Fine Art

Grace Visits: Artist Cicely Cottingham

Our frequent arts contributor and artist herself Grace Graupe-Pillard is making studio calls. This week she shares with us her December visit to the studio of the artist Cicely Cottingham.


Tall and stately, the artist Cicely Cottingham is a commanding presence, radiating self-possession, as if she had engulfed the very light that has been at the core of her paintings and drawings for almost 35 years.  She explores the impenetrable darkness of abyss and the blazing-white resplendence of joy, embracing the contradictions and beauty of the natural landscape and the glaring inconstancy of chance. Eventually explosions of color appear in Cicely’s work, both affirming and soothing the vagaries of life’s pain and disappointments, but never diminishing the lyrical capacity of her art to drift and glide among the clouds.

Born in Brooklyn, Cicely moved with her family, when she was two years of age, to an old farmhouse “surrounded by woods” in Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey, a rural environment that imprinted on her childhood a love of nature, and subsequently, as an adult in the early 1980s, a place to return to after the dissolution of a marriage. A barn situated under an umbrella of trees was refurbished and became her studio—a private and meditative space where she began to draw with charcoal on Arches paper, responding to the ghostly images that emerged from the waning light of day, when vistas become silhouetted against the slow unveiling of the moon.

Cicely Cottingham, “Night Trees 4,” 30” x 22 1/2 ” , charcoal on paper, 1987.


Cottingham drew exclusively in black and white for four years, sitting outside at night, swathed in the evening atmosphere while making little sketches of the flickering movements that mysteriously appear when the sharp certainty of daylight unfolds into the impenetrability of blackness. Returning to the studio, Cicely would create large drawings based on her notations and memories of the fading light. One of my favorites is Night Trees 4 (1987), where we experience the unfolding of familiar forms through time as our eyes attempt to navigate and adjust to the opacity of an oscillating emptiness.

In 1987, Cicely was diagnosed with breast cancer, “. . . a  profound and traumatic experience  . . . I had surgery which changed my body.”  During that daunting period her work changed as well, “coming back into color—full-throated . . . I had been doing big black drawings and now made a conscious effort to be a painter.”  Working on wood panels, she initially tried to make the paintings look like the drawings, but soon realized that they “didn’t work,” so she cut the larger panels in quarters and started a series of small, evocative paintings consisting of fragile, bird-like shapes wrestling their way out of the backgrounds, hovering mutely in a sea of gouged and thickly painted brushstrokes; they seem about to take flight, like the artist herself, unleashed from the past.

Cicely Cottingham, “When You Dream You’re Innocent, You’re Innocent When You Dream (From A Song By Tom Waits),” 8” x 10”, oil on wood, 1987/88.


In When You Dream You’re Innocent, You’re Innocent When You Dream (from a song by Tom Waits) an incandescent blue bird is fluttering in place, buoyed by the paint itself, propelled by gashes in the wood, yet steadfast in its determination to endure. Throb (1988) depicts a tiny red avian shape perched silently in the midst of washes of paint, a stilled heartbeat appraising a drowning world, a moment of hesitation before delving into the enigma of the unknown.

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  • Carol Jenkins June 11, 2020 at 8:04 pm

    Keep up the good work Cicely! We older women artists must stick together!

  • Carl E.Hazlewood January 23, 2017 at 9:16 am

    Always keen to understand how works of art come into being… and Cicely’s story is a special one told expressively. While it’s always a pleasure to view the radiant paintings, it was also good to be reminded of how fine those large black drawings were—the very first things I ever saw by the artist. Thanks Grace and Cicely for the exceptional words & images…
    Best always …..

    • Grace Graupe-Pillard January 23, 2017 at 7:49 pm

      So glad Carl that you were able to read the article. Thanks so much for your words.

  • Daria Dorosh January 17, 2017 at 5:12 pm

    Thank you Grace, for sharing Cicely’s rich body of work and the personal story behind it. The images are almost tangible.

    • grace graupe-pillard January 19, 2017 at 2:47 pm

      Thanks Daria for your words.

  • Mimi Smith January 15, 2017 at 2:13 pm

    Wonderful article about Cicely’s beautiful work. Congrats to you both, Cicely and Grace!

    • Grace Graupe-Pillard January 15, 2017 at 8:52 pm

      Thanks so much Mimi.

  • Patricia Rosenblad January 14, 2017 at 11:20 pm

    Good stuff, Cicely! Maybe I can do something small – cant do big things: a)too wobbly b) pain, etc.. but will try again. Just to feel a brush in my shaky hand!

    • Grace Graupe-Pillard January 15, 2017 at 8:53 pm

      Patricia – appreciate your remarks.

  • Lisa Montibello January 14, 2017 at 12:38 pm

    Thank you so much for this introduction to this artist’s gorgeous work. I want to touch her paintings, particularly True Blue #6. So tactile and rich. Her charcoal of the moonlight on the trees is another favorite. I’m off to visit her website to see more!

    • Grace Graupe-Pillard January 14, 2017 at 1:09 pm

      Thank you for commenting Lisa. I am glad that Cicely’s work inspired you.

  • RJR January 14, 2017 at 11:49 am

    Enjoyed the article and the paintings; thank you

    • Grace Graupe-Pillard January 15, 2017 at 8:53 pm

      RJR – thank you for commenting.

  • Grace Graupe-Pillard January 13, 2017 at 3:03 pm

    Thank you Cicely for the opportunity to write about your work!

  • Janne Aubrey January 13, 2017 at 1:32 pm

    Love this! So great to see artists I would not know about otherwise. I personally know two women who are doing some interesting work – maybe you would find them inspiring as well. Suzy Andron, whose work can be found at and Jeni Bate, whose work is at

    • Grace Graupe-Pillard January 13, 2017 at 3:57 pm

      Janne – Thank you for these links.