Ben Cohen: “Don’t Take Yourself Too Seriously.”

Ben Cohen, age 94 (“That’s right, much to my dismay,” he said with a smile), finds that he’s consistently asked the same two questions about his work: What’s your favorite? and How long did it take you to do it?

He declines to pick a favorite while standing in a room at the Medford Memorial Community Center surrounded by his pieces and those of three others. The show, “Ben Cohen and Friends”, has about 40 pieces of art created by Cohen, Marlene Craig, Joyce McAfee, and David Watson on display through Christmas 2017.

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Ben Cohen, 94, framed by his work and those of his friends at the Medford Memorial Community Center. Photo: Elizabeth Silverstein

But Cohen does give his best guess to how long each piece takes. “When I’m teaching a class, I say about 60 years,” he said. “It took a very long time. Right through WWII and everything.”

Cohen grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family in New York City’s Lower East Side. It was a childhood considered disadvantaged, Cohen explained, since four families living in the tenement shared one toilet in the hallway. He attended kindergarten speaking only Yiddish and writing left handed — both of which were strikes against him in the New York City public school system, which would not enroll left-handed children. Despite a rocky start, he learned English and compromised with his writing. “To this day, I do everything left handed except write,” said Cohen.

He also attended the Henry Street Settlement, a nonprofit organization developed by Lillian Wald in 1893, which provides social service, arts, and health care programs. “Social workers tried to help dead-end kids, to try to get us on the right path,” Cohen explained. “They decided I had possibilities as an artist.”

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“K Clamp”, watercolor, by Ben Cohen

When he was eight years old, the staff decided to send him to a life class at a larger school, which consisted of male and female nude models. “In the art world, it is an important function to learn how to draw the human body,” Cohen said, sharing the reasoning behind their decision.

But perhaps eight was a bit young. “I was far too embarrassed to look at the models,” Cohen added. “I was looking at the other wall. The instructor said, ‘You have to look at the model.’ I was just too embarrassed to look.”

His embarrassment didn’t deter him from the art world. Art followed him even when he was drafted into the service at age 19, leaving the tenement and New York City behind for the front lines. He was in every battle of World War II, drawing on pieces of paper before each engagement. “I just had scraps of paper,” Cohen said. “I drew everything from where we landed to where the invasion happened.”

Original col. pencil sketch by Cohen; view of Liverpool harbor through porthole; seagull and small green ship in foreground.

Original pencil sketch by Cohen; view of Liverpool harbor through porthole; seagull and small green ship in foreground. Photo: Anne S.K. Brown Military Collection

Those pieces now have a home at Brown University, but the memories linger. “I remember during the Battle of the Bulge,” Cohen shared, “I was told by the superior if we were captured, I better take my dog tags and bury them in the snow, because with a name like Cohen, they would shoot me on the spot. I didn’t get captured.”

Original pencil sketch by Cohen; view overlooking stern of troop ship, with tall smokestacks; other ships floating in background.

Original pencil sketch by Cohen; view overlooking stern of troop ship, with tall smokestacks; other ships floating in background. Photo: Anne S.K. Brown Military Collection

After the war, he married Shirley, his wife of 71 years, who passed away a year ago. He was attending a program through his military service, attending the University of Pennsylvania for mechanical engineering, and heard that the local Jewish Community Center had the best pastrami sandwiches. When he had some time off, he decided to check it out. “Army food is nourishing but not gourmet,” Cohen explained. “I went for a pastrami sandwich and I ended up with Shirley.”

It was through Shirley that he learned that some families lived in entire houses, something he hadn’t experienced growing up in the tenement. Her father was a market butcher in Philadelphia, and when she took him to meet her family,  he was astonished. “I thought he was a big industrialist because I couldn’t imagine someone could have a whole house,” Cohen explained.

Cohen also went to Pratt Institute in Brooklyn through the GI Bill for three years, their standard, unaccredited offering at the time. Afterwards, he snagged a job designing toys and toy packaging. When the toy company went out of business (“Not because of my lousy designs,” Cohen noted), one of the packaging companies he had designed for called looking for a design. “I did a package,” Cohen said. “Next thing I know, another call. From there on, it was nonstop. I worked night and day, around the clock. When I was getting ready to retire, I was very concerned I wouldn’t have anything to do.”

Oil painting of water lilies.

“Summer Garden”, oil, by Marlene Craig

At age 55, ready to retire, Cohen called several of his longtime accounts, announcing that he was leaving the designing business. He made sure to add that he wasn’t leaving town, and if there were any issues, he was a phone call away. “Next thing I know, they called back,” Cohen said. “They used to give me about half of work, now they wanted to give me all of the work since I didn’t have anything else to do. So it sort of backfired. I finally convinced them, I’m out.”

Cohen started teaching classes and workshops, finding the freedom from commissioned work enjoyable. “I was thrilled I could now do what I want and no client would tell me, ‘No you can’t do that, we want so-and-so,’” Cohen shared.

These days, Cohen continues to teach beginner and advanced workshops at the Willingboro Art Alliance on Wednesday mornings and at the Philadelphia Sketch Club on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons. He also attends the Philadelphia Sketch Club on Wednesdays to work on his own art. “I found now that I have sort of laid back a little bit on what you might call serious work,” Cohen explained. “To me, art is spiritual. For that hour or two or three, I can forget the world. It is terrific therapy. You forget everything.”

"Path to Kate's Track", watercolor, by Joyce McAfee (top); "Mill Dam Park, Mt Holly", watercolor, by Joyce McAfee (bottom)

“Path to Kate’s Track”, watercolor, by Joyce McAfee (top); “Mill Dam Park, Mt Holly”, watercolor, by Joyce McAfee (bottom)

His advice for other artists is simple. “I think one of the things I could say is don’t take yourself too seriously,” Cohen said. “Don’t get too uptight about it.”

He keeps his own work, mainly pastel, infused with humor. “I have nothing against classical art but I like to see a little bit of humor,” he explained. “Take a look around this world. I think we need it. There’s so much horror going on, we take it for granted. Happening all the time. We need something a little lighter. I’m not concerned about politics. I’m more concerned about doing the nose right.”

But when he does get the nose right, it’s because it’s just a nose. “When I do a nose, it’s really a nose; it’s not a metaphor for something major happening,” Cohen said.

"The Patriots", oil on panel, by David Watson

“The Patriots”, oil on panel, by David Watson

Working in almost every medium, even if pastel is his main choice, Cohen said he takes liberties to extract a certain vibe, one he calls impressionistic realism. He’ll change the colors, or change the settings, putting a model from a session at the Sketch Club on a $20 instead of a couch, adding in New York City below her, and calling it “Let the Money Float”. Another time, he dressed a model in a Santa Claus suit, added a window with a raging storm outside and called it, “I Ain’t Going Out In That.”

His pieces at the Medford Memorial Community Center are also semi-impressionistic, as he made artistic choices to change colors in real-life scenes, like “South Philly Graffiti” in pastel, or add a stadium behind a model, such as his “Phillies Fan” piece in pastel.

The influence of living in West Philadelphia for many years can still be seen in his work, but New Jersey has been his home since 1968. His house in Cinnaminson has three studios, a Wall of Fame filled with the work of his two children and five grandchildren, and plenty of nude figure pieces that he and Shirley picked out. He’s come a long way since his days as a shy child in New York City. “Relations would come and tell us we were going to corrupt the kids,” Cohen said of the nudes. “Now the kids are in their 50s and 60s, and every time they come around, they tell me they weren’t corrupted.”

The show, “Ben Cohen and Friends”, will be up through Christmas at the Medford Memorial Community Center. Stop by on Saturday, Dec. 2, during the Dickens Festival, to view the art while meeting Mrs. Claus with other fun for the children at the center. The show will also be available for viewing on Friday, Dec. 8 from 6 to 9 pm, with four other shows opening on Main Street.

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Laura Sallade: “You need discipline.”

There was never any doubt in Laura Sallade’s mind about becoming an artist.

Eight years after moving to Philadelphia, she’s renting additional space for the studio she’s had for the past six years, she has representation at Seraphin Gallery in  Philadelphia and MasseyLyuben Gallery in NYC, and she’s about to show 34 pieces.

Sallade creates two-dimensional sculptures, using a combination of glass, silver, epoxy, and watercolor to build complex patterns and layered works that are wall hung. She utilizes her sculpture, chemistry, and printmaking knowledge to explore and experiment.

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Sallade’s pieces consist of glass, silver, epoxy, and watercolor.

The foundation of each piece always consists of glass, and Sallade uses her other materials to explore the glass and create patterns. “I’m drawn to patterns because I find them everywhere in nature,” Sallade explained. “I enjoy the feeling of discovery and pursue it on a daily basis, and as the work evolves, it can go through a process of appearing like many different natural formations.”

The complexity of each piece can require help from others, since quick movements for large pieces can be needed as glass is lifted, chemicals poured and sealing conducted. While her largest piece to date was a sculpture created for a Nantucket home, the largest artwork she created for her upcoming show required the help of two friends.

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Sallade’s largest piece, hung in Nantucket. Photo courtesy of Laura Sallade.

Originally intended as a door for the Comcast Center, the piece is one of the 34 works in Sallade’s show at Massey Lyuben in Chelsea, opening on November 16. “I really wanted to make something this size where I didn’t have anyone else telling me what they wanted,” Sallade explained. “I’m really glad I trusted my gut with this piece.”

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Sallade with her upcoming show’s largest piece.

The holes for a doorknob and hinges are still visible through the transformation that Sallade provided. “I love that it was meant to have this other life and it got miscast,” she said.

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Originally meant as a door, the holes meant for hinges and a doorknob are still visible.

Now, it is what Sallade refers to as a vessel of contemplation. “The purpose of these objects is to make a place for contemplation and people can put their thoughts in,” explained Sallade. “For one person, it might be the joy of becoming a parent, while someone else is grieving the loss of someone dear. Art is this space to contain all of these thoughts. I’m glad I got a door. I was able to take something that otherwise would have been thrown out and give it life.”

Even with the beauty that comes with giving discarded pieces new life, there’s challenge in creating. “The difficulty isn’t in the physical putting together of elements,” Sallade explained. “It’s facing your fear of manifesting an expression of yourself. Doing that takes courage. Putting yourself out there to be criticized is the hard part. I think our battles are more invisible than we realize.”

Sallade has fought her own share of battles, working hard over the years. “I like when people are cautious to own the title of ‘artist’ because it shows they revere it,” Sallade said. “Everyone has creativity and I always strive to encourage that in everyone, but to be a fully committed artist you need discipline. To say everyone is an artist is not letting artists have their own space and category and a lot of artists fight to be in that space. I have definitely sacrificed a lot to be here and that serves as motivation because the stakes are higher due to the sacrifices I’ve made.”

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Sallade’s studio space, with elements that will become part of a sculpture.

Sallade’s own journey started in childhood, growing up in the suburbs of Reading, PA. “I didn’t really ever consider anything else as a career,” she explained. “When it was time to go to school, it was, ‘Okay, this is what I’m going to do.’”

Her parents were supportive, and Sallade found that she really enjoyed building things and working with material. She uses colors, lines, and composition as part of her process, but not the goal. “I make things that look like paintings,” Sallade said. “Everything I make has sculptural content to it. I like the challenge of 2D because it’s figuring out how well I can investigate on a two-dimensional surface. There’s so much much more that goes into my process than applying paint to a surface, so describing these works simply as paintings doesn’t feel quite accurate.”

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She went to Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Center City, earning a Certification in Sculpture, and stayed in Philadelphia when her career began even before graduation. Needing a second studio for a large commission, she found her current space with an affordable rent, and recently expanded to a larger studio in the same building. Conveniently near New York City, where most of her sales occur, Sallade has found herself in a good location while building her career and even traveling for inspiration.

She was able to travel throughout Europe for two months on a travel grant and spent time in the south of France earlier this year. “The change that happens is internal and indirect,” Sallade explained. “You go and travel and realize what things fall away and what things remain when out of the context of your normal life.”

While in France, she spent time exploring nature, examining the light. “It’s a really wild spacial experience,” Sallade said. “The mountains are right up against the ocean and it’s really beautiful.”

She decided to paint in nature, bringing her watercolor supplies, where were easy to bring along. When she lost her large brush, she only had a small one to recreate the patterns she found, and she discovered new inspiration in the process. “You walk a couple of meters and everything changes,” Sallade shared. “Five watercolors came out of that experience of what it felt like to be on the mountain.”

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Sallade incorporates patterns into her work, using nature as inspiration.

These days, as her commissions became more consistent, Sallade moved from bartending to driving for supplemental income. She drives for Lyft a few hours in the morning before working a full day at the studio. She usually creates more than 40 hours a week, and having the ability to pick up hours when she needs gives her the freedom to work on her pieces without interruptions. “It’s a little bit of stability and if I need to drop it, no one is harassing me,” she shared.

She’s also able to focus on experimenting more and has found that imagery becomes more beautiful when she gives up control. The pieces that look the most organic are the ones where Sallade allows the work to flow. She can engineer the process to get a certain look, using gestures to build complementary patterns. “If there’s too much control, it’ll look contrived,” Sallade added. “I’ll always try to tweak it a bit. I pay attention. You have to be willing to sacrifice your own plans. You have to make plans. Then you have to let go of them.”

Sallade often shows behind-the-scenes video of her work in the studio on her Instagram, and her website holds more information about her process and representation.