Even after years of enduring chronic pain and roller coaster-like moods, Leigha Emma Cohen’s creativity has only blossomed. The photographer and Lawrenceville resident, is, in fact, seeing her most successful creative period ever, with a string of current and pending exhibits, as well as an ever-growing collection of awards.

For the third year in a row, Cohen will participate in ArtFirst!, the international juried exhibition and sale of original artwork by professional artists with disabilities, held at the University Medical Center of Princeton (UMCP), opening Saturday, April 17. Featuring more than 200 works of art including paintings, sculptures, jewelry, photography, fabric art, glasswork, metalwork, and other fine crafts, ArtFirst! will kick off with a Patron’s Preview Party on April 17; the public is invited to view the artworks in the medical center’s corridors daily, beginning on Sunday, April 18. The exhibition is on view through Saturday, June 12.

This year’s jurors for ArtFirst! include Eric Pryor, director of the New Jersey State Museum; Jamie Greenfield, an artist and art instructor at the Lawrenceville School; and Harry Naar, director of the Rider University Art Gallery. Sponsored by the auxiliary of the UMCP, this is the eighth year for ArtFirst!.

Speaking on a dreary early spring day, the 60-year-old Cohen says the recent heavy rains exacerbate her fibromyalgia. “I’m getting to be one of those people who can tell when the changes in weather are coming; I can feel it,” she says. “It’s okay when things are stable but when the temperature goes from 20 degrees one day to 80 the next, it plays havoc for people with fibromyalgia.”

However, her spirits have been brightened by the news that her work has been accepted in the upcoming 28th Ellarslie Open at the Trenton City Museum, opening Saturday, May 1. Earlier in the year, Cohen was part of the VSA Connect 2010 exhibit at Artworks in Trenton, and her photography is currently on view at All About Art at MossRehab in Elkins Park, PA. Her work will also be on view in the upcoming Art Ability exhibit at Bryn Mawr Rehab Hospital in Malvern, PA.

“People are getting to know my work better,” Cohen says. “I’ve been submitting to all three shows (for artists with disabilities), and I’ve been accepted — and I’ve been successful at the shows. Two years ago I won third place for photography at ArtFirst!, and last year I won first place. I also won a second place award for photography at Bryn Mawr.”

Her work has been so well received by ArtFirst! that Cohen has been doing events photography for them, including the exhibit’s opening night festivities. Shooting at night is another new development in her life as a photographer, for example, her painterly work “I Scream Too,” which depicts a line of people outside the Thomas Sweet ice cream shop on Nassau Street in Princeton. It’s an atmospheric study of shadows and light, captured from a low angle.

“It’s a time exposure of at least one second,” she says. “There’s a lot of motion in there, and if you look closely, you’ll see that some of the people are a little deformed. People have told me that it has the feeling of a painting; that’s specifically because I wish I was a painter but I’m not. I know what my vision is, though, and I can translate my vision through the camera. That’s part of my aesthetic.

‘The light that night was incredible — I love the colors,” Cohen adds. “There are a lot more vibrant colors in my work these days. I’ve found new, richer palettes that I’ve been exploring. Before, my works were more muted, and my therapist says that might have been because I was actually in a fog. But now, things are getting better, and I’m not in that fog, so I’m not as attracted to it. I’m attracted to other subjects.

“It’s hard for me to be a photographer because my eyes are sensitive to light, so for me, darker is better; it’s more comfortable for me to be out at night,” Cohen says. “It’s a whole different way of seeing. I did a lot of research and got a new camera — a Nikon D3 with an incredible sensor — which allows me to do indoor and night shooting, things I couldn’t do before. I can do night shots without a tripod, so it frees me up a lot, but I had to figure out how to do it. I really cracked down for more than a year and learned as much as I could.”

A native New Yorker raised in a non-artistic family (her dad was in management, her mom was a bookkeeper), Cohen’s triumphs as a photographer attest to her stick-to-itiveness, which has served her well as an artist, student, and, in general, as a human being coping with physical and cognitive issues. A little more than six years ago, she couldn’t have imagined being out in public making pictures and exhibiting so successfully. Some of her darkest hours came in 2004 when she was hospitalized for chronic pain, and also spent months in a women’s wellness program at Princeton House.

Her life had seen numerous successes, especially in education. In the early 1970s, Cohen studied photography at Queens College and the New School in New York, and spent a year in the MFA program at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. “I sat in on the MFA program, and it was a good deal,” she says. “They let me be a lab assistant and audit graduate courses.”

Interestingly, Cohen, who is gifted in physics and math, had applied for both the MFA and undergraduate electrical engineering programs at Pratt and was accepted into both. “I knew too many starving artists, so I figured I’d be an engineer and do my art later, and that’s how it’s worked out,” she says. “I started in 1980, went three years and graduated from Pratt in 1983. I was number two in my class and my grades were really good, so I ended up at Princeton Plasma Physics Lab — that’s when I moved to central New Jersey.”

Throughout the 1980s, Cohen worked as an electrical engineer at PPPL, then spent five years at Science Applications International Corporation in Princeton (a branch that is no longer there), working on projects associated with particle accelerators. Cohen then took a job with the network operations center of Verizon Wireless in Bedminster, but began to experience disabling headaches and pain throughout her body. She reflects that her body was trying to tell her something: she was working too hard.

“I had been ill as far back as 1982 and out of work for six months, back and forth with various illnesses, but 2004 and 2005 were a real low,” she says. “I had bought a digital camera right before I became ill, though. I don’t know what came into my mind but I got that camera.”

Slowly she began to emerge from the depths her illnesses. Cohen credits time spent at the Mayo Clinic for Chronic Pain in Rochester, Minnesota, as being especially healing. Chiropractic, acupuncture, meditation, and yoga have helped as well. Of course, so has photography.

“I came to understand that I’d have this pain for the rest of my life, it was just a matter of figuring out how to deal with it,” she says. “Some of the (coping skills) are practical things like knowing how not to make things worse. I have limitations and can do things as long as I don’t overdo. Also, I do things that are distracting; when I’m distracted, I’m not thinking about my pain.”

Divorced, Cohen has two sons, 21-year-old Jeffrey, who works for the State Department of Environmental Protection, and 19-year old Mitchell, who is a sophomore at Johnson and Wales University in Providence, R.I.

She has immense gratitude for hospitals and organizations such as UMCP and MossRehab, who put on exhibits such as ArtFirst! “I’ve met so many other artists who are disabled, and it’s so important for all of us to know that, hey, we’re not just a label, we can still do these things that are amazing,” Cohen says.

ArtFirst!, Auxiliary of University Medical Center at Princeton, Medical Center, 253 Witherspoon Street, Princeton. Saturday, April 17, 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Patrons preview party to celebrate the opening of an international juried exhibition and sale of original artwork by professional artists with physical and mental disabilities. $75. Sales benefit the purchase of commissioned artwork for the public areas of the new hospital in Plainsboro. Open to the public beginning Sunday, April 18, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily. On view through June 12. Leigha Emma Cohen on the Web: www.leighacohenphoto.com. 609-497-4211 or www.princetonhcs.org/ArtFirst.

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