The first thing you need to know about Rachel Kochis is that she’s an extremely quiet person with a lot to say. Soft-spoken and shy, she almost gives off the impression that she would rather hide under a blanket until the monsters subside.
Almost. She’s had her share of monsters to contend with, some physical and some mental. This month she turns 18, and she’s already gotten into the ring with chronic migraines, amplified musculoskeletal pain syndrome (which causes her to feel pain more sharply than most others), gastroparesis (which slows or halts the muscles that push food through the digestive system), depression, anxiety and panic disorder.
But here’s the second thing you need to know about Kochis: She’s a math nerd, which means she likes solving puzzles. Or, problems, if you will.
And for her, problems are best overcome by hitting them head on. Because the third thing you need to know about Kochis is that she’s an artist whose creative language somehow blends the intangible with the factual into a kind of stew that reveals its flavors one at a time, slowly.
And if art springs from pain for most artists, it might be the only thing about Kochis that fits neatly into the expected pattern. In seventh grade she landed in the hospital with a bout of gastroparesis.
“I was not in a good mental state at all,” she said.
The other thing she said was “bring me a sketch pad.” It began as something to take her mind off what she was going through and immediately became a puzzle; a balance of the mathematical and the creative.
“What drew me was the challenge,” she said. Because remember: math nerd. As in, top 10 student in her graduating class from Ewing High School this year, as featured in the June 2018 issue of the Ewing Observer. “Math helps me figure out the perspective.”
One of Kochis’ favorite artists is Derek Hess, whose work elevates what appear to be sketches made in a figure drawing class to dark and surrealistic plateaus. His lines are wispy and shaggy, yet bold and fluid; his works’ dark lines blotched with red that sometimes throbs and sometimes drips.
Kochis has a piece—it was on display at Ewing Town Hall throughout July and August (she was the township’s featured artist last month)—called “Being Forgotten” that could be described in much the same terms.
A deep red figure flits away in pieces from the head of … who knows? The combination of sketch and color has the subtlety of a gunshot on first sight. But as you follow the shrinking flecks of scarlet into the deep distance, you find something else in this piece—that this is an occasionally troubled soul, who understands our universal angst and anxieties. None of us really want to be forgotten, after all. Not by the people who matter to us most.
“I have found that I do like making statement pieces,” Kochis says. She wants to get in your head, even if, like her creative touchstone, Derek Hess, she “doesn’t completely let you inside” of her own.
The fourth thing you need to know about Kochis is that she is endlessly compassionate.
“She’s one of the kindest people I’ve ever met,” said Lisa Diadone, who was Kochis’ art teacher at Ewing High School. “Anybody who’s ever had one conversation with her would tell you that.”
Diadone saw Kochis’ kindness in the hugs she would give to her classmates who were going through something; in the dog toys she would give to someone with a new puppy; in the shoulder she would lend to anyone who seemed to need one person to listen.
“My compassion is probably the trait I’m most proud of,” Kochis said. It comes from understanding struggles like crippling social anxiety and her faith. Kochis is a Jehovah’s Witness and considers herself quite religious.
It also comes from what is actually the fifth thing to know about Kochis—she’s an empath. To say Kochis feels the emotions of others is as much of an understatement as saying you feel the oven door on your careless arm when checking the cupcakes.
Beyond the math, beyond the challenge of the puzzle, Kochis’ art all revolves around emotion. Sometimes it’s her own, sometimes it becomes her own based on what she feels about what a friend might be going through.
“I put my heart into my pieces,” she said, adding that she’s usually anxious about something, and that that something often has to do with whatever life struggles a friend might be enduring.
“I live with the anxiety until it sorts itself out,” she said.
Usually it sorts itself out with a little help from her headphones. Which is the sixth thing to know about Kochis: she loves music.
“Loud music actually calms me during a panic attack,” she said.
The music she leans towards tends to be in the rock area; bands like The Color Morale, Silent Planet, and We Came As Romans feature heavily in her playlist, but so do older bands like Three Doors Down and Journey.
What she’s drawn to in the music are the lyrics and the intricacies of the arrangements—the creative solving of a puzzle with something to say, as it were.
Something based on emotion and expression. The music, she said, coming from someone else’s thoughts and feelings helps ground her; often helps her get back to work on her art.
“I listen to music to get out of a panic,” she said. “You can’t figure out anything in a panic.”
The seventh thing to know about Kochis is that as an artist, there’s not much she doesn’t do. Diadone taught her in drawing, ceramics, and sculpture and said Kochis is quite adept at combining various media.
Kochis defines this aspect of herself a little more loosely.
“I’m kind of all over the place,” she said.
Perhaps ironically, music is one of the areas of creative expression she doesn’t make herself. But she has plenty to choose from across the visual art spectrum. At the moment she has a special fondness for photography, especially, the quiet, thoughtful kind—photos in and of nature, for instance.
But she’s not in a hurry to choose a favorite medium. She did, however, have to make up her mind to a certain degree to get into college. Which is the eighth thing to know about Kochis: She has every intention of being a working artist.
She started at Mercer County Community College this semester, declaring her major in digital art. After she has her associate’s degree she plans to get a certificate in web design, because that’s something creative that could pay the bills.
The advice came partly from a friend who told her that a fine arts degree “is not going to help” when it comes to getting a job, she said. So the boundlessly compassionate, broadly creative, and endlessly pragmatic Kochis decided to go for something that will be far more in need than the ability to draw realistic dragons. Which she doesn’t at all do, by the way.
She’s grateful for her friend’s advice, and that brings in the ninth thing to know about Kochis: People have her back.
While it might be tempting to think of Kochis as a brooding loner whom people use as a sounding board for their own problems, that’s not the case. She’s quick to say her friends and family are there for her in return, even if they don’t think to make art based on her troubles, which can be plenty.
“There’s a sadness to her,” Diadone said, but not a trace of cynicism. This quality leads people like Diadone to believe Kochis will light the world up. Quietly; as a forceful introvert with a voice worth hearing.
“For me, her creations are her way of letting go of the pain and anxiety and they are allowing her to thrive in her art,” said Melissa Bennett, founder of Art Has No Boundaries, a Ewing-based art company that co-sponsored Kochis’ exhibition at Ewing Town Hall last month.
“I never realized someone like Rachel would come in and touch our hearts and open, not only our eyes, but also the public’s eyes on how the arts have made such a positive impact in many lives.”
And let’s let that be the 10th thing to know about Kochis: Everything she has, everything she’s been through comes to something positive. What started as a distraction during a hospital trip in seventh grade shifted to become an outlet for her emotions.
Now it’s become a way to communicate with a world that has sometimes overwhelmed her—because under it all, Kochis’ art is about connecting us, whether we need to hold hands or grab a line in the deep water.
Her ambitions are as simple as they are profound.
“I just want to make people smile,” she said.