• Sioux City
  • interviewed 10-28-1998
  • painting

about the artist

Marvel Kohlhof Cox was born in 1923 on a farm near Climbing Hill, Iowa. Her parents came here from Germany. She grew up in Climbing Hill, until her high school years when her family moved to Sioux City. She was the youngest of seven children. She attended college in California and Minnesota, and earned her B.A. from Briar Cliff College in Sioux City in 1969. She has four children. She was divorced from her first husband and her second husband died many years ago. She was a painter in watercolor, acrylic, and oil. She died in November 2001.

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MARVEL KOHLHOF COX

statement | first-person narrative

artist statement

My watercolors and drawings are purely a joyous response to the subject. For the last twenty years, the images that come to me are from an unconscious source, non-directed by me.

You must not be a viewer but a participant in the process; only your personal response can complete the creative act, "tell" you what it is and what it means.

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first-person narrative

Following the Muse

edited from interview | copyright © 2001–2018 Jane Robinette | All Rights Reserved

Being an artist gives me a lot of pain, gives me a lot of trouble. And I couldn't be anything else. Sometimes maybe it's unspoken, maybe it isn't even there, but you feel like people are baffled or critical or something like that. You can't explain it, and you don't have to. I often wonder if I could really choose, would I do this again, because it's so maddening. But I guess I would, because I don't like ordinary stuff.

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My mother was very gentle, very kind—to a fault, that she wouldn't defend herself. My father was very fun-loving. He was a hard worker. He also was very fair-minded and interested in everything. He quit eventually because we lost the farm. Then he was a tenant farmer, and then he had to quit that. It was extremely hard to do.

They really believed in the Golden Rule and followed it. Very honest people. They had guts. They never gave up. They were fighters. It was tough during the Depression. The food was scarce. The farm was mortgaged. We couldn't kill a chicken or cow. We could eat the vegetables. We ate onions one winter—every way there is to fix onions. We didn't really feel poor, but it was just hard to see parents like that, when they couldn't provide.

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I was very shy; I was always on the outside of this active family looking in. I had a hard time getting attention always. There were so many of us! Not much encouragement from the siblings—they just want to squash you, pretty much. But sometimes I think, Gosh, life would have been strange without them, even though they didn't include me in a lot of things. I was alone an awful lot, and I learned to like that. I've been thinking lately that maybe nature was a substitute for a lot of things—that I endowed nature with qualities that I couldn't find in people around me. I took envelopes apart and drew on the backs of those—insides of them. I did get a little attention over that.

I went through tenth grade on the farm before we left that area. I had the last two years at Central in Sioux City. Now that was an ordeal. Town of a hundred to classes with four hundred in them. Twenty-five-hundred kids, I think. Who was paying attention? I just had to fake it all the time. I just had to try to fake it.

After graduating, I worked for Dr. Wilson in the office, keeping records, writing letters. I worked from eight till probably six, and then half a day on Saturdays, for ten dollars a week. And then I worked for the draft board.

During World War II, it got pretty exciting because I got married and moved all over the country. I went to Oakland, California, with my sister, and lived by the California College of Arts and Crafts. That was the first time I had taken any art classes, and it was fabulous. Ali Baba—is that correct?—had a cave full of treasures. It was kind of like that—dazzling!

I knew there were possibilities there, because you don't get praise from the president of a college like that. But I couldn't believe it. After the war, I thought it was my duty to come back home and be a regular person. I just had never had any belief in myself. No self-confidence. So I slammed the door on that and never looked back. I wouldn't dare. But it is hard for me to even think about. That you could see what you were, and you had to deny it—or you thought you had to. I think maybe it was like, "Why should I have what I want when, for example, my parents worked so hard and they ended up losing it all to get nothing out of it. Who am I?" I can't make any sense out of it otherwise. I just didn't have any self-confidence. Or I felt like I had no right to it.

My husband finished school up at Westmar, and then he taught in Mapleton. After that I had a baby—the first one. Then he went back into the Air Force as a recruiter. And things just totally fell apart. There was no together, no nothing. No marriage. We were divorced. I went to New York City with my sister for awhile. Then I came back here, and I worked at the Sioux City Journal, and I married the farm editor. It was a farm weekly magazine, and he was the editor.

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By then I had decided to be a watercolorist, because it drove me nuts. I couldn't handle it and I, being German, said, "I have to do this!" I used to actually cry at times, it was so hard. But once you get the hang of it, it is so much fun. I loved it, for many years.

I had three more children. I kept painting through the whole thing, but I was kind of torn. I wanted the children, but I also wanted to be painting. And Jeffrey, that's Marc's and my first child, he has Spina Bifida and also Fragile X chromosome, which causes retardation. So that was hard, very demanding—especially at that time, there was nothing.

They all are interested in art, but they don't do it much. Chris did some in Iowa City, he did silkscreening and pottery, and he loved it, but he didn't keep it up. But they all appreciate it. And they have good taste, because it's like mine! I have seven exceptional grandchildren. They love art. I see a lot of traits come out in them that I didn't see in my own children. And that's wonderful.

My second husband died in plane crash in Minnesota. It was a bad time. A real bad time. A short while I worked for lawyers. And then I went to school, and then I taught art for a couple of years in public school. Other than that I taught art on my own or maybe at the Art Center.

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I went through a time when I just stumbled onto doing things from a totally unconscious point. Now I think it's a combination—conscious and unconscious. And I like that all right, but it's work—oils and acrylics. Whereas watercolor was always fun—once you catch on to it, I mean. Using acrylics at the moment, but I don't really like them that much. I need a studio, that's all.

It was purely visual at first. Now, it's hardly visual at all. I mean, I don't have to look at anything; I usually don't look at anything. Now, my favorite pieces are figurative, whereas it used to be pretty much landscape. They will have emotion in them, and maybe they're kind of symbolic—not conventional symbols but actually the viewer has to see what they see in it.

I'll just get an idea sometimes. It starts with an idea. I have never done small sketches as a preliminary to painting. I just start painting, win or lose. Sometimes paintings kind of paint themselves. Sometimes it's good, and sometimes I wonder, where did this go? You wouldn't want anything to be that certain, I guess.

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It takes absolutely blocking out the things you have to do, especially when you work at home. If you cared about the dust and the dirt and the dishes, you would never paint. Never. So, you have to brave out either criticism or what you think what might be criticized and forget it.

I'm not motivated. It's just I won't die—I guess I get that quality from my folks, and it's, "Don't quit." I'm not used to rewards enough to figure it into the equation. You know, just do it whether the world rewards it or not. If it's been awhile, I'll just paint anything—maybe the lamp or anything. Just start something. That does it for me. Because if you're going to think, "Oh God, I have to do a wonderful painting," you will stay blocked.

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I've always been an Iowan. It was, when I did watercolors, very, very much a part of the process. Now it's almost like something I have to fight. I just think in general, in the whole United States, there isn't a whole lot of interest in art. And the Midwest is certainly not your big crashing leader in the art world, although it's got its moments. But it's not ever easy here. In the sense of a positive support, there's not much. But there's also not a lot of negativity. So, that's all right.

If an artist is what you are, then go for it—don't give the excuse that you have to work in an office. So did Franz Kafka, you know. Don't be looking for excuses. If you're going to go for it, you still have to be willing to sacrifice. It's not just a romantic notion. It's true. If you're going to go for the money, if you're going to go for, "will this sell?"—which I never heard of when I was learning art, and I still can't get used to it. "Did you sell anything?" That total concentration on selling, I just don't like it. Once you get into it, it's pretty hard to get out of.

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I followed the muse, never aimed at selling.

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