Scout Cuomo’s ‘Submerged’ surfaces to applause locally
by Larry Parnass
As a multimedia artist who depends on sales of her work, Scout Cuomo is happy to report that financially, she’s keeping her head above water. But in her Florence studio, she revels in life below the surface.
A certified diver, Cuomo has a trained eye for how people move underwater. She’s seen through a face mask how objects recede into dusky blues. How bubbles move and how bodies twist, as swimmers turn and rise.
Cuomo family lore has it she was 18 months old when she first leapt into a pool. Her parents fished her out. “I just jumped right back in,” she recalls.
Three years ago, Cuomo, a 2006 fine arts graduate of Smith College in Northampton, began experimenting with a layering technique using paint and simple tabletop resin. She wanted to develop her own way to bring light and depth into paintings in order to capture the serenity she witnesses underwater.
“Submerged,” an exhibit of nine paintings in the Hosmer Gallery at Forbes Library in Northampton, offers visitors a survey of the 28-year-old artist’s preoccupation with the life aquatic.
The Hosmer exhibition, on view until Dec. 29, is Cuomo’s second show this year — and just the second in her career. Still, as 2012 draws to a close, it looks to be a good one for this artist. She has sold 190 pieces in the last two years, and 30 in September alone.
Cuomo’s story, on dry land, says something about how young artists must spend as much time figuring out how to sell their work as they do creating it.
In a visit at the library gallery, Cuomo fielded questions about both the making and marketing of her art — a diverse output that has included sculptural pieces and charcoal animations, illustrations and paintings.
In her “Submerged” pieces, Cuomo starts by roughing out a composition in acrylic paint. She stops now and then to cover the entire surface with resin, lets it dry for 12 hours, then continues painting. Though each clear coat is relatively thin, it provides ways for light to get inside a painting. “It makes it more luminous,” she said.
And with that rugged protection of resin, including a final layer, there’s no need for “don’t touch” signs here.” In the gallery, Cuomo runs her hand over the surface of a work called “Breathe Out,” in which a swimmer hovers in communion with a stack of rising bubbles. On close inspection, early brushstrokes can be seen submerged under the epoxy.
Her use of the layering method started three years ago when she worked to capture the look of a massed school of fish. She has made 130 such paintings in the last two years, aided by underwater photos. Technique aside, she wants to capture a sense of peace with one’s own skin.
“It’s hard in everyday life to have a moment when you are just in your body — and being where you are. … I’m trying to feel like you are deep in the water.”
Cuomo’s bubbles, this air fleeing through fluid, are little globes of delight. As light bends through them, into the depths or onto a swimmer, they tweak the look of things that, up above, would just be wet.
Down here, they obey different visual rules. In her painting “Emma,” everything rises from a calm, deep blue. Light from above lands as yellow-orange lines on a swimmer’s arm, the figure’s head turned aside in a gesture of private ecstasy.
The painting called “Returned from which she came” shows most of the body, minus the head, of a female swimmer in a two-piece red bathing suit. Though that color might overpower a figure in some paintings, underwater shade mutes it here. Instead, color erupts like fireworks at and above the water’s surface.
The boy of “Boy of Lithia Springs” is Cuomo’s brother, another form gilded with light that seems to explode from the body’s energy points, or chakras, the artist remarks as she looks at the piece.
Not everything is driven by color in Cuomo’s world.
While at Smith, she spent time exploring the grounds of the former Northampton State Hospital not long before its main buildings were taken down. In one project, she created charcoal sketches of hospital scenes and then used a camera and stop-action animation techniques to make the view come alive with slight changes.
In terms of costs and benefits, her exploration of charcoal animation is a study in gray. She estimates it takes 80 hours to produce one minute of animated video.
After leaving Smith in 2006, Cuomo lived outside the area for two years, but returned determined to build a life as a working artist.
“This is my life. I can’t not be me,” she says with a smile.
This year proved to be a breakthrough.
For the first time, she’s living on her earnings (modestly, she stresses). She considers herself an entrepreneur. That means hustling opportunities and not waiting for good things to come to her.
In September, she mounted a show at Hope & Feathers, a gallery and framing shop at 319 Main St. in Amherst, that included works from “Submerged.”
Many of them sold — quickly. One, “Children of Water,” is back on loan from its new owner for the Forbes show.
Michelle Raboin, owner of Hope & Feathers, says Cuomo’s show was one of her shop’s most successful ever. She praises the experimentation that enabled Cuomo to bring a sense of depth and light to her underwater scenes. “It really plays up that feeling of diving in — and being in the water.”
Gallery visitors caught the buzz, she said. “There was always an emotional reaction to Scout’s work. It was interesting to me how diverse their reactions were.”
While some spoke of the serenity of the scenes, others reported feeling unsettled by the paintings. Something about the floating bodies suggests both refuge and risk. “I found myself talking about Scout’s work pretty frequently,” Raboin said.
One thing Cuomo does well, Raboin added, is think about how to reach audiences — and buyers.
“It takes hustle. You have to be willing to put yourself out there, which Scout is willing to do,” Raboin said. “Too often, artists make their art and then wait for people to come to them. And it’s never going to happen.”
Cuomo markets her work on etsy, the online arts outlet, where as of Monday this week she had recorded 86 sales. The site can be reached through her scoutcuomo.wordpress.com address.
Cuomo also found markets this year by showing her work at the Cup and Top Cafe at 1 North Main St. in Florence, where owner Helen Kahn finds her work to be unique. Cuomo showed pieces that repurpose old window frames — the whole enchilada of glass and wood — and adds her own paintings onto the old, intact panes.
“It makes what’s in the window stand out. It makes it pop,” Kahn said. “There’s also something folksy about it.”
She liked them so much she bought one that now hangs against a red wall in her home.
“This is the only piece of work that I’ve purchased,” she said, referring to works shown in the seven years the gallery has hosted local artists. “They were really popular with our customers.”
Often, the subjects in those window pieces are animals. “People have said I put a sense of personality into those animals, and they really like that,” Cuomo said.
She is due back at Cup and Top to take on a commission to dress up two bathrooms with murals. “I’m giving her pretty much free rein,” Kahn said. “Because she’s the artist.”
That is one of 15 commissions Cuomo has received this year. She likes showing in spaces that aren’t primarily art zones. “I feel that art is for everybody.”
While buoyed by this year’s success, Cuomo says she approaches 2013 wanting to find new ways to advance commercially, as well as artistically. That’s one of the projects she’ll be pursuing through the winter from her studio in the Arts & Industry building in Florence.
“I’m really trying to figure out how to get to that next step,” she said.
Life as an entrepreneurial artist means giving no quarter. You work even if you don’t feel inspired, she said. She strives to keep learning and thinking about all the things of beauty that could come from her hands. “You have to be on it. You have to be hot on its tail.”
“It’s really a blessing. Who knows how long it will last?” she said of the work she’s getting. “It’s right now.”
Larry Parnass can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Also on view at the Hosmer Gallery are art quilts by Timna Tarr and stained-glass lamps by John Degnan. The gallery’s hours are Mondays and Wednesdays from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Tuesdays and Thursdays from 1 to 5 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. It is closed Sundays and holidays.