Painting to Open Minds and Empower Women

While finishing up community college in Florida, Ellana Cohen (Cert '18, BFA '19) knew she wanted to leave her hometown of Miami and continue studying art.

“It has always been about art for me. Whenever teachers would talk about college and having to be really attentive to taking notes and it being really hard, I said, ‘No, I’m going to art school’,” she said. “All throughout elementary school I always had in my mind that I’m not going to regular college, that was always my track.”

A trip to Philadelphia to visit a friend helped Cohen choose a new city but she still needed to find the right school.

“I really liked the city. This is such an affordable city, it’s a likable city,” she said. “It was really comfortable for me to feel like I could actually get up and move, so I started looking for schools in the area.”


  • Ellana Cohen (Cert '18, BFA '19)
    Ellana Cohen (Cert '18, BFA '19)
  • Detail of Ellana Cohen's (Cert '18, BFA '19) installation at the ASE.
    Detail of Ellana Cohen's (Cert '18, BFA '19) installation at the ASE.

An internet search led Cohen to PAFA. The breadth of student work she saw on the Academy’s website and support from the faculty and staff during the admissions process helped her feel connected to PAFA.

“I was in an ice cream shop in Miami and I got a call from Renee Foulks. She told me how everyone is entitled to a studio in their last year and she was telling me all of these things about the school,” she said. “Morgan Hobbs (PAFA’s Resident Director and Student Life Coordinator) helped me too. She helped me find a roommate and I ended up with a roommate from Miami as well, so it was really cool.”

Her focus has always been painting but Cohen says coming to PAFA has allowed her to expand her art practice. And that despite PAFA’s grounding in tradition, Cohen says she’s been encouraged to branch out and explore new mediums and techniques.

“Having all of the teachers be attentive to your vision, it helps you grow as an artist. You go to different teachers for different things,” she said. “I spoke to Rob Roesch, the Sculpture Department chair, and I didn’t have a class with him but I knew he was good at Photoshop so I reached out to him. He ended up helping me a lot with some Photoshop stuff I was doing.”

She now builds her own frames, makes collages, and has begun writing to better express herself. Her work emphasizes feminist ideals and social issues but has become more refined in the past few years.

For the Annual Student Exhibition (ASE), Cohen will be featuring three pieces that are a commentary on the mistreatment of women. An experience she says many women know well.

“I always ask people to tell me a negative thing that’s been said to them, what’s an empowering thing that’s been said, and then I put it in my work,” she said. “There are issues that a lot of people deal with it and I feel like if I bring other people into my work then it becomes a universal thing about women, women of color, and all minorities.”

The ASE has been a tradition at PAFA for more than 100 years and is the culminating event in a student's journey at PAFA. Each spring, 3rd and 4th year BFA, Certificate, and MFA students have the opportunity to curate, install and sell their own works in the PAFA museum galleries.

PAFA students create more than 1,000 paintings, sculpture, works on paper and installations. It is one of the most celebrated student group shows in the country. More than 100,000 visitors will attend the ASE, and sales of student's works are expected to be nearly $300,000. Students retain the majority of the purchase price of works sold.

Cohen’s work is in direct contrast to what she believes is the foundation of the art world: objectifying women.

“It’s really true that we are constantly being thought of as these sex objects and that the male artists are considered geniuses,” she said. “That theme is always coming up in my work. I try to make a balance of the obvious and literal, and the subdued, so you can have a way to interpret things and it’s not about pushing it in your face.”

She hopes her work sells at the ASE to open up dialogue and help women reclaim their bodies for themselves.

“I think they need to be out there, whether it’s in somebody’s house or in a museum,” I’d rather my work be something that’s thought about in the world, than only in my studio.”