Hannah Cole is an Asheville artist who translates her everyday observations into her studio craft. These observations started out as external. Now, partially inspired by the incursion of artificial intelligence, Hannah's newest body of work sees her turn her gaze inward.
Here, I talk with Hannah about what representation by human hands means in the era of AI. We also talk about Hannah’s turn to accounting and personal finance and building a career helping other creatives manage their money.
Hannah Cole’s show at Tracey Morgan Gallery, “A Mirror, Not a Window,” opens Nov. 3 and runs through Dec. 16.
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Hannah Cole: I am always painting in highly detailed fashion, like things that are very much around you every day, like very mundane things, but that I think get overlooked because they're so ubiquitous that you just wouldn't notice them.
In Brooklyn, I had been painting like, kind of my walk to my studio every day, which was over manhole covers and subway grates and Graffiti and sidewalk texture stickers on building windows and things.
Yeah, and so I just gathered my subject matter from stuff I literally would pass every day on my walk. This is my daily commute. It's on foot, because I'm in New York City. And so that's what those paintings were. And when I moved to Asheville, the thing that just hit me so hard was how Much green there is like it's so lush and It's not in a way that different from my life in New York.
I still walk everywhere
Matt Peiken: Yeah, but it's an entirely different walking terrain. The city is so different. The things you notice are different.
Hannah Cole: Absolutely, and I probably am more blind to things that are similar to New York What stands out is what's different and so I just noticed How much life there was just like botanical life just like weeds and sidewalks And
Matt Peiken: was that always the focus even when you went to art school?
Was that always the focus of your work these sort of minute observations that you would then Magnify and amplify out to people
Hannah Cole: very much Yeah, although the look of it has shifted pretty dramatically from one series to the next
Matt Peiken: Yeah, what strikes me is a difference between What you were doing in New York and looking at weeds, back in 2018 and to your current show, this is a very internal show that you're doing.
It seems to be a very internal gaze. That's true. Yeah. What precipitated that?
Hannah Cole: What a good question. And I'm not sure I've really explicitly thought about that, but it's. Maybe COVID, maybe going through COVID, maybe being stuck inside and having to be a little more internal.
Matt Peiken: Let me ask you before you dive into that.
Yeah. Did you find that when you were doing manhole covers, other external things that anybody could notice and that maybe they did or didn't or paid attention to? Was it important to you at all that your viewing public? Found a personal resonance in that work. Was that important to you?
Hannah Cole: Oh, it matters to me completely. And I might differ from other artists on this.
I am into beauty. I'm into beauty very explicitly and also detail because I think there are entry points for a viewer. I have an argument, an intellectual, internal argument I want to make about art in the world that it's for everyone. Everybody has a favorite song, everybody has a favorite movie, but people are terrified to have a favorite painter or painting, right?
They feel like art someone has to open the door and explain it to them. They don't feel like they can... feel with their own body, what is a good one, or what's one that resonates with them.
Matt Peiken: The difference between popular. Music or any music that's out in the world and movies, other things that everybody is sharing. There's a sense of, Oh, I can say I like this record or this music because other people like it. I think the way you're saying that some people think about paintings are the way people feel about the most esoteric music that nobody has this music except me. So I'm taking a risk by saying I like it with paintings. Unless they're reproductions or prints, they are one of a kind. The frame of reference for somebody to say, this is my favorite, unless they own it, this is the favorite of my works. Of the works that I have in my house. I think it would be very difficult for a lot of people to do.
Oh, oh, my favorite is Basquiat's blah, blah, blah. Or this, This Chuck Close giant self portrait, or Matthew Barney, name your artist. I just think it's probably really difficult for most people because they just haven't been exposed enough to it.
Hannah Cole: You're right.
Matt Peiken: So beauty has always been important to you. You want people to connect with your work and be a populist on that level, which makes me think, which is even more fascinating about your new work.
Because in the images you showed me again, I see it as very internal it's books in your collection. It's in your house And these are very specific books talk about the books that you have chosen to reproduce In very granular detail in sculpture.
Hannah Cole: I should point out the whole show is not books.
There's other stuff too, but for the books, which are more than half of the show I really have been thinking about AI, artificial intelligence in, it's just. It's just in the air right now. Everybody's talking about it. Everybody's worrying about it. We're on the cusp of a technology breaking open unknown things in our culture.
And I feel like that's right where I want to be as an artist. Talking about opening those questions. What's gonna happen, ?
Matt Peiken: There's a lot of fear behind that question.
Hannah Cole: Absolutely. Absolutely. So for me, as a representational painter and for people who aren't in art world terminology, representational painter does means I represent things like, I paint things that actually exist.
So I'm painting pretty faithfully things that I see in front of you, although I do just wanna say. That doesn't mean it's always truthful, right? That's part of the fun. So as a representational painter, I am trying to depict objects that exist in the world. It's easy to get pigeonholed into a sort of corny type of work, like cheeseball stuff that I'm not interested in.
I'm definitely in the idea part of it. And I just wanted to, Investigate with the books and the other work in the show, just what does it actually mean to be representing things like for one thing, it appears to be totally faithful, but are they faithful? And there's some other works in the show where if you're looking, you can explicitly see where things are lies, there's rulers that are, if you look at the dimensions of the painting, they're 14 inches and it says 12.
And it looks perfect and it's to scale, but it's not true.
Matt Peiken: So what questions were you looking to address or were you having that then put you in the studio?
Hannah Cole: I just was thinking about the idea of being somebody who manually does that, who's making copies by hand, right? I'm making copies of objects that exist in the world.
Like a book is a mass produced item, right? We were talking about mass production versus art, which is not mass produced. And there's AI now that can quote, make art. Now I would argue that it's not actually art, but
Matt Peiken: yeah, they can even mimic voices.
Hannah Cole: But I'm also, I'm doing labor. I'm doing a lot of labor. And I think that's a part of the conversation here.
Matt Peiken: And you're making it way more labor intensive in some ways than then what the original object was
Hannah Cole: absolutely and you could look at that and you could say what is the point you could say why you know this already exists in the world but what's happening with that translation and then I think that brings a question in of what is representational art at all?
Like, why are we ever reproducing an object?
You can tell, your eye can tell that a human made this object. Even though it is as perfect as I am capable of making it and with great pain and labor, but it's still, there's no getting around that, a human hand. Touched and cared for this object.
Matt Peiken: Now. These aren't well known books
Hannah Cole: They're not I picked them for the subjects and so one of the things that I find interesting about Translating like a book if you think about what is the purpose of a book?
It's to gain knowledge It's to absorb an author's ideas. I'm Transforming them into an object that can't be read, right? It, it can't function as the original use is
Matt Peiken: evaporated.
That's right. So it's a frustrating piece of art.
Hannah Cole: Yeah. But I picked titles that really span. They're very thematic.
So there's titles about art. There's titles, some that are quite funny. Like I found this book that's it's called Art in the USA. And it it looks like it's claiming to have all of the. Canon of US art, and it's just a tiny little inch and a half big, and it says only 9. 95. And I just, the title of that piece is only 9. 95. I just loved it.
I think Something I worried about a little bit Making a show that where a lot of it is about books and a lot of it is about ideas and a lot of it there's definitely an intellectual component to it one of the books is by a fancy French philosopher that I don't want people to feel intimidated by it.
It's like an explicit project of mine that it feels welcoming and that people feel like you can come in and you can simply appreciate it on the level of, Oh, wow. She took a lot of time to do that. How did she do that? But I think a lot of us use shortcuts in the world and one of the reasons that I love art and always will and nothing will ever change this in me is that it's a place to slow down. I am taking the opposite of shortcuts in this show, right? It is longhand.
There's a lot of meaning in the title of the show. It's a mirror, not a window. And that I have a lot of faith in people. And I believe that people are intelligent and that Some individual's quirky, weird idea, like you, person listening right now, like your quirky, weird idea that you have while you're standing in front of one of my pieces, that's the right answer.
You have the right answer. And in fact, I made these books unreadable, you cannot open it and get the answer. You have to look at yourself.
Matt Peiken: Not without a buzzsaw.
Hannah Cole: That's right.
What's really funny about that is you would want to open that book to see what is in this.
Yeah, I told, and I totally did. I was like who made the cut?
Matt Peiken: Another thing you did getting away from the books, you have a painting that it, you have a frame and then you have the, what you believe should be the painting on the main surface of it, but the painting is really on the edge of the frame. Yeah. Explain that a little more and what you were going for there. What inspired that?
Yeah. That's an art idea and I just wanted to see does this work and to be totally honest, dear listener. You can come and see them for yourself, and you can tell me if they work. I don't know the answer to that question.
Hannah Cole: Yeah, and I actually have a I have a predisposition to appreciate artists who are going outside the bounds, literally.
There are some artists who, you'll take a painting, but they will go, they'll... Have a bulbous edge to it beyond the frame or something will extend forward sculpturally, you know, or the frame will have a chunk out of it and there'll be, torn or damaged art on one side or the damaged canvas.
I really appreciate that. And what you're doing, I don't know that I'd seen before where the actual artwork is on the frame. Yeah. Now, creating such a small. Framework, no pun intended, but a framework for you to create these are like one inch wide by whatever, nine, 10 inches long.
Matt Peiken: Did you have a sense of what you wanted to paint on them before? Was it just the act of. Creating art on the side of a frame that was more important to you than what the actual topic was
Hannah Cole: Oh no, it was totally concept first. So I had the fully formed idea in my head and I executed it.
You learn this very quickly when you study art, when you learn how to draw is that people make assumptions about what they're seeing. And if you have ever considered yourself, not a good drawer. It's really only because you haven't practiced. That's really it.
It's just a skill that anyone can obtain through their 10, 000 hours. But what you realize, the act of drawing is the act of humbling yourself to see what is actually there and not letting your idea of what is there get in the way. Because what we see versus what we think we see are not the same thing.
And our brains, it's part of their power. They abbreviate and shortcut. things all the time. If you had to be conscious of all the things you did in a day, you would be exhausted. And I know this because my mom is a doctor in a rehab hospital or used to be. And brain injured patients would get exhausted because they had to relearn things that they could do automatically.
So I've thought about that before, how we think we know what we're seeing, but we don't. And we make assumptions and so I thought, what if I explicitly showed the viewer that this thing is painted on some weird material and then make a painting of the material they would expect it to be on, so that I'm deceiving them, right?
I'm painting a trompe l'oeil thing, like a total fake. of what they think is there, but I explicitly show them what is actually there. What happens in that viewer's brain? And I can tell you, I'm the artist, I don't know. You complete the work by looking at it. You tell me if it works. What do you experience?
So these paintings, they're white on the front and they have holes in them where you can see that it's styrofoam underneath and the edges of them are painted like wood. Some are painted like plywood, some are painted like... Like a block of wood with wood grain. And so it's funny to me that I've had people in my studio.
I'm excited to have people in a gallery where more people can come. But they're looking and your brain can see. The actual material, but you have this assumption of what it is. And so my question is can people really see what's there?
And the styrofoam, isn't there are holes in it.
Yeah. So you can see part, a piece of what's beneath. Absolutely. That's interesting.
Matt Peiken: So one of the things you do that very few, if no other artists that I know of do early in your career, or at some point in your career, you want to take control of your financial life as an artist.
Where were you in your art career when you thought I need to really get a handle on knowledge on what's happening with my money and how to work with my, with money here? What, where were you in your art career? And when was this?
Hannah Cole: I've had different eye opening experiences that all hammered in the same message.
So I wouldn't say one point, but definitely from the earliest days, I had an expectation that I would never make much money as an artist which has, Born out pretty accurately, but you had that yet you pursued that career You went into this knowing and you went to art school and you knew I'm not going to make money at this Why did you do that knowing that I just thought well at the time I'm no longer in my 20s at the time I was young and I thought if I can't do what I dream of doing in my 20s, then What's life for?
That was what I thought. So I thought this might not work. I know that and I just thought like I can't be half in half out. I thought I will give this my everything and I will see how it goes. I will try to reach for the stars and If it works, I will be living the life I want to live. That, the thing that I've always wanted to do, since I could hold a crayon.
And and if it doesn't work, I at least can then say well, I tried, I gave it everything I had, and it didn't work. So, you know, Actually, life gets more nuanced and complicated as you grow older, have children, all those things. The pressures come onto you. And The fact is I've never really made much money.
I've won big awards and I've had moments where I had, great money from art, but never enough to feel stable.
Matt Peiken: Yeah. Grants are a one time thing. You can win more than one grant, but they don't always renew and you can't count on that.
Hannah Cole: Exactly. And it's a very insecure existence so I guess there was a stage where I just decided if I'm, if I know I'm not going to make money, much money, I'm going to live as frugally as I possibly can.
So that, that was always my goal is I'm going to live as frugally as I possibly can and knowing that occasionally I will get a big chunk of money, whether it's a grant or a bunch of painting sales. I want to be as smart as I possibly can when I get those chunks of money so that I do, I pay taxes correctly, I take advantage of tax rules to the best of my ability, and I maximize the amount that I can save out of this.
And so I learned how to invest. I, like I read a personal finance book like, you know, opened an IRA. I just, You know, These are basic items, but I just made a couple rules of thumb for myself every year maxing out my IRA, things like that.
Matt Peiken: And so it was really step by step for yourself.
Very much. That you did this. When did you start to think, Hey, I can turn this into a business.
Hannah Cole: Yeah, When I had a baby and picture this, I was living in the most expensive city in the U. S. and had a baby and had an income, meager, meager squeaking by income and that was fine to me as a person who only was responsible for myself.
I'm married, but, living on beans, giving up alcohol, these are things that are okay for me to do to myself, but denying things from my child, that didn't feel right. So that was the moment where I was like, I think I need to put some stability into this picture. I need to have something.
Because I just felt like I could win the MacArthur Genius Award next year. And
Matt Peiken: If you went to MacArthur, you wouldn't have to worry about the money for a long time.
Hannah Cole: Five years. I know because I have clients who have it. Yeah. I know exactly what it is. Wow.
Matt Peiken: Okay. Were you just talking to other people about what you were doing and they were like, hey Teach me how to do that or was it more of a concerted effort on your part to create structured courses?
Hannah Cole: Yeah I was definitely not talking to friends much about money except that all my friends were in the same boat because most of my community is artists and creative people, but I think what happened is I had horrifying experiences with accountants, like I just felt so belittled and misunderstood.
Like I sat down with my dad's accountant and he just treated me like some kind of amateur. And I was like, I have solo shows in New York city. I have won a 15, 000 grant last year. Like I'm not an amateur. It was condescending. He was so condescending. I think frankly, and I know this better now with perspective, I think he was threatened and I think accountants can be threatened by people like artists who are living by an extremely different calculus, life calculus.
We're valuing our happiness and feeding our soul and explicitly sometimes saying, I know this means I won't make the money I could.
Matt Peiken: So as you got a handle on your own money and you developed a business around sunlight tax, your tax business, and you offer a money bootcamp and you offer a lot of free resources.
How did that change your art? Once you got a handle on your money and you start earning money consistently through your financial advising. How did that, or did that change how you came into the studio? Did it free you? The stereotype would be, Oh you're now unencumbered from having to earn money through your art.
If you do, bonus. But hey, now I can really make what I want. Or what was it like for you?
Hannah Cole: Yeah it was a lot of things and I learned some things that people who have quote regular jobs probably already knew or maybe don't see anymore because you take it for granted. I learned that having some stability of income is very reassuring.
It felt great to have a little bit of an ability to plan, which I literally had never had before. So I became a licensed tax professional. I went back to school for accounting and I thought I'm going to do taxes for my friends. I'm going to do taxes for creative people who feel as aggrieved as I do sitting with accountants.
And that's where I started. And I did not. realize how fulfilling it would be. I thought I was making a compromise, to be completely honest. I thought, I'll serve the people that I love and whose work I want to propel in the world, and that's what's gonna make this feel, not just like a slog.
But I never thought Oh, I'm going to do taxes and that's going to be a blast. That was not what I knew explicitly, like I'm going to do something very hard that people explicitly will not try to bargain me down on what they do with my art.
Matt Peiken: And, but, oh, that's an interesting thing that you can have set prices.
You can say, this is how much this costs in the financial world. This is what this costs. Art. People think they can bargain down that. That's a suggested. Price, that that automatically artists are asking for way more than they expect to get, and we can bargain that that down. That, that seems to be a common refrain, I hear.
Hannah Cole: Yes, that I really dislike.
Matt Peiken: Once you not only gave yourself stability, but we're having a regular income stream through your financial businesses. What did that do back for you in the studio? Did your art change, when you didn't have to worry about, is this going to sell?
Hannah Cole: Yeah, it really did. I had gotten angry at my art career. I had felt a little like it had disappointed me. That I had done all the right things. I had gotten all these awards. I had really like, done stuff that's prestigious. But prestige, as any artist will tell you, does not pay your mortgage.
And the art world is very happy to trade prestige in lieu of payment, which is just like almost an insult.
Matt Peiken: That happens even at some bigger levels. The story I did a few years ago when the Asheville art museum reopened and they had 50 artists from this region.
Hannah Cole: I reached out to you over that. Do you remember my rage full email that I sent to you? No, I don't. And that's what, that's how we connected.
Matt Peiken: But you said you had some kind of epiphany even within your own art practice though, in terms of a freedom of some kind.
Hannah Cole: I absolutely did because I released my art career from having to pay me. And so I do still make money. It is still like
Matt Peiken: yeah, these works at Tracy Morgan Gallery are for sale.
Hannah Cole: For sure, and please buy them all. But think about the risk involved, right? Like, I have worked for many months on this show to make this work that I will put up in a gallery.
And I'm just using myself and this as an example of what Other artists do right and I put out every expense, I'm renting my studio. I buy the materials I put in all the labor at the time is really my largest expense. There's nothing deductible about that I say as the tax expert and and Then I will put it in the show having Outlaid all the money up front on my end I put it in the show and I cross my fingers and I just hope that someone will buy One piece, two piece. It's ideally all 20 pieces in the show.
I do have a profit motive explicitly and I can prove it and I can prove it with documentation. But I might not have a profit because I'm putting the work into the gallery and I'm crossing my fingers. God, I hope some collector will buy this.
Matt Peiken: I know you spent so much time working on this body of work, what's next for you artistically?
Hannah Cole: Oh, wow. I feel like this particular body of work is not done.
being explored. And to be honest Oh my gosh, we're at the tip. We're at the tip of the sphere on what's happening with AI. And so just that, like thinking about like copies, reproductions. The human hand why spend your time making these useless objects?
Matt Peiken: People know that it's going to be taking jobs away. It all levels of creativity that from design to writing to voicing.
Hannah Cole: But it will add them too. That's the thing. We don't know. When books were invented, people were outraged. Like we will not tell stories over the fire anymore.
All the, these, the Iliad and the Odyssey, which were an oral tradition. No one will have the Iliad memorized anymore to recite to, and you know what? They were right. We don't do that anymore. But I don't think that we're talking about how our oral tradition is so tragically disappeared. We're thinking of the richness of books.
Matt Peiken: Yeah, how is this, how is AI going to add jobs?
Hannah Cole: That's the part that's hard to know and it's terrifying.
Matt Peiken: The apex of all this of the decline of civilization will be when AI bots buy AI driven art.
When, oh God, , AI derived art. I meant. So yeah, that'll be
Hannah Cole: Whoa. And then create a derivatives market based on shares of that org.
Matt Peiken: Yes. , we're gone at that point.