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At the annual parade of incoming freshmen at Cooper Union, the art majors create their own costumes. In 2007, freshman Emily Henochowicz of Potomac, Maryland, dressed up as one big eyeball. This image of her—arms and legs poking out from the giant eye, the iris and her shoes a matching lime-green, the eye ensconced in some sort of gray matter—has been the icon of her blog since she started it in June 2009.
Now it's more than an avatar.
At the end of this past May, on the other side of the globe, a tear-gas canister fired by the Israel Defense Forces hit her in the face and blasted her left eye out of her head. The grandchild of Holocaust survivors and daughter of a man who was born in Israel and emigrated to the U.S., she had been protesting at a West Bank checkpoint the morning after the IDF had killed nine people aboard a Turkish aid flotilla bound for Gaza.
As Henochowicz recently wrote of her blog icon, "I've had it since I made this blog, and it's proven oddly predictive. The older I get, the more ridiculous life seems." Back in the States and getting ready to resume school in the fall, she has referred to herself as "Cyclops" on the blog. For her, it's still about the art. She doesn't seem to be into the martyr thing. In the hospital in Israel, Henochowicz says, she immediately began drawing again. She says she doesn't even know whether her future art should still be about the Middle East—or even about politics at all.
After all, her political activism, she adds, "was a real change from who I was before—an experiment, in a way. And it ended in me losing my eye. But it's OK."
Brave words, and she mostly believes them. Her confidence in her physical self is not quite all the way there yet, but she studies how other artists have dealt with—and even taken advantage of—their own eye problems.
In place of an eye patch, she wears a pair of glasses whose frames she designed herself and on which she has painted a swirling red-and-white design over the left lens. Not that her obsession with her eyes was prompted by losing one of them. As a teenager, she says, she had considered becoming a vision scientist before deciding to go to Cooper. Even during her first years in New York City, she says, she was still "obsessed with vision science" and even sat in on a vision lab class at NYU.
Which means she can still focus. "The cool thing about this is that paintings look more 3-D to me now," she says during a recent stroll through the Frick Collection. "It's your stereoscopic vision that makes paintings appear flat." Although she has lost depth perception, she says she can now actually perceive depth even more in a flat painting.
With mordant humor, she tells the Voice, "I guess I can be grateful to the IDF for giving me the chance to see the world in a new way."
Henochowicz was admitted to Cooper Union's prestigious art program in 2007, and she has concentrated on drawing, painting, and experimenting with digital imagery. (See Emily Henochowicz's work.)
Even before she was admitted to the school, one of the most selective colleges in the nation, she was an independent thinker with a well-developed wry sense of humor. At 18, she was interviewed by The New York Times as a high school senior, when she produced a video for someone else's project called Blasphemy Challenge, an online call to upload videos denying the existence of God. (She has since taken that video down, saying that she's less bombastic about her beliefs than she was and that "people should believe whatever they want to believe.")
This past spring, like many other college juniors, she chose to study abroad. She picked a semester at Israel's leading art school, the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem. She planned to make art, study history, and improve her Hebrew.
She says she didn't see her trip as overtly political in any way. But her art collided with reality.
"There was this view from my school's campus, and you could see all the way out to Jordan on a clear day," she recalls. She started painting that view, which included a line snaking through it, but "abandoned it for awhile. When I came back to it, I realized that this big element I was drawing was the Wall. I had been looking at that and drawing that, and I thought, 'Oh, look, it's a fence—oh, it's the fence.' "
Before her trip, she recalled having seen pictures of Banksy's work on the Wall—the internationally known graffiti artist had left his mark on the controversial concrete fence built by Israel—and was stunned by the vast amount of graffiti and other art left by many others on what she thinks of as a "huge canvas." "Because of the art on the wall," she says, "it's a strange mixture of oppression and freedom." She would eventually add her own touch, painting on a remote section near Qalandiya.