La Jolla native Peter Cochrane finds preservation of plants, art in new exhibit

artist Peter Cochrane stands in his studio in front of a few works

Finding a certain magic in the way humans attempt to extend life and its representations, artist Peter Cochrane returns to La Jolla for a new exhibit that melds his efforts to preserve both plants and art forms.

“Peter Cochrane: The Magician Longs to See” will run at The Athenaeum Music & Arts Library from Jan 20 through April 13, with an opening reception at 6:30 p.m. Friday, Jan 19.

The exhibit will feature darkroom prints and other abstract depictions of roses, pine cones and more local plant life that highlight the history of the area.

“It’s a body of work that I made from ideas that started around 2017,” said Cochrane, who grew up in La Jolla and graduated from La Jolla High School in 2005.

“I like to do research when I’m making artwork,” he said. For “The Magician Longs to See,” Cochrane dove into the Athenaeum’s botanical archives and its history. “It had a pretty incredible and extensive history and one that’s so linked with San Diego [and] La Jolla.”

The Torrey pine, native only to two places in Southern California including the San Diego coast and endangered, once stood in front of the Athenaeum, earning the tree a central place in Cochrane’s exhibit.

Cochrane’s use of the Torrey pine in his work parallels his use of lodgepole pine cones, ubiquitous to the Pacific Northwest. 

The lodgepole pines “have to either experience extreme heat or be burned through wildfire to propagate,” he said, an “interesting” juxtaposition to the Torrey pine, which is under threat of extinction by wildfire. 

The “story of duality [that] preservation is necessary but so is destruction” continually fascinates Cochrane, he said.

While digging into the native plant life, Cochrane discovered Kate Sessions, a local botanist largely responsible for the development of Balboa Park and other San Diego spots, had planned a climbing rose garden for the Athenaeum in 1921. 

Cochrane then incorporated roses into his exhibit, finding himself drawn to researching more about Sessions. 

“I grew up going to Kate Sessions Park up on [Mount Soledad], and it’s one of those local names that you hear about, but I didn’t know anything about this as a kid,” he said.

Preservation in print

Connecting botany to history furthers Cochrane’s belief that art functions as a chronicle for science. 

I wanted to think about the plants that had once lived in this space and use them as a tracker of time.

Cochrane took darkroom pine cone prints and etched them directly into zinc plates, creating a “way of permanently giving a voice to the history of the Athenaeum,” he said.

By playing with the medium’s processes, the artist is also able to preserve the art form itself, he said: “Photography is inherently an unfixed medium; even the best prints have a shelf life. They start to degrade as soon as you print them.”

Cochrane hopes he has created a visual experience with the exhibit that “translates beyond” the images presented and “gets people thinking about multiple things,” he said.

The alchemy of art 

Aside from recording the magic in botany, Cochrane’s work mixes in his research into alchemy, an ancient precursor to chemistry based on attempts to transmute lead into gold.

Lead, too, holds an entrancing duality for Cochrane. 

“It’s one of these tools that’s dangerous if we ingest it but also protects us from radiation,” he said. 

Noting the gold leaf he uses in the exhibit is “fake; it’s made out of zinc and the panels in the show are made out of zinc,” Cochrane said he feels the show has somewhat accomplished the goal to transform a base metal into gold: “We’ve done it.”

Picture of Elisabeth Frausto

Elisabeth Frausto

Elisabeth Frausto has been reporting on and writing about La Jolla since 2019. With dozens of local and state journalism awards to her name, Elisabeth knows the industry as well as she knows her community. When she’s not covering all things 92037, you’ll find her with coffee in hand staring at the sea.
Picture of Elisabeth Frausto

Elisabeth Frausto

Elisabeth Frausto has been reporting on and writing about La Jolla since 2019. With dozens of local and state journalism awards to her name, Elisabeth knows the industry as well as she knows her community. When she’s not covering all things 92037, you’ll find her with coffee in hand staring at the sea.

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