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Professor Hallie Cohen Illustrates New Book with Prized Collaborator

Professor of Art and Chair of Art and Art History Hallie Cohen has taught more than two generations of MMC students, but this fall, she’s celebrating the completion of a project that predates quite a few of them.

Cohen illustrated The Kafka Studies Department, a new collection of darkly humorous parable-like short stories by the satirical author and essayist Francis Levy. Although the book, Levy’s fourth, is an apt reflection of the times, he began working on it some 30 years ago, using Franz Kafka as his inspiration. Over the years, he would turn to Cohen not only to supply the visuals but to help edit the work and ultimately usher it into the world. It will be published by Heliotrope Books on September 26 and has drawn early praise from critics. (Join Cohen and Levy at Brooklyn’s Unnameable Books on the 26th to celebrate the collection’s release. Levy will be in conversation with Rocco Landesman, former chair of the National Endowment for the Arts, as part of the Brooklyn Book Festival.)

That the two were able to work so well together is no surprise: They’ve been married for 40 years and been professional collaborators for nearly as long. Cohen has illustrated Levy’s shorter works for publications such as The Village Voice. And, for the past eight years, the two have participated in the American Academy in Rome’s Visiting Artists and Scholars Program, where Cohen created a series of 12-foot by 5-foot watercolor/ink paintings capturing iconic images from the films of Italian directors, with Levy supplying accompanying text, video, and voiceovers.

We spoke with Professor Cohen about the book, what it means to work closely with a spouse, and takeaways students can apply to their own creative projects.

One reviewer described your illustrations for the book as “dreamy sketches, which perfectly suit the tone of the work.” Can you tell us about your process?
I’m not an illustrator by training—it’s not my profession. But because I am an artist and have a strong belief in the act of drawing as a way of communicating in the world, I agreed to create the illustrations. The text was always given to me first, and then we would discuss what ideas were generated by that text and how they could be visualized. As an artist, I’m interested in language as well as visuals. The challenge here is to take this sort of complicated language, which often turns on itself, and put it into a single, concise image.

You also helped edit the text. How did it feel to put on your editor’s hat?
I’ll tell you honestly, my living with a writer didn’t hurt. I wasn’t the sole editor, although I did a lot of line editing. I am, in some ways, accustomed to it. I’m an academic. Even though I consider myself to be primarily a visual person, here at Marymount Manhattan College, we believe in the liberal arts and interdisciplinarity.

Your husband began the book over 30 years ago. What brought you both back to it?
We’d always liked the book, and it’s always held a special place in Francis’s heart. Although we’ve collaborated on projects in the past, this was the only book we have worked together on.

He based the collection on his love of Kafka. (The book is also dedicated to Francis’s late analyst, whose name was, coincidentally, Kafka.) There’s a very recent retranslation of Franz Kafka’s diaries that gives a much fuller picture of him, and it propelled us as well to take another look at the series of short parables that comprise Francis’s book. When we did revisit it, Francis felt the illustrations were an integral part of it. Franz Kafka drew. He didn’t necessarily illustrate his books, but he drew.

In the end, the book is like one of our children, you know, we co-created something, and it came into existence. And it does meld the two areas of our careers and our life’s work.

Is it helpful when your collaborator is also your spouse?
It’s a much more natural process when you’re married, living with, or partnered with someone you’re collaborating with because you’re constantly talking about things. Nothing is put to bed except when you go to sleep. There are great examples in the literary world of collaborators who were also married. [Vladimir] Nabokov’s wife, Vera, edited his work.

Are there any lessons from creating this book that you would share with students?
Clearly, hang in there! That’s a big lesson from this book. I would also tell students this: Life is made up of relationships you make along the way—people you meet at school, your mentors, your employers, your coworkers. Often, they become your greatest collaborators. You just have to keep an open mind. I would also say to keep generating ideas and find meaning in what you love to do and keep doing it. Don’t give up.

Published: September 19, 2023