“Making art is a career and a college major for people who can’t stand the thought of doing anything else,” Cheryl Hochberg.
If anyone should know, it’s her. Hochberg is a painter, mixed-media artist, and the chair of the fine arts department at Kutztown University, a position she has held for the last nine years. She earned her BFA from the Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia, her MFA from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and she recently had a solo exhibition at the Allentown Art Museum in 2014.
A quick look at her body of work from the last decade might leave you thinking that her subject matter is purely animals. After all, “Mean Sun Kitty” is a pastel and gold leaf landscape featuring the head of a clearly annoyed cat in the middle of a glowing sun; “Pushmepullyou” is a cutout of pastel and painted fabric on foam board of an ostrich sprouting human legs and arms that face in the opposite direction; and “Winged Bull” is oil and mixed media on panel and foam board displaying a massive 7.5×8’ bull with feathered wings exploding out of his back.
Just animals, though, is only one perspective of the Kutztown-based artist’s provocative earth-toned creations. When you listen to her talk about her work, you begin to understand the deeper contemplations hidden within the canvas.
“I think of it as not being about animals, actually,” Hochberg says. “I think of it as being about people. Animals interest me because they seem so understandable in certain ways – like, ‘Oh, that animal is really curious or angry’ – and we associate these animals with human characteristics. Other times, you can’t understand them at all, just like people. I explore the possibilities and impossibilities of having mutual understanding – it’s about understanding and not understanding each other.”
Before she creates these pieces, she immerses herself in their environments as part of her creative process. “I spend a lot of time with my subjects, even if I’m working with landscapes,” she says. “I take a lot of photographs. Photography is how I sketch and plan.”
When you look at one of Hochberg’s pieces, anywhere from one to three months of work is usually behind it. She prefers to dabble in a variety of media, never allowing herself to stay stagnant with one technique or tool for too long. Beyond oil paint, she plays with woodcutting to metal leafing and animal fur to twine – she’ll try anything that will get her the effect that she’s after.
Perhaps her willingness to experiment was ignited in part by what she identifies as the most pivotal point in her career: collaboratively working on a sculpture project 10 years ago. While many creative types tend to prefer complete control over their work, Hochberg admits that collaboration can be just as important. “I learned to take risks and to allow my sense of humor to come through,” she says. “It really served me well in the long run, and all those things I did collaboratively I ended up bringing into my own work. It rejuvenated it in a lot of ways.”
There is, however, one medium she can live without. “I really, really hate acrylic,” Hochberg says. “It dries too fast and it doesn’t dry the same darkness and lightness as when you mix it up. I just find it extremely unpleasant.”
“Art is very entrepreneurial. It’s not something where you just get a job and have a salary. You have to be a leader, a self-starter, a go-getter.”
– Cheryl Hochberg
Her only struggle with art, other than those pesky acrylics, is finding the time to do it. While she’s lucky – or perhaps inspired – enough to have never dealt with creative block, a busy life doesn’t always complement a creative one. “The problem isn’t getting [to the studio] and not knowing what to do,” Hochberg says. “The problem is getting there. My job is demanding and life is demanding, but I still try to get in every day.”
Indeed, she has been busy: she has two children in college, she’s a faculty advisor for Eckhaus Gallery in Kutztown, she’s on the board of FUSE Art Infrastructure in Allentown, and she has showcased her work in over 50 shows across the United States. Oh, yeah: she has also spent the last 25 years as a professor at Kutztown University, and she feels a warm sense of pride for her students. “I like making art education work for the students,” she says. “I’m so proud of the things our alumni do. They’re doing amazing things, and it’s really satisfying to me. I love that.”
As a former art student and current professional art educator, she offers this bit of insight to hopeful young artists: “Art is very entrepreneurial. It’s not something where you just get a job and have a salary. You have to be a leader, a self-starter, a go-getter. So many of our students [at Kutztown] go on and have really great lives in the arts.”
As far as Hochberg’s future in the arts, she intends to keep making art and having shows. “I’d like to continue to collaborate with other creative people,” Hochberg says. “That always refreshes my work.”
In addition to collaborating with others to refresh her work, she says that just working or being in a new location can spark a new idea. This May, she’ll have a show at Salisbury University in Maryland.
One thing is for sure, and it seems to be a commonly shared belief that unites the creative community: a life without art would be impossible for this artist. “There is no alternative,” she says. “I couldn’t do anything else.”
To see more of her work, visit cherylagulnick.com.