Local Arts

Artist, arts advocate José Augustín Fumero remembered

This 2012 Observer file photo shows Herb Cohen and José Fumero in their home, filled with their artwork. On the wall are Fumero’s paintings “Misty Mountains” and “Phoenix,” and on the table are pottery pieces by Cohen.
This 2012 Observer file photo shows Herb Cohen and José Fumero in their home, filled with their artwork. On the wall are Fumero’s paintings “Misty Mountains” and “Phoenix,” and on the table are pottery pieces by Cohen. dlaird@charlotteobserver.com

José Augustín Fumero, a fine artist who committed his life to painting and fiber mosaics and advancing the arts in the communities of Charlotte and Blowing Rock, died Friday while on a trip to Europe. He was 91.

Fumero and his partner of 60 years, potter Herb Cohen, had finished a lively dinner in Nice, France, and were looking forward to embarking on a river cruise when he passed suddenly, friends said.

“He was a life force. He was so alive,” said Dr. John Thompson, a friend of 10 years who has pieces of Fumero’s hanging in his home. “He was always wanting to teach people. ... He would always make you feel most welcome.”

Fumero emigrated from Cuba at age 5 and served as his family’s translator, after learning English from movies.

He graduated from Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York and upon graduation worked designing car and airplane fabrics for Collins & Aikman, which sent him to its plant in Albemarle.

In 1956, he met Cohen and their relationship blossomed quickly. The pair lived in Charlotte, where Cohen served in several roles on the Mint Museum staff, including exhibition director and acting director.

But by 1972, they were ready to uproot and focus on their art full-time. They moved to Blowing Rock, where they lived and worked on a lane called “Artists Alley,” and were instrumental in the founding of the Blowing Rock Art and History Museum (BRAHM), where they served on the first board of directors and are still considered “founders emeritus.”

Welborn Alexander Jr., founder emeritus of BRAHM, who served on the first board of directors with Fumero and Cohen, remembers the pair throwing open their doors for events (Fumero was a skilled cook) to discuss and showcase art.

“Herb and José never had great (financial) resources but they were very, very devoted to helping BRAHM happen,” Alexander said. “They were willing to commit their time and efforts and would do just about anything to try to help.”

Fumero’s lively, extroverted personality showed through in his artwork. Collectors of his pieces gravitated toward his bold paintings and big woven pictures. His eyesight failed as he grew older, but his inventive spirit allowed him to keep working.

He had lost an eye as a teenager and a failed cataract operation in his 80s left him almost completely blind. So he created a new way to paint, by scanning images into Photoshop, magnifying them to examine small portions, and then painting the images with digital brushes. Then, he painted them again on canvas with acrylics or oil paints, with his face right up close to the canvas.

“I was always taken by his youth and his interest in virtually everything,” said Richard McCracken, president of the board of the Founders’ Circle of the Mint Museum of Craft + Design.

McCracken describes his delight at seeing Fumero and Cohen in the front row for the first meeting of CreativeMornings/CLT, a monthly breakfast lecture series.

“For (Fumero’s) age, and to be as open to as much as they were, it amazed me,” he said. “It’s an example of who they are.”

Just last month, Fumero and Cohen hosted an event at their home for members of the Mint’s Founders’ Circle, where they talked about their work and Fumero explained his parents’ influence and interest in his art growing up, McCracken said.

As for Thompson, he has two pieces of Fumero’s hanging on his walls to remember him by: one, a rendition of Claude Monet’s Water Lilies, and the other a double panel of Grandfather Mountain, which is a collage of multiple photographs Fumero took, printed on strips and wove together.

“It’s called ‘The Ultimate Grandfather,’ ” he said.