Fine Art

Grace Visits: Artist Cicely Cottingham

Working on She Was As A Tree Against a Cloud Of Vapor (1990), from the series An Age-Old Story/A Modern Story (four paintings composed of four panels each), Cicely set out to deal with her “broken body,” physically altering imagery by scratching, chiseling, and hammering the painted wood panels; we view the punctured paint as flesh being mutilated, and we weep in empathy with the ferocity of her anger. A more evanescent work, The Premonition (1992) completed a few years after her surgery, taps into Cicely’s “feeling very vulnerable and very softened,” fusing the tremulousness of the birds with spectral forms ascending and disappearing into the ether.

Cicely moved her studio in 1996 from the modest- sized barn in the midst of nature to a bigger and grittier studio in an urban city—Orange, New Jersey, where she now had the capacity to make larger-sized works. “My life was less about relationships and heartache, and I became more independent and confident . . . working with paint, exploring materials and surface . . . and becoming less tentative.” The earlier work’s acute sensitivity to light emanating  from both her rustic locale and her interior wounds  are now conjoined with a palette that is aggressive, resulting in a muscular dance with paint—i.e. True Blue Continued #6 (1998), a painting where pigment has been given permission to glare and burn.


Cicely Cottingham, “16 Paintings for Marjorie (Marjorie’s Garden),”  64” x 48”, acrylic on wood panels, 2000/2003.


Cicely’s mother, Marjorie, died in 1999, “missing the turn of the century.” From 2000 to 2003 Cottingham completed 16 Paintings for Marjorie, all of them 64” x 48” in multiples of four, with titles referring to moments in the family’s life, reflecting “a celebration of a life lived and of the creativity which Marjorie fostered in me.” Gone (2000-2003) with its elegant simplicity, echoes the hushed intensity of loss, the burnished light wordlessly transmuted into a chasm of oblivion. In Marjorie’s Garden (2000-2003), brush marks and scraped paint conjure up the trees growing around the old farmhouse, the lucid blue skies of Cicely’s youth, and the fragrant green of fresh growth—sprouting beginnings in the cycle of life, where dying is ever-present, hiding in the void.

The death in 2009 of her beloved brother had a strong effect on Cicely’s artwork, as did an extraordinary trip in 2010 to Guyana to visit the birthplace of her then partner and now husband, Victor Davson, where they journeyed into the interior and beheld the majestic Kaieteur Falls nestled within its pristine rainforest. Both events generated a powerful new series of works. “I was hungry to work when I got to the paintings” —Now you feel how nothing clings to you, a title derived from a line in the poem “Buddha In Glory,” by Rainer Maria Rilke.

The paintings became more expressionistic and self- contained, no longer done in multiples (though, as is her practice, she continues to “oscillate between painting on paper and painting on panels . . . the results . . .are generally totally different”).  At this precipitous period in her life—coming to terms with a  heart-rending sorrow—Cottingham was given a gift of oil sticks that freed her to ”attack” the wood panels with an impassioned brutality,  similar to the force of a child’s art, where the barriers of self-consciousness are abandoned and raw emotion is discharged. The unfettered release of the psyche’s “id” is evident in Now you feel how nothing clings to you (raw and tender) (2011). Brushes are rarely used; instead, rollers/brayers, fingers, and palette knives apply the paint, scraping and piling up the surfaces, looking as if they are done in a frenzied moment when time slides back and forth and a vortex of memories is exhumed.

The glistening allure of Guyana is apparent in Now you feel how nothing clings to you (Kaieteur) (2012), where the exquisite power of the waterfall electrifies the terrain and packs this small, 16” x 12” painting with the energy and effulgent brilliance of an atomic particle.


Cicely Cottingham, “Everything is Sky (here is your home),” 20” x16 ”, acrylic on panel, 2014.

Moving emotionally away from her trip to Guyana, and returning to her home in New Jersey, Cicely began reading Kay Larson’s Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists, using a quote from the book as the title of her most recent series, Everything is Sky. Thinking about her own Zen practice  “. . . how Cage’s experience of Zen Buddhism influenced his art has given me much to consider in my approach to painting.”  In Everything is Sky (here is your home) (2014), the hopeful azure firmament, with its open, airy atmosphere, discharges a shaft of diagonal yellow light penetrating the gentle, flowing river of white paint daubs; glimpses of cascading reds weave in and out—a reminder of our primordial and dazzling impermanence.

I have always felt that Cicely Cottingham was an aesthete. Like a tuning fork sensitized to the vibrating beauty of art, music, and poetry, every object in her home and studio is situated in perfect harmony; every facet of her life is a recipient of her special care and love. All this is evident in her art, which nakedly examines her own fragility and resilience, beguiling us to become immersed in her distinctive reality.

In order to support making her art, Cicely became associated “with the nonprofit visual arts organization Aljira, A Center for Contemporary Art, in Newark, New Jersey, dating back to 1984, when she was included in its second exhibition. In 1991 she co-founded “a revenue-generating enterprise, Aljira Design, which provided over 40 percent of Aljira’s operating budget.” Cottingham served as Aljira Design’s Art Director from 1996 to 2009, and maintains the position of Consultant Art Director

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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.