the first Coney Island show in the USA, but transporting became too difficult. The piece of art is now published in the first Coney Island art book collection in the United States. The book is Coney Island: Visions of An American Dreamland. The value of the piece is unknown, but for me it clearly has value beyond my comprehension and is my most important piece of art. Coney Island art dominates my art collection as its meaning is much larger than I even know. The great mystery is that my body and soul respond to any art having to do with that place and particularly the Ferris Wheel, the mandala that takes me full circle back to my father’s roots. The color and joy of all that it encompasses, the diversity of Coney Island makes it my favorite playground. The carnival of life with all its archetypal significance found me, the outside art collector, just at the right time.

PE: You have made it a point to seek out lesser-known artists in Connecticut. Tell us about your first encounters with these creative people?

DC: One day a collector saw my collection and suggested I visit this artist, Joe DeMarco, in Shelton, CT. When I went to his studio I knew this artist spoke to my inner eye and fell in love. From that point on I became his patron and now own so many pieces of his work including a stage-coach, horses, Jimmy Hendrix, an orchestra, a basketball player, Jackie Robinson and so many others. His work was as if we saw the same humor, beauty and meaning in how art should be assembled. We became outsider art soul-mates. He took unfound objects and made rough masterpieces. I became passionate and we began to collaborate and envision pieces for my outside sculpture garden. He took remains of a tree and carved two lovers dancing the Tango as it now embraces my living room. I never stopped owing him money for the joy of each new piece brought so much excitement that money became secondary… I had found an artist that understood my passion for beauty. His originality was what I would have imagined as my own way to express what lives inside of me. The other artist that had the same effect on me was folk artist, Bill Duffy. He carved everything in wood. My first discovery of Duffy’s work was at the Brimfield flea market. It was a life-size piece of Mickey Mantle, Wilt Chamberlain, then Ebbetts Field and Wrigley Field. He made a Carousel that lit up and made me feel the magic and color of what inspirers my Coney Island mind. Finally, what made this all so special was being part of the creative process and the give and take of sharing a communal appreciation for our memories, dreams and reflections with these two artists. I had seen their works many years before and then the synchronicity of finding them both later on in my journey and getting to know them and how they felt about their art. The magic of synchronicity of a collector is seeing the signs of discovery along the way.

PE: Why do we discover so many artworks about native tribes and Indigenous peoples in your collection?

DC: One Thanksgiving, I acquired a collection of paper mache Indians, made 50 years ago by a tribe. The Indian Trading Post in Connecticut sold them to me. The famous Indian Trading Post sign from Route 7 now is part of my collection. I have been drawn to Native American Indian culture for years, after a trip with my kids when they were young. The southwest landscape and art as well as visiting Indian reservations heightened my sensitivity to their plight and celebrations. The colors and spirituality connected me to the current message of how “black lives matter” as well as all different races. Their vision of connecting the inner spirit with their art captivated me. That is when horses, the color turquoise, and totem poles entered into my collection. The irony here was placing them on what was once Indian land that had been taken away from them. My collection motivated me to tell the story of various cultures and give them the respect they deserve. These pieces in my collection capture a spirit of survival, inspiration and appreciation for the importance of symbolism and myth. As Jung says, these images amplify the meaning of the human spirit and our history which made me feel more of a oneness related back again to Jung’s concept of the collective unconscious. The mandala for Native American Indians is the totem pole. There is no accident that on my property there are 7 totems proudly standing up with a strong presence of meaning. My collection honors that all cultures demand respect. This was therapeutic for me to express that viewpoint through my canvas of art throughout my collection. All of my art is in harmony with where they are all placed.

PE: Remarkably, you have translated your own inner psyche onto this art collection. We have to admire the way you have ascended into your own imagination through the hundreds of objects surrounding your home and professional office. Explain this evolution.

DC: My journey started as I was collecting black light posters in my college home. Then my heroes journey transformed as I began to become aware that there was a force larger than me. When I entered a church in my young adulthood, the illumination of stained-glass windows, particularly the Chagall windows, impressed upon me my new-found awareness of illumination and purpose. The reflection of the light through the glass gave me an appreciation of the otherworldly. The symbols enriched with meaning inspired a new appreciation of glass and the reflection of colors brought about my own increasing self-reflection of seeing my own inner light. All of this enhanced my deep spirituality and joy of beauty, and what better way than collect the stories and memories of my life. My art collection became my own personal journey into the relationship of my own discoveries and a dialogue with the otherworldly. My experience widened as I became more visual and sensitive to the connection and timing of what I felt was emerging inside of me. In addition the true gift of meeting people that embraced the artist way and learn the stories and techniques that inspired all of their visions as well as mine. This turned me into a poet, a songwriter and therapist, who in the end had to put the word and image together to express what poet, Ferlinghetti referred to as his Coney Island of the Mind. Finally in the end, I realized that my art collection is a manifestation of my ADD. Interestingly what would be considered a therapeutic environment of distraction and chaos became a place of peace and order for my ADD patients. I think the reason is that my inside and outside office portrays an environment of beauty and that in chaos comes a reminder that we can find oneness and order in the disorder. From that we receive inspiration. The largeness of that discovery can be a great relief that beyond us sits the magic of the imagination if we choose to see the synchronicity right at our doorstep. Joseph Campbell’s hero journey for me is all expressed in my personal environment where the memoryman finally comes home. My collection is a dream come true and is never taken for granted. Now I smile at a big assemblage eagle 20 feet high in the air sitting on tree stumps looking over my garden of ideas. My soul has been stretched and only now more appreciated because I can visually hug and share with others during a pandemic. Art is a reminder of how our mortality can become an extension of our immortality to be preserved and cherished embraced and never forgotten. Now my grandchildren have become the curators of the museum. We can pass down the stories, as I did with my father in our new book, “The Inside Ride.”

If it is all about memories, dreams and reflections, I bathe in the smile of my ongoing visual wonderland.

PE: Thanks Donald for being so candid, expressive, and illuminating with your thoughts.

DC: Beyond all the intellectual and clinical talk – more importantly: when can we sit and watch a baseball game at CitiField or Yankee Stadium? That’s what I am counting the days for in this crazy, stressful Covid-19 nightmare we are currently enduring. Let’s hope for happier times to come soon!

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