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Jim Cogswell: Cosmogonic Tattoos

As a Faculty Fellow in the U-M Institute for the Humanities (IH), Stamps Professor Jim Cogswell was provided with a release from teaching during the 2016-2017 academic year to exclusively pursue his creative project, Cosmogonic Tattoos. Stamps alumna Cristina Lorenzetti (BFA ’82) spoke with Cogswell to learn more about his research, his process, and his visionary installation.

First, the project.

Cosmogonic Tattoos is a two-site, adhesive vinyl window installation on the glass walls of the Kelsey Museum of Archeology and the University of Michigan Museum of Art (UMMA), based entirely on objects found in their two collections. A concurrent gallery exhibition at the Kelsey will offer the public a glimpse into Cogswell’s process and a link to the project’s source material within the museum collection.


Cosmogony is typically defined as the scientific field of study dedicated to the exploration of the solar system’s origins, but Cogswell embraces a broader use of the term, rooted in the kinds of human storytelling that shape our ethics, morals, and holistic understandings. “Cosmogonies are our explanations for how our world came to be, reflecting our assumptions about the fundamental nature of the universe,” Cogswell states. “They inflect our values and help determine how we behave in the world, how we think of who are as a species, as a society, as individuals.”

In Cosmogonic Tattoos, Cogswell recognizes the role of museums in narrating the story of items in their collection, adding to our cumulative human knowledge around who we are as a species, what we value, and the stories we pass from one generation to the next. The vinyl “tattoos” on UMMA and Kelsey reframe the stories these institutions and their collections tell, prompting viewers to engage with the narrative in new ways.

“There are rewards for viewers who recognize the specific origins of a hybrid configuration. For example, that the hands sailing a Burmese harp carry stories with them originating in the paintings and sculptures from which they were taken inside the museums.” – Jim Cogswell

The installation is rhythmically evocative and explores themes of distance, human migration, and plunder. Cogswell also uses this installation to examine the relationship between works from antiquity and contemporary artistic interpretations of them. A series of transmission towers evokes the gap between the two buildings, UMMA and Kelsey, making it part of a single, continuously unfolding narrative.

“One of my goals is to not just tell my story with their objects, but to make what’s happening on the window directly related to what’s going on inside, so that you can see them both simultaneously. This will go on the window right in front of the terra cotta female figures standing on plinths at the Kelsey.” – Jim Cogswell

The process: making is thinking

Cosmogonic Tattoos began roughly five years ago when Jim Cogswell went to the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology and proposed a window mural based on objects in their collection for their new exhibit wing. He wasn’t yet quite sure what the project would fully entail, but he let his curiosity drive, trusting that meaning and form would emerge in the process of making. Cogswell started reading about archaeology. He invited curators to talk to him about his work, and asked them to share what they were doing. He would walk through the museum and sketch. Back in his home studio, he began to experiment. “Vinyl is just a flat form,” said Cogswell. “I knew I wanted something that really spoke of the object, but I had to find a way to produce this in 2D. So I rummaged around in the studio, found some materials I had on hand. I had a photograph of an object, laid a piece of Mylar over it, traced it in graphite, grabbed some ink I had on my shelf, and then just filled my graphite drawing in with ink. I thought, okay. I can photograph this and then translate it into Illustrator by digitally following its outline, and I’ve got a flat form.” Cogswell says adamantly, “I’m going into detail here to emphasize the point that at the outset I don’t know where I’m going or how I’m going to do it. But I have to do something, anything, to get started. Everything follows from there.”

His experiment in creating digital translations of graphite and ink drawings proved to Cogswell he had succeeded in finding a way to create an image that really spoke of the object. Armed with a little point-and-shoot camera he took his own series of photographs, worked on them in Photoshop, sized them, printed them up, put Mylar over them one by one, then painted into them. A selection of these paintings will be exhibited at the Kelsey along with other works related to the installation, including photographs made using the Mylar paintings as negatives and a group of sumi and walnut ink paintings on paper.


“For me, ideas come from the process of making,” Cogswell reflects. “Making is a form of thinking. This notion of migration and plunder and some of the other themes of this project were not something that I had had any clue about before I began. It came out one piece at a time.”

A creative community in action

Cogswell recounts how the tight-knit creative community at Stamps played a critical role in the making of Cosmogonic Tattoos. Stamps undergraduate students Victoria Essex (BA ‘18) and Sam Bertin (BFA ’18) assisted Cogswell in the studio, tending to many critical tasks. The Stamps community also proved generous in its exchange of medium expertise. “Jon Verney (MFA ’16) had the brilliant idea that my ink paintings on Mylar might be used as darkroom negatives,” Cogswell states. Acting on that hunch, Cosgwell sought the advice of Stamps undergrad Sarah Posner (BA ‘17), who utilized her expertise to print all of the photographs in the exhibit. “It’s exciting to tap into the skills that students have,” Cogswell states. “I love learning from them.”

Cosmogonic Tattoos unfolds in the spring, summer, and fall of the University of Michigan’s Bicentennial year in 2017, a compatible time for reflecting on our origins and the role we play in shaping the narratives of our time — and making our future.


Cosmogonic Tattoos is on view at UMMA April 22-December 3, 2017 and the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology June 2-December 17, 2017. An exhibition related to the installation will be on view in the Kelsey galleries June 1-September 15.

Support for Cosmogonic Tattoos and the accompanying catalog was provided by Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design, University of Michigan Office of Research, U-M Bicentennial Activities Fund, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, University of Michigan Office of the Provost, Stamps School donors Richard and Odette Maskell, and the University of Michigan Institute for the Humanities.