Interview with Hannah Cohen of Sutton, Quebec

By Anna Stracey, July 7, 2019

Originally from the historic English town of Berkhamsted in Hertfordshire, Hannah Cohen trained as a speech therapist before she moved to Montreal in 1967. There she pursued a Bachelor degree in Linguistics and Psychology at McGill University before receiving her Masters in Speech Therapy and Audiology from The University of Montreal. Hannah worked successfully as a speech therapist for many years in Montreal while raising her children before shifting her focus to the fine arts. In the 1990s, Hannah decided to return to school to pursue her passion for the arts. In her fifties, Hannah received a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Concordia University in Montreal and began a second career as an artist. She has become well known in Quebec for her imaginative ceramic creatures, as well as her exquisite felting work and paintings. In 2008 Hannah settled in Sutton, Quebec where she lives and works as an artist creating from her home, which is nestled in a quiet hillside. She kindly provided a window to her creative process and shared about her journey from speech therapist to artist as we sat at her kitchen table one recent morning.

What inspires you to be creative?

I think that I’m influenced a lot by nature. I also follow whatever the material I’m using says to me. I don’t always start with a fixed idea, so creation happens along the way. Sometimes I’m inspired by what I see… either in books but particularly in exhibitions, whether it’s sculpture or photography or ceramics or painting. So I think I’m influenced by multiple different things that surround me.

Who encouraged you along the way to pursue your art?

Well it’s very curious, because I think I told you, and it’s true, that I just took a weekend course while I was working and yes, the instructor encouraged me – this is right at the very beginning and this is in my middle-years-plus when I started – yes, the instructor helped encouraged me, but it was more a couple who were really very affected by what I was painting, which was pretty basic stuff at that moment. It was the first time I had ever tried it, and they said “you should go further.” And interestingly enough, as a couple, they followed my beginnings of deciding to go to university to get a degree in fine arts. They continued and would come to exhibitions and would see [my work], so they don’t really know how influential they were just by saying “wow keep going Hannah, we like what you’re doing.” So it was very innocent and spontaneous kind of encouragement. And then along the way there have been various people.

What is one accomplishment you are proud of and why?

I applied to art school on a whim and was surprised and very very very excited to have been accepted because I was already in a profession that I thought I was going to work at until I retired, so I wasn’t exactly planning to be an artist. So that was one accomplishment—I don’t know if that’s an accomplishment exactly. (Laughs). Another very telling moment was when I was referred to as “Hannah Cohen, artist.” I had never been an artist, and so I was no longer a speech therapist, I was an artist. So for me that was also an accomplishment. As far as my own work is concerned I think not my first exhibition, which was very important to me, the second one when I moved out to the country and it was very exciting. And so the accomplishment of actually having exhibitions, I suppose, and people appreciating me and giving good feedback and just plainly enjoying my work.

What advice would you give to other women who aspire to be artists (especially later in life)?

Especially later in life — well I have a good friend who always says, and has said to me, “it’s good that you’ve given yourself permission to have the time to do it.” And to do it because it’s time-consuming if you really want to create and not just get distracted by life and other things– and in my case, at the time, I was [distracted by] my other profession. Really I would say just to let yourself enjoy it and do it and not to be too hung up on is it good, is it not good?… Just enjoy it, which is what I do. I enjoy it.

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