“You’re alive. … and you are ‘A Real Boy!’” Marc Cote explores identity and three-dimensional form with his woodcuts

Corey McFeeley / THE GATEPOST

By: Tessa Jillson

Marc Cote, dean of Arts and Humanities, said his “first love has always been art.”

Before Cote was the dean of Arts and Humanities, he began his career at FSU in 1992 as a faculty member in the art department, after receiving his MFA from the University of Connecticut and a BFA from the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.

Cote said because of his responsibilities as dean, he now doesn’t teach much. Cote teaches an evening class this semester, but didn’t teach any classes last semester.

“It’s really something additional I do here and there. I still enjoy it. I miss teaching. So, I’m enjoying the evening class I have this semester,” he said.

Along with being a dean and a professor, Cote is also a local acclaimed artist who has had his work in many national and international venues such as The Kingston Gallery in Boston, The International Print Center in New York, The Santa Cruz County Art Museum in California, and the Kyoto Woodprint Association in Japan. 

His prints are also held in numerous institutions including Harvard University, The Boston Public Library, The Danforth Art Museum, and McNeese State University in Los Angeles.

His newest exhibition, “A Real Boy,” a collection of woodblock prints existing in various states with complex narratives intertwined with folktales, fables, historical references, personal biographical history, and religion, was shown at the Factory Mark Gallery in CommCreative, about a 10-minute drive from campus, on Jan. 31.

Cote recently moved his private art studio to Saxonville Studios. He said his newest studio houses about 10 artists currently, including two FSU alumni.

Because of Cote’s position as dean and his family obligations as a parent, he creates ideas for his woodcuts over a period of months or years, building figures in his mind before placing them into his sketchbook. He said he does most of his artwork from 8 p.m. to 2 a.m., sometimes later – going to work and picking up his three kids before he even has time to go to his studio.

Cote said when he’s making art, he doesn’t feel exhausted.

He said, “I can work until 3 a.m. and I pay for it a little bit the next day. With this job as dean of Arts and Humanities, I haven’t been able to balance making art. I haven’t been able to prioritize it as much as I could when I was teaching. So, it happens in spurts – usually when I have an exhibition coming up.”

Cote added that making artwork now requires a different “sensibility.” He’s not working and seeing what happens throughout the process. Instead, he has an idea resolved in his head and completes his pieces based on the specific narrative and form he wants to create.

His showing, “A Real Boy,” is comprised of 12 woodcuts, sculptures, and prints, ranging from $100 to $1,500. Cote said two-thirds of his series is newer pieces, while one-third of his series consists of older pieces he selected specifically for the exhibition, since they connected to the overall theme of identity.

While making woodcuts, Cote said he usually starts by carving out birch tree trunks into three-dimensional shapes to create heads or figures. He then uses a roller to print images on the surface of the wood. The uncarved areas will take the oil-based ink, while the carved areas are usually too shallow to pick up the ink, only allowing the elevated areas to print.

He makes his prints by first drawing multiples of a single image on thin, sturdy Japanese paper. For example, Cote said he painted 10 different images of his son’s face with black ink. Once the print dries, he glues it to the surface of the wood, which he then molds onto a three-dimensional form.

Cote selects grainy stumps of wood so the viewer can see the “individualistic wood characters,” and how they manipulate the form. In some instances, Cote said, the way he carves the trunk based on the wood grains affects the distance between the eyes, the nose, and the mouth. 

Cote uses the same print, but each piece comes out differently depending on the wood’s own characteristics.

“I’m working a little bit with lineage and ancestry. To me, that was an interesting visual metaphor for how you can talk about ancestry.

“You have genes that get transferred on and give characteristics, like the resemblance between father and son. I like the idea of taking the wood block, carving it, and printing it, so there are many steps removed from the real wood, and then bringing it back, emphasizing the raw unadulterated wood,” he said.

Cote recognizes his work as Figurative Expressionism. He said he likes to approach his work with vigor, moving beyond photographic realism with the presence of mark-making and the visibility of his process in the artwork, fascinated with artists like Edvard Munch and German Expressionists.

“Some of the pieces I gravitate toward are done in a similar way where process and content are fighting for attention,” he said.

Jennifer Mulkerrin, FSU alumna and art teacher, said she “loved Marc’s use of bold carving marks and directional lines in his prints” and found herself using them in her own work.

She added, “They are very reminiscent of German Expressionism with his ability to express raw emotion, but still allow the viewer to read into his pieces and interpret them in their own way.”

Mulkerrin, who took Cote’s drawing and woodcut classes almost 17 years ago, said his class was her first experience in printmaking and his teaching style, demos, and pieces made her “fall in love with it.”

After graduate school, Mulkerrin said she incorporated printmaking into her classroom right away and has even developed a printmaking course offered to Northbridge High School students starting next year.

“It was a medium that I was never exposed to in high school and wanted to ensure that that was an opportunity provided for my students. Some lessons that have been directly inspired by Marc’s teaching are German Expressionist prints in which I ask my students to pair human emotions with human anatomy, and a book-making project given to upper-level students in which students are asked to retell a historical event in a series of prints,” she said.

Cote’s fascination with wood-print sculptures materialized from his interests in the oceanic tribal sculptures, the high ceilings, and carvings in the Metropolitan Museum of Arts Oceanic wing.

In the “A Real Boy” exhibition, Cote strategically carves out wood to create descriptive elements, fusing stories like folktales and biblical fables with other things he is thinking about and employing aspects of both in his work, which he calls the “process of emergence.”

His main piece in the exhibition, also titled, “A Real Boy,” is a figurative wooden sculpture of a man-like boy. Loosely based on Pinocchio, “A Real Boy” resembles a marionette doll with movable arms and legs connected with “elementary hinged parts.”

Cote said some of his figures aren’t fully rendered. Sometimes, he makes the decision to cover the carved area with prints, but in “The Real Boy” sculpture, the uncarved wood is still visible.

“It depends. It’s predetermined by my sketch. Sometimes, I start on something with an idea and it feels lacking or it suggests another direction. It’s fluid,” he said. 

One of Cote’s woodcut prints in the show, “Experimental Prototype: No Human Being Is Illegal,” displays a black and white image of a roof held up by human legs. Cote said the other underlying theme in his work is the “legitimacy and illegitimacy” of a human being. 

Motivated by the recent struggles of immigrants, Cote began to consider the tenuous reality of illegal immigrants and how they are only made “legitimate” when they become U.S. citizens.

He said, “It’s a lot about any kind of formation of character or identity. … You’re kind of reliant, when forming your character, on other people’s perceptions and judgments.”

“Experimental Prototype: No Human Being Is Illegal,” relates back to the process as a whole. The wood that Cote uses grows naturally with its own characteristics, and despite the fact that Cote manipulates the wood to fit a specific form or image, he also leaves bits and pieces of the bark intact. 

Mulkerrin said, “In Marc’s latest show, I really enjoyed seeing his use of collage and incorporating wood in parts of the final artwork. … Marc’s use of logs as a basis for the final print to be displayed on, and using wood as an essential part of the artwork, seemed to highlight the importance of wood itself in the printmaking process. … I like the way the series explored human experience.”

Another piece in his series, titled, “Two and Two Half Men” features black, white, red, and yellow printed faces on full and half sized wooden blocks.

Cote said the pieces resemble another aspect of emergence centering around family history. While working on the woodcuts, Cote was questioning the things families say and the things families don’t say, the line of royal succession, who’s eligible, and who’s not. He recognized the woodcuts represented the idea of a full-fledged human being and how two halves can make a whole.

“About 10 years ago, I found out that I had a half-brother,” Cote said. This discovery inspired “Two and Two Half Men.” 

As far as Cote’s career goes, he said he feels as if he’s in a place where his artwork feeds into his identity as the dean of Arts and Humanities. Although he recognizes that art is not his full-time career, he finds it helpful when appreciating the faculty, the students, and the work they do.

“I enjoy being a visual storyteller. It makes me happy to have an art exhibition and be able to talk to people about how they experienced my art, what kind of reaction it stirs in them, and what kind of related stories they have,” he said.

For more information and photos of Cote’s series “A Real Boy,” visit CommCreative, or factorymarkgallery.com/marc-cote.