Art of expression

Illustrator Elisa Cohen is inspired to make a difference through her artwork.

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Not long after Elisa Cohen and her husband arrived from New York City to the Island earlier this year, she found herself taking part in the Black Lives Matter morning vigils at Beetlebung Corner in Chilmark. “One morning I drove by the group as I was running errands,” she recalls. “I pulled over and knelt with them.” Since that day Cohen has become a regular attendee of the vigils that began in April when Dana Nunes started standing alone by the side of the road with a sign. Actor/comedian Amy Schumer saw her that first day and stood with her and then knelt with her, and now it has grown to a daily ritual.

“The first day I was there, they mentioned they would honor Tamir Rice on his birthday the next day,” says Cohen, referring to a 12-year-old African American boy who was shot and killed by a white police officer in Cleveland in 2014. “When I got home I felt like I really just needed to look at this kid again. I needed to draw him to keep it present. I drew him and made six or eight copies. The next morning I asked if anybody wanted to hold a picture. I wasn’t trying to make a statement. It was just something I wanted to do to have a visual. I met Angela Henry that day and offered to make a drawing of her son, D.J., who had been killed by police 10 years ago.”

As a successful illustrator and fashion designer, Cohen has recently focused much of her energy and her considerable talent on the BLM movement. Early on, after hearing the stories of the lives lost to police violence, Cohen started drawing the victims’ images. “I just wanted to spend time with these people,” she says. “I wanted to have a face to connect so they weren’t just a name to me.”

Since then, Cohen has gone on to draw numerous faces, which she then incorporated into a poster with portraits surrounding the words “Say Her Name.” Inspired to try to make a difference with her art, Cohen printed more than 600 postcards with her drawings of Black Lives Matter signs across the Island and the Vote Early sign at Chilmark Town Hall. She distributed these in the community to use in writing to congressmen or in urging people to vote.

More recently, Cohen has lent her talent and her commitment to two nationwide organizations that are promoting change through art. Her original poster is part of an online auction sponsored by artfizz.com that includes images by notable artists (David Hockney, Kenny Scharff) and celebrities (Billie Eilish, Lenny Kravitz, Jim Carrey, Cardi B). According to the website, “Over 100 artists have come together for the ‘Show Me the Signs’ exhibition to directly help the families of Black women killed by the police, with all of the proceeds going directly to the African American Policy Forum’s #SayHerName campaign.”

Cohen also participated in the project CreativesForBiden.com. Using a template with the word FOR as a frame, artists are encouraged to create images to illustrate a number of issues facing America today. Cohen’s image under the category Black Lives Matter incorporates the sign featuring many of the victims’ names, as well as images of Tamir Rice and D.J. Henry. She holds the sign up every morning at Beetlebung Corner, facing the road, as the group takes a knee for 8 minutes and 46 seconds to honor George Floyd and the people in the many stories told.

However, it’s not any of these projects that the NYC transplant is most proud of. It’s something as simple as a handwritten list of names. After one morning vigil, Nunes, who now refers to Cohen as the group’s official scribe, asked her to make a list of the people they’ve honored to hang on the outer wall of the library every morning. “I had this old sketch book I got in Asia,” says Cohen. “It’s an accordion that expands. I started writing all of the names on that. I take it every morning and hang it up. At the end of the vigil I’ll add the new name. To me that’s the most powerful thing that I’ve done.”

Pretty quickly the “scroll,” as Cohen calls it, had outgrown the original book, and she had to make an addition with paper that she stained with tea. The list has grown so long that Cohen now ascends a ladder to attach it to the wall and she says that she’s soon going to need a bigger ladder.

The vigils have been attended by upwards of 70 people at a time, with attendance expanding in leaps and bounds since the inception of the daily ritual. Although the core group plans to continue until Thanksgiving, Nunes says that because of concerns about the virus, she really does not want to increase participation. Instead she hopes that people will be inspired to take action in any way they can.

Regular participants have gone on to a number of activism projects. A series of salons aimed at actionable approaches attacking systemic racism that were held outdoors at the Yard became a popular offshoot of the original initiative. Many of the Take a Knee attendees have joined the group M.V. Diversity Coalition, and thousands of postcards were written and mailed by the M.V. BLM community to voters in Florida and other key states.

“I’ve watched people turn into warriors,” says Nunes. “Some of them were timid about even stepping out on the corner. Now these people are out there, speaking and having their say. This whole group of activists has emerged and I’m loving seeing it.”

Nunes, Schumer, Cohen, and the MVBLM community are encouraging each other and others to not become complacent post-election but to keep up the battle for the Senate seats in Georgia, and to stay active beyond this crucial period in history.

“The point of the vigils was to encourage people to be active,” says Cohen. “Not just come and kneel and tell stories and cry. To be a community dedicated to moving forward.”

Of her contributions to the movement, she adds, “I wanted to give back in some way. I think that making it visual keeps it present. This can’t be over until it’s over.”