Cobi Moules is based in Boston, Massachusetts. He received an MFA in 2010 from The School of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and Tufts University, and a BFA from San Jose State University in 2004. Cobi’s exceptional work in painting and drawing has brought him numerous awards, including the SMFA Traveling Fellowship, Ruth and Harold Chenven Foundation Grant, and a Joan Mitchell MFA Grant, as well as residencies at Bemis Center for Contemporary Art and Ucross Foundation, among others. His work has been exhibited nationally including the CUE Foundation (New York, NY), Richard Heller Gallery (Santa Monica, CA), Platform Gallery (Seattle, WA), Ogunquit Museum of American Art (Ogunquit, ME), and Carroll and Sons Gallery (Boston, MA).
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We visited Cobi in his East Boston studio this summer, while he was working away towards an upcoming show in NYC. The following is our interview, conducted via email after our studio visit.
Andrea Evans: Hello Cobi! Thanks so much for having us by your studio.
Cobi Moules: Thank you so much for coming by. It was so nice to have you here.
AE: For those who may not be familiar with your work, can you give us an overview of your artistic interests and main driving forces in your different bodies of work?
CM: Overall I’m really interested in navigating different aspects of my queer and trans identity. I think of my work in a very playful and often humorous way. A lot of my work begins from a place of exploration; exploring multifaceted notions of the self, autonomy, and gratification. My work varies from creating fantastical worlds where I’m multiplied throughout the grand American landscape, to re-imagining my physicality through hair (growth, loss and grooming), as well as documentation. With my paintings I am often reflecting on art historical representation (both portraiture and 19th century American landscape painting), using these traditions, partly, as a way of seeking inclusion; creating spaces for both personal significance as well as a queer presence.
AE: I know I speak for many people when I say how glad we are to have you back in Boston. You just returned from a long stint of traveling, attending 6 different artist residencies in the past two years. Can you tell us a bit about your time at these residencies and how they have influenced your art practice?
CM: Thank you, I am so glad to be back as well. The last couple of years were incredible. I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to explore different areas of the US and meet some amazing folks from around the world.
I would say the community aspect of the residencies was probably the most influential part for me. Much of my practice is shut away in the studio without much interaction. My work can be very isolating at times and the structure of some of the residencies almost forced me to stop, slow down and really indulge in the really important social aspects of, not only being an artist, but also just being a person. Sometimes I find it difficult to balance my studio practice with other aspects of my artistic and personal life, especially when I have deadlines looming over me.
I think I have come away from this experience with a different way of approaching my practice and thinking about what’s important. I also think that is why I felt the need to come back when I did. The two years on the road was fabulous but towards the end I began to feel disconnected to my home and my community here in Boston.
AE: You were also awarded an SMFA Traveling Fellowship in 2011. I know this helped support one of your recent bodies of work, paintings in which multiple Cobi’s playfully inhabit and explore various picturesque American landscapes. This work was largely influenced by Hudson River School painters such as Frederic Edwin Church and Thomas Cole. In our conversations at the studio, you mentioned that you started out with the intention to base your own paintings in the same locations as some of these works, but pretty quickly decided to use different places that you “discovered”. What caused this shift in location? As you have explored more places across the United States, how has this body of work evolved?
CM: Absolutely, this project did start out with specific locations, based on locations used by artists within the Hudson River School. The first paintings I did, before the fellowship, had me at Kaaterskill Falls (from Thomas Cole) and the coast of Mount Desert Island (from Frederick Church). The idea behind this project and the initial desire to use these specific places is largely about looking at and shifting the relationship between the self, nature and God within their works. I’m really interested in the way in which the American landscape has been represented as a place for the manifestation of God as well as ideas of purity and the honor of sacrificing one’s selfhood for the glory of God. I see a number of ideological link between their works and a specific current American Christian culture that had been a major part of my upbringing. Part of this project is about renegotiating my relationship, as a queer and trans guy, with these ideas. So, by going into the specific locations there was a much more direct link between the spaces that I was inhabiting and the art historical references.
Once I started on my long traveling stint I did begin to allow myself to explore beyond the specific place, and even beyond the general areas. One thing that was important was that I was able to get into the spaces to explore and play. I also needed to be able to have time to myself, without many other folks around. Places within Yellowstone, for instance, were impossible to work in. The crowds were horrible. So logistically some areas just wouldn’t work. But also the idea of exploring the landscape, and myself within it, was really important as well. Allowing myself to not be too tied down to the specific locations became really important because I started to feel that it was an unnecessary limitation. I began at specific points but quickly traveled to other locations. For me the link became less about the specific places and more about the grand American landscape in general.
AE: Can you describe the process of making one of your paintings, from the idea stage to the finished piece, say, for a piece like “Untitled (Lake McDonald)”?
CM: When I was traveling I spent about a week, maybe more, in Glacier National Park, up in Montana. I gave myself plenty of time to explore and a few places stood out, and found myself going back to Lake McDonald a few different times. I found this great spot where no one would bother me and could really get into the scene. I would set up my tripod and my wireless shutter release and go out there and play. I put my shutter release into a couple zip lock bags so that I could swim around and not have to worry about coming in and out of the water. I took hundred of photos of me playing and enjoyed myself in the water.
I was on the road going from one location to the next for about 3 months. I had a few stops along the way where I could chill out in a hotel room, upload my photos and start to organize them. But it wasn’t until after I was done with the main stint of traveling and stopped for a longer period that I was able to start working with the images in Photoshop. I would start with hundreds of photos and narrow them down to a few dozen, playing with the different interactions and finding new ones that I hadn’t thought of while in the landscape. I would work on the image off and on for a week or two, until I was happy. I then projected the image to get the best scale and make any alterations to the image before I would build my canvas, re-project to outline the image and begin painting. I spend a pretty good amount of time with gesso and sandpaper to get the smoothest possible surface. I spent about 3 months working on Untitled (Lake McDonald), starting with blocking everything in and slowly bringing out the details with thin and smooth layers of paint. Close to the very end I add a few really tiny people way in back. Depending on the stage and size of the painting I will sometimes work on a few paintings at a time.
AE: You also have an ongoing series in which you are painting a self-portrait every 6 months to a year, documenting your process of transitioning from female to male. Each of these paintings are the same size and composition, with only your clothing and physical appearance shifting. I feel like for viewers, this is a very generous series of paintings; you are allowing us to really examine, compare, and study some of these physical changes in your body. Does the process of painting these repeated self-portraits allow you to see changes that you might have not previously noticed? Do you have a sense of how long you will continue these paintings? Might we be seeing the process of male-pattern baldness off in the distant future?
CM: I would say for the most part I notice changes happening along the way, although I would say that sometimes the act of painting does allow me to really pin down what that was. Also I really enjoy looking back at pieces and seeing them side-by-side, not only to see the physical changes, but to also see how different I am approaching the way I am painting. It is always surprising to see how my painting techniques alter in such a short period of time. I think that the physical changes that happen over a short period of time are sometimes pretty subtle but when I look at the first couple of paintings compared to the last one the shift is much more noticeable.
I am not sure how long I will continue this project. The great thing is that there will always be changes- beard growth, ageing, perhaps balding… no signs yet of that one. There are times that I just don’t want to paint another one yet… but then a month or so will go by and I will be super excited for the next one. That is the way that I plan to approach each of these paintings. I give them about 6 months to a year between each one but the time may shift to a longer period depending on what I have going on and when I feel excited about doing the next one.
I am currently a little bit past the 1 year mark, mostly because I need to invest all of my time towards the work for an upcoming exhibition in October. But I will soon get back on track, I’m getting excited again for the next one!
AE: Speaking of male-pattern baldness, I loved the sneak preview we got in your studio of your new series of self-portraits in which you have fused your own portrait with that of well-known aging male actors such as Nicholas Cage and Robert DeNiro. Am I allowed to talk about these? They remind me of an experiment I heard about on the “Who Am I” episode of RadioLab (one of my favorite podcasts), that explores how we recognize our own self. Using morph software, they would create a image that combines a photo of the test subject with a photo of Bill Clinton. Normally, the test subject would easily recognize themselves in the photo, rather than Bill Clinton. But most other people looking at the same photo, would first see Bill Clinton. When they did an experiment and anesthetized the right side of the test subject’s brain, then the person would then first recognize Bill Clinton rather than their own self! This revealed how important the right side of the brain is to self-recognition. Anyways, I guess where I’m going with this is, I’m curious about how difficult it may have been for you to really “see” each of the actor’s faces in these drawings, alongside your own. How could you tell when the combination really “worked”? It’s funny, in some of them I definitely see more Cobi, in others, I see more Robert DeNiro, or whoever. But maybe that has more to do with my own ability (or inability) to recognize and identify actors.
CM: Ha, yes you are allowed to talk about these. Yeah I think it is really interesting to see how in some of the drawings I do lose more of myself, where others I recognize myself immediately and barely see the reference. The Robert DeNiro piece is the one that I hardly recognize myself in. I think that maybe the mass amount of hair and the way it is covering up the mole on my neck helps in disguising me.
But what I find really interesting is that all I am changing is my hair. My face is still my own, it is not aged or altered. My facial expression changes with each but other than that the only alteration is the hair. It kind of amazes me how the simple act of transplanting the hair of Robert DeNiro onto my on own head can make me and you almost immediately recognize him over myself, and its just hair! I think what really makes this piece work for me so far is the fact that I move in and out of how the hair is really working, whether it is suiting me and how well I, and others, can see me. And its just so fun and hilarious to draw, I’m really enjoying the process of making this piece.
AE: You frequently have multiple series going in both drawing and painting. Can you talk about how you determine when to work in drawing or when to work in painting, and how you view the relationship and subtle differences between these two media?
CM: A lot of the time the decision is a fairly intuitive one but there are definitely important differences that do influence my decision. I see the drawings in a much more soft and delicate way, so for a project like the childhood drawings, where I am referencing old photographs, the lack of color and softness helps in creating that nostalgic feeling of looking back. After reflection, time seems to play an important role; the childhood drawing from the past and the balding and beard drawings projecting into the future.
The paintings, on the other hand, have more of a feeling of something happening in the present moment. Even the portraits, seen as a tracking of time as a group, can also be seen as these present moments. The color and the references to art historical paintings are important for some of the painting projects as well. My relationship to drawing is much more intimate than it is with painting.
AE: And for all of us studio nerds out there, can you walk us through a typical day in your studio?
CM: Right now my typical day is not exciting at all. Because I’m in deadline mode I basically get up and paint all day, take a few food breaks, and get back to painting. I am currently working in the studio about 12 or so hours a day and am working on a few paintings at a time from the landscape series. I sit down in my chair and work from an image that is on my computer. I listen to a lot of podcasts and watch (mostly listen to) movies and tv programs while I paint. I need some sort of story in the background to keep me focused. I haven’t listen to much RadioLab but am excited to revisit it, thanks for the suggestion! Once all of the work is completed for the upcoming show my studio days will look much different. I will be able to spread my time each day between a couple of different projects, dividing my time between painting and drawing and experimenting with different stuff that I have been thinking about for a while.
AE: You’ve got a show coming up at Lyons Wier Gallery in NYC this October–congrats by the way!–is there anything else coming up that we should keep an eye out for?
CM: Thanks! I am really excited about the show at Lyons Wier Gallery. It will be my first solo show there and am excited to be working with them. I don’t have anything else lined up at the moment. I’ve had such a busy last couple of years that it will be really nice to give myself some time to play around.
AE: Thanks so much for your time.
CM: Thank you, it’s been so nice to chat with you both and have you into the studio!
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For more information on Cobi Moules and his work, check out: