Dante the poet, George the artist:
Art professor explores the eternal in his work

George Cochrane
The artist in his natural habitat — associate art professor George Cochrane in front of his large-scale paintings of Dante in the modern world, before his fall 2017 show at Studio 153/Coffey Street in Red Hook, Brooklyn, N.Y. (Photo by Michael Sharkey)

By Kenna Caprio

Dante has taken over George Cochrane’s life. Two of his three current artistic endeavors — an illuminated manuscript and a graphic novel — evoke the spirit of the famed Medieval Italian poet Dante Alighieri.

Notions of The Odyssey, The Divine Comedy and Ulysses — all literary obsessions of Cochrane’s — have swirled through his head and his art for years now. In reading these classics, he identified with the journey and the baggage they present.

“I want to take everything that my life has been, every experience I’ve had and put it in one place so I can understand it and spin it into art,” says the Florham Campus associate professor of art. “Turn it into an aesthetic experience that is going to offer something to the reader.”

page from Long Time Gone
In his graphic novel opus ‘Long Time Gone,’ Cochrane chronicles a day in the life, with story and illustration contributions from his daughter. This is the first page of the original document. (Photos courtesy of Cochrane)

Long Time Gone, the graphic novel, he says, “is an autobiographical story of a day in my life, with my family, and it’s built on Homer’s The Odyssey, which is 24 books, so I tell this story in 24 chapters. Each chapter represents an hour of time, so it all happens in one day.”

In “Hades High” — chapter seven of Long Time Gone — “Dante leads me around my old high school, kind of like the ghost of Jacob Marley does in A Christmas Carol, and also as Dante is led around the inferno by Virgil,” Cochrane says.

“I had traumatic experiences in high school that have shaped me as a person. Turning the worst experiences into art is part of the salvation that I’m always seeking.”

Cochrane has been working on the graphic novel with his daughter Fiamma, now a teenager, since she was just a child. So far the two have finished four chapters; those are printed and available to readers. Chapters five, six and seven are in various stages of completion.

“The biggest risk has been the graphic novel—making something that I have no business doing. It wasn’t like I was a kid who grew up reading superhero comics and wanted to make one, and had this burning, which is the case for many artists. That was not the case with me,” says Cochrane.

installing the show
Installing the exhibition at Studio 153/Coffey Street took hours as Cochrane selected from more than 150 paintings including pages from ‘Long Time Gone.’

Art and text from “Hades High,” alongside large-scale paintings and drawings of Dante navigating the modern world, were on exhibit in Red Hook, Brooklyn, N.Y., at Studio 153/Coffey Street back in the fall.

Four years ago, prep for the “Hades High” chapter led Cochrane to his other current Dante project: the illustrated manuscript.

Back in 2014, while visiting Thornwillow Press in New York, he showed the publisher that chapter. The publisher expressed excitement over seeing Dante as a character, and in honor of the poet’s 750th birthday suggested they collaborate on a new illuminated manuscript of the Inferno.

book spines
A sneak peek at the spines and contents of Cochrane’s collaboration with Thornwillow Press — he is doing all the lettering and drawing by hand for these new limited edition illuminated manuscripts.
book contents

With Inferno moving into publication production shortly, Cochrane is now in the thick of the work on the second volume, Purgatory, doing all the lettering and drawings by hand, transcribing the “oldest datable manuscript” (1336) of The Divine Comedy, the so-called Codice Landiano. Like the works of William Shakespeare (which were printed), the only versions of Dante’s work that exist today were not written down by the author himself, but rather copied by scribes in the manuscript tradition.

Taking a breather from all things Dante, Cochrane recently embarked on a new series of paintings, focusing on nothingness. “My idea is to paint the spaces in between things. To take two things, and with a play of shadows, connect them.” His latest in the series is “Space Between The Dried Quince Leaves.”

quince leaves
During breaks from the Medieval Italian poet and illuminated manuscripts, Cochrane is also painting ‘the spaces between things.’ This work is from a series, ‘Space Between the Dried Quince Leaves.’

“Making things gives my life meaning. It makes me feel that my time isn’t wasted, somehow. And it makes me feel like maybe I could show somebody else something that they haven’t seen before, because I feel like I’m always seeing new things. People show me new things all the time,” says Cochrane. “To me, that’s all we have: adventures and learning from them.”