The next Artist Interview Project installment features Nicoelle Danielle Cohen, co-founder of the Funky B Boutique and owner of Nicoelle Danielle Designs. More recently, she launched the Healing Hearts Project Part 2 to support the victims of gun violence. The first part of this post includes a student’s reflective summary. It is followed by the full interview transcript.
Learn more about the Artist Interview Project course assignment in Dr. Jenkins’ introduction to the series. You can follow the Philosophy School of Phish on Facebook, Twitter (@phishedu), and the course’s public website.
Nicoelle Danielle Cohen, co-founder of the Funky B Boutique and owner of Nicoelle Danielle Designs, is an artist who gets her inspiration from nature and music. Phish’s music has influenced Nicoelle’s artwork for a long time, but she only recently began to produce “phan” art after attending the 2016 Phish Halloween run in Las Vegas. While attending the PhanArt event at the Vegas Brooklyn Bowl, Nicoelle decided to create her own Phish-themed art work. She first displayed her Phish art, including some posters she designed, at the following PhanArt show in NYC, which was held during Phish’s New Year’s Eve run that year. Additionally, she and a few of her friends created a business called the Funky B Boutique to design Phish-themed merchandise for women. The Funky B Boutique sells a wide variety of products, including scents, women’s shirts, panties, and more.
I initially wanted to interview Nicoelle, because I was impressed by her intricate jewelry. While I had many questions about the craft, I learned in our interview that she no longer uses this medium because it is a very expensive process that poses significant health risks. I did, however, enjoy learning about her jewelry making methods and how they compares to Nicoelle’s painting techniques.
Nicoelle’s artistic process for painting and jewelry making are very different. Jewelry making, she explained, involves more planning and attention to detail. Painting, for Nicoelle, is a lot more flexible. She puts on music and allows the song to guide her creation. Both of her mediums share a focus on capturing of nature. When Nicoelle created jewelry, she would collect things, such as acorns, that she found on a hike and use them in her pieces. While she did not use physical elements on her paintings, her paintings represent different aspects of nature, using shapes like spiral patterns and bubble-like designs.
Phish shows are full of emotion, for Nicoelle. Live concerts, in addition to painting, helped her cope with the loss of many friends at a young age. The music is also a source of intense joy. When Nicoelle sees Phish live, she experiences a rush of excitement, joy, and connection. “If everybody could feel this way, then it would be great; everybody would be so happy,” she said in our interview. By creating these intense emotional responses—or what Nietzsche calls the Dionysian— Phish concerts helped Nicoelle cope with her losses. For a moment, the music can turn a switch in the brain that blocks hurt or pain. For Nietzsche, the Dionysian is similar to intoxication, because as the experience “intensifies, the subjective fades into complete forgetfulness of self.” In these moments, Nicoelle merged with the music and escape her pain.
Nicoelle’s experience of live Phish shows affects what and how she paints; she paints the way she feels in response to the unique combination of songs, jams, and lights from each show. Sometimes her experience of a song is positive or sometimes it is more negative. As philosopher Jeanette Bicknell explains in her book Why Music Moves Us, “a listener may undergo both positive and negative emotions while listening to a single work” (54). Nicoelle tries to capture and interpret the emotion of Phish songs by integrating them into her painting. Bicknell explains how music can have significant effects in our bodies. She writes that “physical responses to music are significant because they are clear indications that the music has overcome listeners and undermined their defenses” (48). That Nicoelle often listens to Phish while painting is apparent in her artwork; the shapes and colors of her brush strokes dance across her canvasses like Chris Kuroda’s lights move with Phish’s live music.
I enjoyed the opportunity to learn more about Nicoelle’s artwork, her love of Phish, and her experience as a student. Thank you for taking the time to share your art with me!
Out of all the bands in the world what made you want to create fan art for the band Phish?
I just recently started creating Phan Art for the shows. I went to see Phish in Las Vegas for the 2016 Halloween shows and a few of my friends were going to see the Phan Art show, which was at the Brooklyn Bowl there. I went along with them to check it out, because I had heard about these Phan Art shows. I believe Phan Art started after the band broke up in 2004. In the time during the break up, which was 2004 to 2009, I was living in New York City. I was really focused on my art work after graduating from Pratt in 2004. I hadn’t really heard about the Phan Art shows until maybe within the last year or so. When I was in Vegas there was a show and I really wanted to check it out. When I went I was very inspired by what I saw. I hadn’t thought of it when I was there; I thought this could be fun, first of all, just being part of this art community based on Phish because I’ve been seeing them for over 25 years. The band’s always been a part of my work—not obviously– but they’ve always been part of my inspiration.
This is a different way of creating for me—for my work– to be inspired in a purposeful way by the band instead of just underlining. So I saw the Phan Art show and I got really inspired by it. I talked to Pete Mason—he’s the guy who runs it– and he said that I could do the show over the New Year’s Eve run. I talked to him in November when I got back from Vegas so I had two months to prepare, which is not that much time. I had a lot of ideas but it was only enough time to do some of them. I worked in the studio and I did a bunch of paintings and a few posters inspired by songs.
It was a crazy experience for me to have such short amount of time to get it done because I had no idea what the art show was going to be like. It was a little stressful actually. I did these small paintings of lyrics. I do a lot of pointillism, so some of the lyrics were made of dots. I did some posters and then I also did some t-shirts and some panties, with different lyrics on the panties.
I saw that you have a relationship with the Funky B Boutique. Can you tell me what that is and how it came to be?
When I decided to do the Phan Art show over the NYE run in 2016, I wanted it to be separate from my personal work. My personal work is something I’ve been doing for a really long time, so to me it was a separate entity. I really love the song “Funky Bitch”; it’s a song that Phish covers. I wanted to include some of my girlfriends who also make things, but because it was such a short amount of time, only a few of them were able to get it together for the Phan Art show. My friend Dana decided she was going to do aromatherapy and made sprays and roll-on scents called Subtle Scents. She came up with some really cute names from some Phish lyrics for her scents. They are on the Funky B Boutique Facebook page. Another girlfriend of mine has a company called Chakabraka and they make these amazing ruffled leggings and really cute dresses. I thought that would be good for the Phish scene.
My idea for the Funky B Boutique was to create art for the ladies, because a lot of the stuff out there is for the guys. There is definitely some cute stuff for the girls but when I went to the Phan Art exhibit at Vegas Brooklyn Bowl I noticed that it was very male-dominated, kind of like the Phish scene in general. So I wanted to do something for the ladies. That’s where Funky B Boutique started. I wanted to it to be a collective of female artists and for the New Year’s shows, it was Chakabraka and Subtle Scents. And then we did a show in Chicago, but it was just with Subtle Scents and I. Chakabraka couldn’t come because she would have to deal with the shipping; I don’t know if it was worth it for her. So that was the idea behind the Funky B Boutique.
You said that you like to use nature as inspiration in your artwork. How does that work? Nature is beautiful in many ways, so how do you strive to recreate that beauty from nature?
I studied sculpture at Pratt with a concentration in jewelry design. When I was in school there, the concept behind my jewelry was very much inspired by nature. I used natural objects like seeds, shells, acorns and pieces of nature that I would find on hikes when I would travel. Then, I would cast them into metal. A lot of my jewelry was very sculptural, including my rings. I’d cast a big piece– like a walnut– not a small little dainty piece. I used a lot of casting from natural objects. I also used lots of spirals and other shapes that you can find in nature while working with my enamel pieces and using the Cloisonné technique. So, it’s similar to my painting, like with the dots or the spirals; it’s a continuation of what you would see in nature. Bubbles, wave formations, sky, and other similar sources of inspiration. Being in New York City, there wasn’t that much nature for me to be inspired by. So when I would leave and go to the beach or go into the woods, that’s where I would collect the natural objects that I would use.
So you actually collected those?
Yes. Those are things that I would collect on hikes, like seeds and pods. You know, when you’re hiking and you see a seed on the ground, or an acorn, or whatever, you can make an actual metal casting from it. It’s a pretty amazing technique, to actually take a seed, the acorn, or the walnut and you can get all the detail in the metal. By using the technique of lost-wax casting it becomes the metal. So that’s what a lot of my pieces of jewelry were made of. I would add stones into the pieces, or enamels, or gold foil. There is a technique called Keum-boo, where you fuse gold foil to the metal while it is hot. Those are some of the things that I did with my jewelry.
Why did you stop creating jewelry?
Jewelry is really expensive to make. As a student, I had these unrealistic goals for what things would be like when I got out of school. I had all of the equipment I needed that I bought. I worked during school; I had a few jobs while I was at Pratt, which was really hard. I worked in the studio, so I was there all the time, so I was able to work on my jewelry. I worked in the jewelry studio, so that was really great. I had other jobs, but I also had to take out student loans. Pratt is one of the best art schools in the country; it’s also one of the most expensive schools. I had half of my tuition paid for by scholarship money but I also had to take out student loans to pay for the other half of school and my living expenses. I got out of school and then within a year the student loan agencies, they kind of come after you. “OK, it’s time.”
“OK, you’ve got to start paying your loans back.” When I started Pratt in 2001, I was about 24 years old. I travelled a lot. I went on tour. I had done a lot of stuff before I went to school at Pratt. I was supporting myself. I bought all the equipment and I had a whole studio. I had a studio space in Greenpoint. It was going really well, but that was before I had to start paying back student loans. Then, reality came into the situation. Living in New York City is very expensive. And jewelry is one of the most expensive arts, because you’re buying gold, silver, stones, metal, and other supplies; it’s a pretty expensive endeavor. I had to make a decision. I think it was in 2009. I believe is when I decided… OK, this happened also. I had been renting a studio space in an area in Brooklyn called Down Under The Manhattan Bridge Overpass, called Dumbo for short. It’s a really nice area now. The studio space that I was in was this old building and with lots of artists renting studio space. It was awesome. I had a view of the bridge; it was gorgeous. A couple times when I left the studio, I had trouble with my breathing. So, I went to the doctor. Luckily, I had insurance because of my husband, he was my partner at the time, so I was able to be on his insurance at the time. He works for Apple. (For Apple, if you were with a person for a certain period of time, they could be on your insurance.) So luckily I had his insurance and was able to go to the doctor. They did all these tests and they found that I had high levels of metal in my system.
Oh wow! Was that from making jewelry?
My doctors suspected that was what it was from. When I was at school at Pratt, we didn’t have any ventilation. It was really not the safest studio space. After I graduated they completely redid the whole space. They had to by law. But when I was there, the ventilation was really bad. There was barely any ventilation. When you make jewelry, you’re basically burning metal and you’re sanding metal dust. You’re constantly breathing it in. I had never really thought about it. When I decided to stop making jewelry, I had to weigh not only the money, but also the health problems. I hadn’t had children yet. I can always go back to it. So that’s what happened with my jewelry and why I stopped. But I really miss it.
That’s a good reason to stop doing that.
I have always painted. Painting was my first love. I started in middle school. Even at Pratt, I took a lot of other classes besides jewelry and sculpture because they wanted you to have your electives. So I took painting, oil painting, and figure painting. I was still painting throughout school and it was just natural for me to focus on painting after I stopped making jewelry. And even in my jewelry, my enamels pieces were just small sculptural paintings with colored powdered glass. What I did with the enamels, it was just like miniature paintings of my bigger paintings I would make with paint. I got back into the painting, or rather, I ended up doing more painting, after I left jewelry making.
Are the standards of beauty different in the paintings than they were in your jewelry? Or are the standards the same?
What do you mean? My concepts? Or the ways that I come up with the ideas?
A combination of both. What is beauty in your jewelry and your paintings? The concepts of them, are they different?
Jewelry is a lot more difficult because you’re not just creating a two-dimensional piece; it’s three-dimensional. Because most of my pieces are sculptural, I not only had to come up with the concept and the idea but I also had to figure out how it is going to be wearable. It needs to be comfortable; it can’t be poking into somebody. There’s a different level to jewelry. You can be working on a piece for hours and weeks and when it’s done, you put it on and it’s way too heavy. Or you put a ring on and it’s tipping over. You constantly have to evaluate the weight and comfort. Even with a necklace, you have to pay attention to how it’s going to hang. For each customer that you have, if it’s a commissioned piece, then there’s a lot less creativity on your part because it’s based on their idea. Most of my customers are pretty open, because my pieces are usually just one of a kind.
So you’ve never replicated any jewelry?
With my casting, I would replicate the cast piece. With casting you can make hundreds, or a thousand, or however many replicas of the wax cast. If I had the acorn, I could replicate it, but I don’t believe I ever did. They were always different, even if it was just the stone color or the color of the enamel. The enamels were always different. That was always one of a kind, because it was more like a painting. If somebody wanted me to make a piece that I’ve already made, I could do it. You know what I mean? It just wasn’t something that I did or wanted to do. I like the idea of each piece being one of a kind. I don’t think that I ever did make the same piece twice. But I did use parts of pieces. I have this piece that’s a box bracelet. It’s called the box out bracelet; it’s these boxes that I made. I handmade each box and I made a cast of them, so I could make more of them because it saves time. For me to sit there and make a box for each piece is just a waste of time. I had to make each hinge on the piece and then the box clasp I made by hand. With the boxes I would hand make a few of the different shapes that I wanted and then cast those. I made a few of the box bracelets, but they’re all different and unique, like one has enamels, one doesn’t.
Painting is a whole other process. It feels a lot freer for me. It’s not as stressful. With jewelry, I have to sit there and design it. You’re counting in millimeters. You’re sawing metal into the size of a millimeter sometimes. It’s a lot more detail oriented and takes so much time. Most of the time when I start painting I put on music, I have a blank canvas, and I just start painting. There’s usually not an idea ahead of time. You know what I mean? It’s more of an improvisational process; it just flows.
It seems that you’re saying your paintings and jewelry are very different. Very different things are created from both; they have their own kinds of meaning and processes and standards.
The processes are different, but in the end, they’re both very satisfying in their own ways. Part of me is very into the minute detail: figuring out the measurements, how much wire I’m going to need, and cutting the pieces to specific measurements. I miss that part of jewelry making. But it was a lot of work, that’s the thing. People don’t realize when they’re buying enamels that are made in China how much work goes into each piece. I actually had a conversation with some of the kids at the Phish Phan Art show in Chicago. (I call them kids just because I’m 40 years old, so some of them are a lot younger.) At the Phan Art show, the enamel pins are popular. They love these Cloisonné enamel pins. I let him know how the pins are made, because this is what I studied in school. They’re buying these pins that are extremely detailed with layers and layers of powdered glass that create the enamel. That’s hours and hours of work. Phans are buying them for $20 a piece. For me, as an enamelist, the material, process, and time needed to create one pin, there’s no way a jeweler would sell it for that price.
I’m sure it’s worth more than $20!
Yeah! I would have to sell it, to make it worth it for my time, it would be well over $1000 depending on the size and detail. You know what I’m saying? So I don’t think people fully understand the process of what is going into what they’re actually buying.
Thanks! I’m going to look at jewelry a whole new way now. It’s really eye opening, because you don’t realize how difficult and time consuming it is to make something until someone tells you or shows you or you do it yourself.
Exactly. That’s the other part of jewelry. I feel that had I graduated from Pratt without the amount of student loan debt that I have, things could have been a lot easier for me. Because I would have been able to stay in my business, pay for my studio space, and my materials without having this pressure of having to pay back student loans. Some people they leave school and they don’t have any debt, it’s just a lot easier, but it is a really expensive process. People don’t fully understand that. And that’s the other thing. Because they don’t understand, you’re selling your jewelry and you tell them your price, sometimes they’re overwhelmed. Some of my pieces I sold for $2500, because those people understood the process. Someone else, if I would have told them that price, they might respond: “Whoa! That’s ridiculous! I can buy a piece of jewelry for $20 at the store.” But that’s just the way it is with everything, I think.
What is your definition of beauty?
As far as art?
As far as art? Or nature?
Huh. That’s a hard question. I don’t really know if I can answer that. I appreciate so many different aspects of other people’s art. I grew up in South Florida, so I grew up going to the beach. My backyard was basically the Everglades. For me, the vastness of nature, just being able to look out into the ocean and it’s never-ending. You know? When I was little, my dad used to be like “I’ll be right back!” and he’d jump into the ocean. And he’d just start swimming way way out there. I thought there was another beach over there that he was going to and he’d get out of the water over there and hang out with people. I didn’t realize.
I think growing up in nature helps you appreciate it. My husband grew up in New York City. It’s like concrete jungle. He didn’t see the moon all the time. He didn’t see the stars at night. I’ve always appreciated nature and art. Luckily my parents were really supportive of my art at a young age. When I showed interest, they really went with it, but I played basketball since I was 4 years old. In high school, I was in AP Art and played basketball. My coach was like “you need to decide what you’re going to do. You can’t do both.” My relationship with art really took off in high school. When I was in high school, a lot of my friends died. My only saving grace was music and art: going to see live music and painting. Basically, I would go be in my room all night painting—my parents let me paint in my room. I had an easel. They always made sure I had canvases and paint. It was my outlet, painting.
The first experience I had with death, five of my friends died in a car accident. I was 15 years old. That changed everything in my town, in my life, just realizing that you could die at such a young age. It was heartbreaking. It really changed a lot for everyone, for all of us. For all the parents and for all the kids. For me, the painting was what got me through it, but then also going to see live music. I think that’s why Phish had such an impact on me at such a young age, because it was soon after that happened, I started going to see Phish. It just kind of all… the feeling that you get. Have you seen Phish?
I’ve see a couple of their webcasts.
But you haven’t seen them live?
No I haven’t seen them live.
OK, you should definitely go see a show. There’s just this feeling. When you’re in it. I’ve see hundreds of bands, all different kinds of bands. I’ve been to Jazz Fest and seen all different kinds of bands. There’s a feeling at Phish show. I remember in 1996 I saw them at Red Rocks and I was 18 at the time. I had just graduated high school. I was with my brother. He was taking me cross country. It was this awesome trip. When I saw Phish at Red Rocks, I remember thinking, “We need to tell the world about this!” You know what I mean? If everybody could feel this way? It would just be great! Everybody would be so happy! I was so naïve and young. “If we just told the world…!”
It’s crazy how music can do that.
It’s just this feeling. I think that feeling is what got me through a lot of things that happened in high school. And then my painting was my outlet. The dancing and then the painting and the music. It’s always been this combination for me. That’s why with Phish, a lot of times when I’m painting, I’m listening to Phish. Their music is in there.
I can definitely see Phish in your paintings.
My senior thesis at Pratt was my jewelry, with the enamels, it was all a part of my thesis. And one of my main parts of my thesis was Kandinsky. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of him. Wassily Kandinsky? He’s one of the artists who started the abstract movement. He actually wrote a book called Concerning the Spiritual in Art. My thesis was based on his theories of music, color, and lines. His theories combine those things; it’s kind of hard to explain. The colors you’re using, like if you’re listening to the music, are movement. There’s movement happening in the painting that’s bringing your eye from one part of the painting to another part. Colors that you use have a feeling, just like music has a feeling. I don’t know if you go to museums a lot. There’s a difference between an abstract painting and a realistic painting. When you’re looking at a realistic painting, the artist is actually giving you what you’re looking at. There’s children playing, or whatever you’re looking at. The artist is giving you, “Here, this is what you’re looking at.” An abstract painting is more about how it makes you feel. You’re in charge. The viewer is in charge of what they’re seeing. So it’s kind of similar with Phish. They have structure in their songs. There’s a beginning and an end, usually, but in between, it’s improvisational music that’s flowing with the audience. They’re getting energy from the audience. We’re giving energy to them; they’re giving it to us; we’re giving it to them. It’s this back and forth of energy. Kind of similar to when you’re looking at a painting, even a Kandinsky painting. If you’re looking at a painting that he did, you can almost feel it flowing. Music and his theories have always been in my process as a painter.
I don’t know if I answered your question about beauty in art. That’s a hard question.
But you did answer another question. That is a hard question. And you answered another question, actually, that I was thinking about, but didn’t ask. So thank you for talking about that.
What was the other question?
How does music inspire your painting through feelings and how do you get those feelings down on the canvas?
Another thing about Phish is the lighting designer, his name is Chris Kuroda. He does the lights for Phish. I’ve known him for about 20 years now. He’s married to my friend Rhia. His light show is really a unique experience. It’s absolutely incredible. It’s kind of that same feeling… you’re seeing the color and you’re hearing the music. It’s almost three dimensional, like what I was saying about feeling a painting. There’s a feeling for it, the colors. The colors are there and moving to the music. It’s this amazing additional process that you get when you’re at the show. Or even just watching, if you stream one of the shows. Have you streamed any shows from this tour?
Yes, I have.
Which one did you do?
The very first one that they webcast at the end of July. It was in Ohio.
Oh, the free one. So right now, they’re doing the Baker’s Dozen at Madison Square Garden. If you could watch one of these shows, it would be great, because you’ll be able to see what I’m talking about. Because Madison Square Garden is incredible. The lights Chris is doing at Madison Square Garden are unlike any other place. It’s like a circle, first of all. The Garden is like a bowl. So the lights, the reflection, it’s just bouncing around. It’s amazing. And they’re playing really amazing right now, so it’s a good time to watch.
Even with that, my paintings for Phan Art, I’m trying to bring my style into what I’m painting. But at the same time, because I’m trying to do stuff that has to do with Phish, it’s a little different than what I normally do. So it’s a mix of the two. I’ve posted some of the paintings on Facebook, so you can kind of get an idea. I have a bunch that I have to post up that I haven’t yet. I did the art show in Chicago and I sold a bunch of them. It’s cool to be in that space, where the phans get what you’re trying to do, because it’s about Phish. It’s a common ground, in a sense. It’s been fun doing it. It’s been a cool experience.
And then you get to go to the shows too! It’s nice if you can make money to pay for part of your trip. It helps being able to go. So that’s been cool too, being able to support a little bit of a habit, I guess.
I definitely get that.
If you look, a lot of the artists have their own style. There’s a lot of artists. It’s pretty cool to see every body’s unique take on Phish and the ideas they get from their songs. It’s a really awesome environment to be a part of. Even just to go to the Phan Art show and see what they have there.
Thank you so much for talking with me today.
No problem. That was fun.