Orly Cogan - Natural Habitat - Embroidery on found fabric

How Orly Cogan started making Modern Fictions

Orly Cogan is a textile artist from New York who revitalises vintage fabrics with her hand embroideries, spinning contemporary vignettes that mix the erotic with the mundane and create little bits of magic.

Her work breathes life back into fabrics and existing embroideries in remarkable ways, and yet the old and the new end up looking as though they were always meant to be that way.

Orly Cogan - Searching for my Prince
Orly Cogan – Searching for my Prince

We have a fantastic post about Orly’s work by Joetta Maue, that is a great dive into her work and how she makes modern fictions using these vintage fabrics. Be sure to check that out to enjoy more of her art, however I recently interviewed Orly for NeedleXChange, and we delved into her creative journey. The turning point for her path into textiles is a combination of her own personal backstory and some well timed conversations:

Orly Cogan - Camouflage - hand embroidery on found fabrics

I’ve been doing fiber-based work since the 90s, when I transitioned sort of between painting and drawing to almost strictly threads and fabrics and things like that back in the late 90s, a long time ago.

My mother collected old quilts and those old sampler embroideries; those little pieces that people frame a lot of time that where girls would practice their alphabets and cross-stitch. She had a bunch of those framed and always really appreciated their little sayings on that. She was very interested in folk art, and particularly in like textiles and things like that and that’s what I grew up around.

And then my father was very interested in painting like Rubens and Botticelli; lots of figures and interactions, gods and goddesses, that kind of work. Art in my house was a really important thing.

Fiber materials were something I was always comfortable doing because I went to this little private school where you learn to knit almost before you learn to write.

Orly Cogan - Rumors (2009)
Orly Cogan – Rumors (2009)

One day, my mom was going to take a one day quilting squares workshop at the Folk Art Museum here in New York City, and she couldn’t make it. I took the class and it was me and a bunch of elderly women and we just were hand making the quilt squares, which I felt quite comfortable doing.

And I just figured I embroidered in the seams of some of my square a couple of figures lying down, which was just natural to me because I had been doing figurative work for a long time. And that’s the kind of work I looked at, like in the museums and stuff, traditional paintings.

And they went crazy for it. They went crazy for, you know, seeing like a nude figure on a quilt square. And I liked the reaction and then I kind of continued, you know, doing that more and more of that.

Orly Cogan - Fairy Tail (2006)
Orly Cogan – Fairy Tail (2006)

A friend of mine who was also a curator came to my studio for visit a bit after that and he was looking at paintings and then he also saw this like pile of fabric. And he said, “what’s going on there?” And I said “oh, it’s just something I’m kind of playing around with”.

I never pictured textiles or fabric or string or any of these materials being on like a white gallery wall. I always felt like it had to be painting or drawing. I didn’t really think of what I was doing as something that I couldn’t market. But again, we’re talking about like 30 years ago and I had gone to art school and studied painting. So I was very much in that head space. So I was kind of doing these figures for myself because I enjoyed them and there was something completely different where I could draw a thread.

And the curator said , this, more of this, this is really interesting, this is really fascinating, I’ve never seen anything like this.” And he just opened up this idea that someone in the art, capital A art world would consider this as high art.

Orly Cogan - Life Force (2019)
Orly Cogan – Life Force (2019)

I think intrinsically with the material, I started moving away from printed materials and just fabric, plain fabrics or printed fabrics, and got into the vintage fabrics. My mom, again, was a big help because she loved going to antique stores and tag sales and getting these old pieces.

They all had some moment of incredible beauty, like some anonymous person at some point had spent hours, either crocheting the edges or doing a little bit of cross-stitch in each corner or something. Even baby quilts, even things that are very specific as a gift most likely for someone, but they had been discarded in a way and or had gone out of fashion like a doily or something.

And there was so much beauty and craftsmanship in these pieces, but they were just at a garage sale or something. I started thinking about connecting the concepts with the materials and connecting even further.

Orly Cogan - Bloom
Orly Cogan – Bloom

Beyond the shock value of doing small provocative figures jumping around printed fabrics, I wanted to go in deeper and connect ideas of history; something being discarded and not respected and then breathing new life of it into it and elevating it into something where someone in the contemporary art world would look at it and respect it. The idea of just connecting the materials to the concepts made a lot of sense for me with this kind of work.

Orly Cogan - Power of Women (2018)
Orly Cogan – Power of Women (2018)

I love this story as it’s a perfect example of how our personal backstory comes into play when we pursue an artistic process. Orly grew up around vintage textiles and had ideas of Gods and Goddesses imprinted on her thanks to parental passions, yet it was a whimsical idea that brought these concepts together.

The validation of the curator gave Orly permission to follow this idea and let it evolve, and the courage to adopt an artistic medium that is not always taken seriously.

Hopefully this story is something that you can take inspiration from in following your own creative passions.

You can enjoy the NeedleXChange with Orly Cogan wherever you get your podcast, or by clicking on the player below.

To keep up with Orly Cogan, follow her on Instagram and tune into her website.

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