The white Hebrew letters march around the rim of the elegant brown bowl in a declaration never to be refuted: “I Will Be What I Will Be.”
The ceramicist didn’t mean that as a personal manifesto: It’s a slight alteration of the words Moses heard God speak from the burning bush. Yet “Sophisticated Surfaces: The Pottery of Herb Cohen” proves Cohen was destined to produce the complex and deceptively simple art in this seven-decade retrospective at the Mint Museum of Art.
And in a larger sense, Cohen has been destined to spend the last 56 of those years with fellow artist José Augustín Fumero, while their personal and professional lives intertwined like colorful fibers in a Fumero painting.
Together they worked in the 1960s and ’70s at the Mint’s Golden Circle Theatre. Together they abandoned well-paying white-collar jobs to bolt for Blowing Rock, committing themselves to uncertain (if eventually successful) lives as artists. There, they helped jump-start the Blowing Rock Art and History Museum, on whose board they still serve as “founders emeritus.”
Together they returned to Charlotte two years ago, filling a condominium in Cotswold with pots and paintings and bonhomie. (An interview is likely to lead to lunch, perhaps with a Fumero pâté or handmade Cohen ice cream.)
And together, in their 80s, they have launched careers inspired by obstacles.
A hand tremor prevents Cohen from controlling clay on a wheel, so he builds up pieces by hand. (You’ll see a few in the Mint show, through Jan. 8.) The design-oriented Fumero, whose vision has deteriorated throughout his life, aims to create a simple, multiple-use computer keyboard for people who have similar conditions.
They have distinct identities. Cohen is the introvert who created subtle glazes and says without false modesty that he’s not sure he merits a solo show at the Mint. Fumero is the extrovert whose bold paintings grab your lapels: His portrait of a nun, a work his friends covet, reveals a woman who has guessed all your secrets. But you can understand why those friends almost speak of them as “HerbandJosé.”
“I’ve often told them they’re my uncles of choice,” says June Watts-Mistry, who (with husband Adi Mistry) has bought pieces by both. “I didn’t have any real uncles I liked that much. I have never heard Herb and José say a negative thing about another person, and that makes them a joy to be around.
“Their generosity is astounding in every way, whether having people over for dinner or having an artist stop by for a critique. It seems you can’t ask them anything and get a ‘no.’ ”
Of course, without one loud “No!” to conformity, Cohen and Fumero would not be where they are today.
Different paths, one goal
The two men arrived in the South – and each other’s lives – quite by accident, more than half a century ago.
Cohen, a pottery prodigy, commanded a wheel at the famed Henry Street Settlement on Manhattan’s Lower East Side at age 6. (The Mint show includes sophisticated flour and sugar bowls he made for his mother at 9.)
He graduated from Alfred University (home of the New York State College of Ceramics), served two years in Korea in the U.S. Army, got a master’s degree in ceramics from Alfred and took a job designing pieces for Hyalyn Porcelain Co. in Hickory.
Fumero emigrated from Cuba with his family just months before his fifth birthday and the start of The Depression. They didn’t speak English, so he was the family translator – “to my benefit,” he laughingly recalls – after learning the language from movies, often hearing British actors who left a faint impression on the accent he has today.
He graduated from Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York and took a job designing car and airplane fabrics for Collins & Aikman, which sent him to its plant in Albemarle.
“I thought ‘Where am I?’ ” he says. “They rolled up the streets at 6. But Spanish people ate pork and rice and beans, and so did Southerners.”
A mutual friend introduced them in 1956. They were a couple at once. For about 15 years, Fumero commuted 45 minutes a day, while Cohen joined the Mint’s staff: first as a part-time worker, then as exhibitions director – where he shined a light on the regional pottery movement – and as acting director.
Charlotte, more conservative then than now, made the pair comfortable.
“We were never flagrant, but we never thought of (our relationship) as unusual,” says Fumero. Adds Cohen, “I came into contact with the Belks and Iveys through the Mint, and José was always invited to events with me. We were always thought of as coming together.”
But they weren’t comfortable in a world where other creative people made most of the art. So in 1972, they quit their jobs simultaneously and moved to Blowing Rock, to live on a property bought from painter Philip Moose.
A voyage into the void
“We were a couple of middle-aged dropouts,” says Cohen, who was 40. “We didn’t start from scratch: I had acquired a wheel and kiln. But we had to make a living through our art.”
Says Fumero, who was 47, “It was a hard choice, but we couldn’t do both things at the same time. I had always supported my family – my parents, my sister and her child – and we were very close. Now I had to tell them, ‘The golden goose has died.’ ”
But they mined a different kind of gold. Cohen alternated between mainstays of the potter’s trade, utilitarian mugs and plates, and more elaborate bowls and intricate objects meant for display. Fumero painted and wove and created pieces realistic and fantastic.
Their studios stood on a lane called Artists Alley; a staircase split the downstairs level, with Fumero’s workspace on the right and Cohen’s on the left. (“We designed it so we wouldn’t get on each other’s nerves,” Cohen once said.) Occasionally, they gave each other advice.
“Herbert would work on a design and say, ‘This doesn’t look right,’ ” Fumero recalls. (Only he calls his partner Herbert. Cohen usually goes by Herb.) “I can see flat designs immediately, much more quickly than I do in three dimensions, so I’d say, ‘Maybe a repetition of this pattern will work.’
“Then I’d ask Herbert about my piece: ‘Does this give you a sense of space?’ And he’d talk about lightening or darkening an area to do that.”
“I don’t know that they influenced the physical ethic of each other’s work,” says Amber Smith, the curatorial assistant who wrote the catalog to accompany the Mint exhibit. “It’s more how supportive they are of each other.”
“They complement each other,” says Brian Gallagher, the Mint’s curator of decorative arts. “José works in two dimensions, Herb in three. With the (Mint) Drama Guild, Herb worked behind the scenes; José went onstage. José is outgoing; Herb’s private but eloquent.”
Their fine work could sometimes be overlooked. When Gallagher was planning the exhibit “A Thriving Tradition,” which opened in October and broadly covers 75 years of North Carolina pottery, he expected only to borrow a few pieces from Cohen and Fumero. Better acquaintance with Cohen convinced Gallagher he needed his own show.
“Herb should have had a solo exhibition long before this,” Gallagher says. “His work has an immediate appeal, whether you know anything about pottery or not. But another potter would marvel at the beautiful glazes, the time-consuming work of making the incised lines in a bowl resemble a leaf.”
Adds Smith, “Herb doesn’t talk about the way he affected other potters, but he did. Michael Sherrill, a wonderful ceramic artist, considers him an influence.” (Sherrill recalls in Smith’s catalog that his first exposure to contemporary craft came when Cohen organized a Mint show. Cohen later gave him his first solo outing.)
Looking to the future
In their own quiet ways, both were just a bit revolutionary. Cohen made his own glazes, exploiting a dark color palette from noble reds to rich umbers.
Fumero had lost an eye as a teenager and suffered a failed cataract operation on the other eye in his 80s. So he found a new way to paint: He scanned images into Photoshop, magnifying them to examine small portions. He painted these images with digital brushes, then painted them again on canvas with acrylics or oils and handheld brushes, keeping his face a foot from the canvas.
“I’m proud to have one of his last big woven pictures,” says Charlotte dermatologist John Thompson, who owns works by both. “It’s a double panel of Grandfather Mountain, called ‘The Ultimate Grandfather,’ and it’s a collage of multiple photographs he took, printed on strips and then wove together. I’d never seen this technique before.
“When José pulls out sketches he did many years ago, they’re traditional. They make you think of Toulouse-Lautrec, maybe. I think a lot of really good artists change over time: They experiment with things, and he has always done that.”
Fumero says he “can’t see the pieces I’ve painted” anymore, including large, potent swaths of color hanging behind the couch. So he is working on that computer in his home studio, trying to create a keyboard that can be operated with one hand by a visually impaired person.
And Cohen? He used to go through two tons of clay each year on the wheel and says, “During these last two years, when I haven’t had a studio – when I haven’t even had my hand in clay – I’ve felt guilty. But I took my tools over to Clayworks (on Monroe Road), and I look forward to getting into it. We can’t see a time when we won’t make art.”