Artist Cedric Michael Cox Shapes It Up

Cedric Michael Cox puts his hand against the wall, palm flat, fingers splayed, continuing our conversation about his art.

I gasp. Anyone who, like me, spent formative years hanging out at art museums would do the same. Because on that wall, beneath that hand, is one of his paintings. In art museums people wear white cotton gloves and handle art respectfully. They don't lean on it with bare hands.

Cox, a serious artist who knows exactly what he's doing, laughs. "You could pour red wine on this and it would come right off. The paint is acrylic. There's gel medium [a protective coating] on it."  It just doesn't make sense, he says, not to have a tough finish.

We are talking in the airy upper floor of the West 15th Street building where Cox lives and works. His paintings and drawings are everywhere, stretched canvases leaning against walls, un-stretched canvases hung from their upper corner grommets or laid out on the floor, the graphite drawings  - which do need more protection - mostly framed. From these works will come Cox's exhibition Ascending Horizons: Paintings & Drawings, opening at the Weston Art Gallery in the Aronoff Center for the Arts September 17. Not destined for the Weston are some pieces already seen in public, at the Contemporary Arts Center in Cox's Unmuseum show Soul Without Structure, and at The Carnegie in Covington.

"It's been a good year," admits the artist who grew up in Kenwood and finds, currently, that Over-the-Rhine's built environment is his muse.

His crowded but ordered paintings eschew depth in favor of what he calls "fragmentation of form." OTR facades are recognizable, a familiar church here, a hint of Music Hall there, in purposefully busy compositions. "I want to get it all in every single piece," he says. Cox, who makes two to three paintings a month, speaks of making "rhythmic compositions, shape-shifting that happens as you walk" with a goal of "raw, vivid work." I notice that specific subject matter seems to be slipping away in the most recent works, and he agrees.

"I think what's happening is I'm unifying, thinking more about a limited, unified color palette. . .that's what's happened since June or so," he says. 

I ask what artists he particularly likes, who influences him? Cox mentions Paul Klee and Gustav Klimpt, late 19th/early 20th century Europeans, and American muralist John Biggers as well as Joseph Norman, whose drawings he admires. Biggers and Norman, like Cox, are African-American and for both teaching parallels their careers in making art. Cox also sees himself as artist cum art educator. Indeed, an element of his Weston show is his "Art Shapes Us" project, one of the last funded by the city of Cincinnati's now canceled Individual Artists' Grants program.

"Art Shapes Us" will involve 20 to 25 high school students from all over the city who will meet for three hours every Saturday for eight weeks at Engine 22 Studios in OTR to work under Cox's direction. He wants his students to understand what motivates his work, i.e. the OTR neighborhood, and to create something reflecting their own surroundings.

"I want the students to think about the environments they live in, what shapes who they are," he says. On the last Saturday, November 13, an exhibition of work created in "Art Shapes Us" will open in the Center Stage Room adjacent to the Weston gallery.

These days, Cox's jobs are in art education. Asked how teaching combines with making art he says "I live vicariously through the students. They may not understand the difficulties in what they're doing - they're fearless!" He's involved in Visionaries and Voices, the program for artists with disabilities, and after-school programming at the Kennedy Heights Arts Center. Last year he was project manager for the ArtWorks sponsored, student painted Raymond Thunder-Sky Legacy mural in Northside. Any student applying too late for "Art Shapes Us" can look into the Kennedy Heights Arts Center offerings, he says. A recent Cox-supervised project there was painting the piano installed for Cincinnati Public Radio's "Play Me, I'm Yours" anniversary celebration.

Painting the piano was, in fact, a symbolic meld of Cox's talents in art and music. Seventeen years ago he and friends from various high schools over the city formed a band they call Morticite, and even now get together about once a week to play. "We're progressive hard rock, heavy metal. The name does have a Latin references the "death metal" music we play. It's not as serious or morbid as it sounds. It's a lot of fun for all ages."

Cox's instruments are guitar and bass, and he "composes music the same way I compose my art. Build and break. No room for crescendos.  Dense, tight, compact. We play with the realization of what it takes to be a serious musician," he adds, implying that they don't aspire to serious although they're pretty good. "We're all on the same level, we know the difference, and these days we sometimes open for bands that have influenced us. We have tee shirts, CDs, all the stuff, but we know we need the day job."

He discovered OTR while still in Indian Hill High School. "We came down to Over the Rhine because it was more interesting, to hear bands we liked, because it was more fun." Later, as a student at University of Cincinnati's College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning, he commuted to class but sometimes stayed with friends in Clifton. Junior year was an eye-opener. He won a fellowship that took him to Glasgow School of Art in Scotland.

Cox says his artistic talent had been noticed in high school, but "to be singled out in Glasgow let me know I could take this all the way [and] gave me the confidence in being good enough to take this gift as far as I can. I was grateful to have that time to get away." We talked about the art he saw there. "The Edinburgh Museum of Contemporary Art - that was the one! You get off the bus and the Henry Moore is right in front of you. You see things you've only read about."

At UC he studied under Terrance Corbin, Frank Herrman and Wayne Enstice, all of whom he remembers with respect. Corbin and Herrman had a joint show at the Weston in 1998 and "since then I've always wanted to show at the Weston Gallery, because teachers I admired were there. This past year everything has been leading up to my Weston show. I had the show at the Carnegie, the CAC show, now here we are with the Weston coming up."

Since Cox's 2000 graduation from U.C. he's held some mainstream, full time jobs, notably as market manager for Hip-Notic Concepts, an art promotion company, but his own art languished.

"I wanted to get back to the form of things, to tighten up my craft, I had an itch to start painting again. When my job ended in 2007 I thought, 'let's do the art thing. Focus there.'" He smiles. " It's been a great journey."

Photography by Scott Beseler.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.