By Kenna Caprio
For George Cochrane, the classics spring eternal.
Notions of The Odyssey, The Divine Comedy and Ulysses — all longtime literary obsessions — swirl through his head and his art. That fascination with the hero’s quest is most apparent in two of his ongoing projects: a graphic novel called Long Time Gone, and hand-lettered, illuminated editions of Dante’s Inferno.
“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 the Florham Campus associate professor of art. “To me, that’s all we have: adventures and learning from them.”
Long Time Gone, the graphic novel, he says, “is an autobiographical story of a day in my life with my family. It’s built on Homer’s The Odyssey, which is 24 books, so I tell this story in 24 chapters.”
In “Hades High” — chapter seven of Long Time Gone — “Dante leads me around my old high school as Dante is led around the inferno by Virgil,” Cochrane says. He identifies with the hero’s journey and baggage. “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 teenage daughter Fiamma 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.
Art and text from “Hades High,” along with large-scale paintings and drawings of Dante in the modern world, were on exhibit in Brooklyn, N.Y., in the fall of 2017.
His other Dante project is coming together north of the city at Thornwillow Press in Newburgh, N.Y. Cochrane is collaborating with the press on a new illuminated manuscript of the Inferno. And it all feels so relevant again today, says Cochrane. Dante speaks of “treason, corruption, abuse of power, suppression, war. Humanity shows remarkable persistence in doing the same things over and over again.”
As Inferno moves into production, Cochrane is focused on the second volume, Purgatory, doing the lettering and drawings by hand, and transcribing the “oldest datable manuscript” (1336) of The Divine Comedy, the so-called Codice Landiano. Copies of Inferno, letterpress-printed and hand-bound, shipped out in July 2018. And from March to May, an installation of his Inferno artwork took up residence at his alma mater, Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y.
Cochrane, who’s been at FDU for nearly 14 years, comes from a family of creatives. The son of a bookstore owner — “My first job was stocking shelves. I was always flooded with books,” he says — he attended high school at a private boarding school. Growing up in New Hampshire, he attended performances at Andy’s Summer Playhouse and acted in shows. Off-Broadway writers and performers were his first artistic heroes. For a while, Cochrane thought the theater could be destiny. But, “My vanity is attached to an object that I want to last longer than me, and I don’t get that in theater,” he says. Senior year of high school he took his first real art class. “I came to the visual arts only after having kind of failed at theater.”
Between high school and college, he hitchhiked through Europe, living in youth hostels and sleeping in train stations. “It didn’t matter because I was encountering the work. I practically lived in museums because they’re free.”
Junior year of college, he studied in an artist’s studio in Florence, Italy. There, Cochrane drew and painted and experimented with printmaking: etching, drypoint, woodcut, linocut and monoprinting. Later, he found work here and there — even appearing in a music video, a car commercial and Vogue Italia.
Then came the hustle of New York City’s art scene.
“I felt like a total fraud,” says Cochrane. His early work was cynical. “I made it to get it shown.” So, he retreated to rediscover and refocus his voice. “Art has to be about revealing uncomfortable truths,” he says. “Art gives me a way to examine my own life, to take stock of what the world is and how to live in it. The world isn’t following my ideas of how it should be. As far as I can tell, it doesn’t follow anybody else’s either, so I’m heartened by that.”
Now, the husband and father lives in Brooklyn, creates in Long Island City, Queens, and teaches at FDU. “Not making art is a struggle. I’ve tried to live my life without art — and life isn’t good enough by itself,” Cochrane says. “I need contact with something that’s larger than me.”