Chi Lives: how Nancy Cohn got wrapped up in cloth 

Her hands, arms, and clothing splattered with five different colors of paint, Nancy Cohn leaves her brush in the mixing pot to answer the phone. As she heads into her office, she punches off the Roches playing on the boom box. After she picks up the phone, the other fabric painters in the studio smile and listen to her end of a familiar conversation.

When the owner and operator of Nancy Cohn Painted Fabrics walks back into her studio, she grins and rolls her eyes. "That was my five-year-old, Sammy," she says. "He calls about 20 times a day when he gets bored. He grew up here, so he feels it's his turf."

Cohn began her business five years before the birth of her first child, but because the evolving fabric-painting business required her near-constant presence, Sammy knows the business like an employee. Laughing, she says, "He spends time here, answers the phone like a secretary would, plays with the calculators, gives business advice."

Before there was Sammy, however, there was art. Cohn, who was born in Skokie, painted canvases for five years at Kansas City Art Institute. Idealistically, she returned to Chicago to make a living at painting--but "I never thought I would be doing this," she says, looking around at the studio full of painted bolts of fabric.

After painting silk for someone else who used her designs, and working in Loop retail to pay the grocery bills, Cohn decided that she could paint fabric on her own. She began by painting pillowcases in a nickel-and-dime operation out of a shared studio on Lincoln Avenue (which she now occupies on her own).

When she first started her own business, Cohn was still painting canvases, but as she began getting demands for more pillows she felt that she was spreading her art too thin. "The timing for hand-painted fabric was right on," she says, so she decided to commit all her time to the business.

Even though she hired some student helpers to assist, Cohn found that as an entrepreneur and a mother, she had two full-time jobs. "I used to run around with a baby in my arms, painting fabric and trying to run the business end; but now that I have more people, all of whom generate ideas, I don't have to choose between all these things. I don't have it in me to be a full-time mom and be the only one who touches the paint. Now I'm in the position to balance it all."

Today Nancy Cohn Painted Fabrics employs a small staff of painters and sewers and generates a large quantity of hand-painted fabric and women's clothing. "Though I can't compete with big places like Units or Multiples," says Cohn, "we can get out about 100 yards of fabric a day with two people painting and two people sewing, and the fabric will have that hand-painted look. And we're not even at our capacity yet."

Most of the clothing goes to small boutiques; Cohn has sales reps in Chicago who handle the midwest, and another one in Philadelphia for the east coast. Her pillows, place mats, and napkins are sold at Marshall Field's. She also receives commissions for custom futon covers, lamp shades, and other objects from interior decorators and individuals who want personalized original designs for their living spaces.

"People tell us what they want, and we do it. If they want a fish print, we paint them a fish print. However, we don't keep a large quantity of prints on hand; we do them as we get orders for them. That's basically because it really has been and probably will be a real hand-to-mouth company, so there's no room for mistakes. We have to use everything we paint. One day I accidentally dripped paint on a print, and though really I hate this drippy-painted stuff, I dripped here and I dripped there and then a little more, and I guess it looked great because that mistake eventually became one of my biggest sellers."

That Jackson Pollock splatter look has become a hallmark--and selling point--of hand-painted clothing. Cohn's clothing line is no exception, despite her personal misgivings. "One day I picked Sammy up from school dressed in my painting clothes," she says, "and though it was obvious to me that I wasn't out to make a fashion statement, one of the other mothers came up to me and said, "I love your outfit.' So now we're thinking about pooling all of our work clothes and selling them at the end of the season." She's only half-joking.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul L. Meredith.

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