Liz Cohen. (Click images to see full size.)

 (Editor’s note: Creative Capital, based in New York City, provides financing and advice to artists in five categories: emerging fields, film/video, literature, performing Arts and visual arts. Since its founding in 1999, the group has awarded $25 million to 463 artists for 372 projects.)

By Chelsea Gifford

If you, (or anyone you know) is the kind of person who rolls their eyes at contemporary art, attending the Creative Capital session at IdeaFestival is a great way to get your skepticism to shut up.

In its third year at the festival, the arts organization directed by Ruby Lerner makes a compelling argument about the necessity of the application of the artistic mind in the world, and that funding its inventors in an investment in technology and innovation.

The session, which took place Friday morning, saw a presentation of four of the organization’s artists giving short presentations about their works to a packed house in the Bomhard Theater at the Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts

Lerner spoke first, conveying the mission of Creative Capital with exuberance. Her brief presentation also explained the organization’s additional mission to offer assistance to artists in developing the practical skills they need to get funding for their work. She introduced the four artists she had brought with her, who took the rest of the session sharing the work Creative Capital had supported them to make.

Liz Cohen, a petite, modestly dressed brunette spoke first.

In about 15 minutes, she managed to cram in a decade of work, from photographing sex workers in Panama to falling in love with Communist-era cars both in the US and East Germany.

Cohen’s experiences culminated in her combining the iconic east German Trebant with an American El Camino, literally making a real life transformer, a car she affectionately calls her “Trebantimino.”

Making material evidence for the synchronous foibles of capitalism and communism, her Trebantamino is complemented by photos she took of herself as she worked on the car, bikini clad like a custom car model.

She is both the creator of the car, and its muse, embodying all aspects of its representation. The crowd rolled with laughter when Cohen showed a video of herself in the driver’s seat of her “Trebantamino,” visibly pregnant, in high heels and in a scant two piece, working the hydraulics of the car in a cloud of fog machine smoke like a boss, her changing body synonymous with the slowly converting car.

Sam Van Aken’s “Tree of 40 fruits.”

Artist Sam Van Aken’s presentation about his “Tree of 40 Fruits” seemed like it could come straight out of a science fiction novel. Van Aiken takes different species of stone fruit trees and splices the branches together year after year so that eventually, a single tree will bloom and bear over 40 varieties of fruit.

His photographs of a multi-hued plum harvest show the yield of these trees and their potential for preserving heirloom species for future generations.

I overheard someone in the row behind me say, “This is awesome. I can’t believe no one thought of this before.”

Creative Capital’s third artist, Hasan Elahi, was questioned repeated by the FBI after the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks and decided to turn the act of surveillance on its head by creating an app to post his whereabouts and photos of his every locations to his website. You can even see where he is now by visiting the website.

He wrote detailed letters to the FBI regarding his activities, and he continues to send Christmas cards, even a decade later, surrendering his own privacy as an inoculation against future suspicion, which in a strange way actually keeps it intact.

Lastly, artist Tahir Hemphill explained how he used his background in engineering and graphic design to make his Hip Hop database, which catalogues more than 50,000 hip hop songs over the last 30 years. Information such as word count, reading level, and geographic origin, are logged to create searchable fields to analyze trends and extract data.

Hemphill’s crescendo came when he presented “Champagne Always Stains my Silk,” an infgraphic that tracks mentions of Champagne in hip-hop lyrics.

Tahir Hemphill

The session was brisk, exuberant and inspiring.

Creating works in media and with methods that are influencing social media, agriculture, and scholarship in real time, these artist show how artists are often leading experts in innovation through the application of creative thinking.

Questions afterward had to be cut short due to time constraints.

Projects by all four artists and previous Creative Capital grantees, SuttonBeresCuller, are on display now at Land of Tomorrow Gallery.

About Chelsea Gifford: Chelsea Gifford is collection registrar for 21C Museum Hotels.