Years 22 • Hometown Westlake • Creates Cranbrook Academy of Art, Bloomfield Hills, Mich. • Learns BFA in drawing and printmaking from Cleveland Institute of Art; Expected MFA from Cranbrook
Story and photo by Amanda Koehn
The natural-looking forms Cass Penegor creates are familiar, like something you saw in a science textbook, but can’t quite name.
Using gouache, acrylic and water-based inks on paper and making drawings, prints and low-relief installations, the artist relies on repetitive movements. Using their brush or scissors with a machine-like method, the aim isn’t to define the “organic friends,” as Penegor describes them – maybe a cell, virus, geologic matter or even a bubble – but rather to draw you in and reflect on how you might connect to the smaller beings that make up our bodies and earth.
“Some people see bacteria, or something maybe even like a virus, cells under a microscope,” Penegor says. “And those are all the right answers, because they are not any one thing – they are all of the things. It’s really about unity and connectedness between us and nature, how we are a part of these things and they are a part of us, and really taking the time to notice and appreciate that and spend time with the things.”
Penegor started becoming interested in biomorphic art – where sculpture, painting or other media are used to create abstract depictions of natural forms like plants, cells, organisms and body parts – a few years ago during their sophomore year at the Cleveland Institute of Art.
“It was something that I couldn’t get away from, it was always in my mind and I was always drawing these organic biomorphic forms,” Penegor says.
Although they had an interest in science and nature previously as a high schooler in Westlake, Penegor says they didn’t do so well in those subjects at the time. Instead, they gravitated toward theater and visual arts, and ultimately decided on the latter after getting into CIA.
A spring 2020 graduate of CIA, Penegor began a print media master’s program at Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., in September.
Penegor’s work often takes on a blue, moody and intricate palate with patterns similar to a tree ring, yet occasionally will take on a bright color scheme and more circular or unique shapes. The colors and careful shapes have a quality that gives the viewer a sense of satisfaction they can’t quite place.
When Canvas first met Penegor at their CIA studio in March, the artist described a potential interpretation of their organic creations as a “virus.” Just one week later, the entire state shut down due to a deadly virus that eight months later continues to devastate. Now, Penegor says that although viruses’ structures have an intriguing look, it might now be healthier, mentally, to think of their work differently.
“After that, I had to put that out of my brain and focus on some of the other ways that my work is read and interpreted,” Penegor says.
When the pandemic hit, Penegor says the shift to learning and working remotely – while completing their BFA thesis – was a challenge.
“It was extremely stressful, especially as a printmaker and someone who was planning on making a lot of print work for my thesis, I could no longer do that because I can’t make litho prints at home,” Penegor says.
Instead, Penegor ended up shifting toward making more gouache paintings and working on a large installation, which is now up in their studio. The focus of the project was on the biomorphic forms that are, “things that feel familiar, but they’re not directly representing something, so you can’t really name them.”
Over their years at CIA, Penegor had several opportunities to show work in spaces like Cain Park’s Feinberg Art Gallery in Cleveland Heights, Beck Center for the Arts in Lakewood, Eastern Michigan University’s Ford Gallery in Ypsilanti, Mich., and CIA’s Student Independent Exhibition. Penegor also was selected to be a student curator for the sixth annual Cain Park Collaborative Exhibition at the Feinberg Gallery – in conjunction with CIA – this past summer. However, the exhibit was canceled due to the pandemic.
Penegor says one of their biggest successes as an artist this early in their career has been having the opportunity to be a part of several shows – many of which CIA connections helped facilitate. Among challenges, Penegor points to narrowing their focus and dealing with mental health challenges. They also write poems and personal essays, and their experiences with obsessive compulsive disorder sometimes plays a role in developing creative works.
“OCD is a large part of my work a lot of the time, and the kinds of compulsions to be doing certain things, that can be challenging – and like channeling that into making these things,” Penegor says.
At Cranbrook, the curriculum resembles more of a residency than a normal college program – there are no real classes, students are mostly “in the studio, doing your own thing,” Penegor says, with meetings and critiques interspersed. Penegor says they have also become interested in exploring more video and audio work during their first few months there.
On breaks at home in Westlake, Penegor teaches at a KinderCare day care center, and hopes to stay connected to the Northeast Ohio art scene. For example, they hope to become an alumni ambassador at CIA.
“Hopefully that happens because I’d really like to stay connected,” Penegor says.
“They are passionate about finding themself as an emerging maker and artist, and interested in connecting different groups of people. I think sometimes artists and especially students, they are interested in putting their work out there. I think what Cass was interested in was connecting this group from their life over here, and this group from their life over there, and then this group of artists that they met through school, and they were interested in building bridges. And they did that with their internship project and then they did that again more recently after they graduated.”
Maggie Denk-Leigh, chair of printmaking department, Cleveland Institute of Art