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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Danny Allain: “I’m not the next big guy or anything. It’s just me. I make stuff.”

Danny Allain learned to read using his brothers’ comic books years before he started writing and drawing his own. The youngest of six, with two brothers and three sisters, Allain mainly stayed at home, drawing and playing in the woods of DeQuincy, LA. Comics made it easy to follow the story, even without knowing how to read. “You can know what’s going on,” Allain said. “The green guy is always mad.”

Art talent and interest ran in the family–Allain’s father, Gerald, creates portraits, and Allain’s brothers both draw as well. Allain started drawing all the time, but didn’t attend an art class until he moved away for college. He became a drawing major, and met his wife, Morgan. “She knew a character I was drawing, a dark elf character,” shared Allain. “She was like, ‘Hey, is that Drizzt?’ I was like, ‘F yeah that’s Drizzt.’ I was pretty oblivious to everything in the world. That’s how we met. Or at least that’s how I noticed.”

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They got married and moved next to his parents, who live on 10 acres of land. After college, Allain taught elementary art for seven years, until ultimately deciding that teaching wasn’t for him. “It was a very controlling, micromanaging situation I was in,” Allain explained. “I got out of that and decided I wanted to do art. It was super stressful. I was on blood pressure and anxiety medication. I didn’t have any plans after quitting teaching. I had a mural, then got another one.”

Three years later, Allain is still painting murals, taking commissions, writing and drawing his own comics, making fences with his father and building houses with his brother. “Pretty much whatever I can do, to sustain art, is what I do,” Allain said. “Luckily, I married Morgan, who feels the exact way that I do. We’re hustling to do what we can to do this. I’m not saying I’m making baller money, but I’m making more now than when I was teaching. Teachers don’t make anything. It’s sad. You’ve got to sustain yourself.”

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An artist herself, Morgan has painted several series and manages the Etsy for her own work and for Allain’s. Their four-year-old daughter, Ruby, also recently made over $50 selling her own watercolor bookmarks.

Their family creates together in other ways. Two years ago, Allain started a comic for Ruby. There are two volumes with 90 pages each, and Allain has planned out the third and final volume, which will have a big fight scene. Allain involved Ruby by asking what she wanted in it.

Allain’s father, Gerald, is a troll that was cursed with cuteness and manners. “He’s bright pink and flowers grow off of him and he wears a tutu,” Allain explained.

Allain’s mother appears a witch, the source of Gerald’s curse, and sports a wort on her nose. “She loves it,” Allain said. “She actually has a wort on her nose and I always make fun of her for it.” Morgan is a mermaid. Other family and friends also make appearances. As Allain was planning the last volume, he told Ruby that he was almost done and asked if she had any final requests, and she did: werewolves. Morgan suggested making them weresheep instead.

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The pair has found other creative ways to share their art as well. Allain helped found Southwest Louisiana Art (SWLArt) with friends, and they organize an art market twice a month called LUNArt Sunday Art Market. “Every LUNArt, I do live art and make some weird thing or portrait,” said Allain. “One time I did the bones of a rabbit, and people liked it and bought it.”

Allain created an entire series based on his bones concept, and held his first solo show in May displaying his work. “Actual animal bones are fun to do, because you don’t see what’s in American bison,” shared Allain. “The big hump is their back bone. I thought it was muscle. Some of that is neat to find out. I like doing dragons, griffons, hydra. I did a breakfast set of a chicken, pig and cow.”

Allain plans to continue the series. “I want to do some more predatory scenes,” Allain said. “I have a fox and a mouse, pouncing. I want to do a sabertooth jumping on a mammoth or something. I have a bunch of ideas. I just have to get to the table. The hardest part is just getting to the table. Get to the table, with pencil and paper and the table is clean. After the first line, I’m hooked, and I’ll be there until I’m done. It seems like a chore to draw when I’m not drawing, but when I start, I remember it’s awesome.”

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Allain considers himself a storyteller first, even as he continues to draw and paint. “I love writing little stories–not even writing them out, just thinking them,” admitted Allain. “Comics are an easy way to do all of it. I can draw it, and write it and do all the lettering and inking myself. It’s just one solid metal hoop and that’s just me.”

A few years ago, Allain came up with an original idea about a western bounty hunter, and he had created three issues and was selling them at cons. The comic revolved around an alien crashing in the wild west and strapping an alien band to a cowboy’s arm, which allowed him to communicate with an AI system. Then Allain saw the trailer for Cowboys and Aliens at the movie theater, which was almost identical. Discouraged, he quit his sci-fi western and decided to write a standard fantasy novel and make it his own. “It was not an original idea by any stretch of the imagination,” said Allain. “It’s fun.”

When Allain’s nephew asked him to run a Dungeons and Dragons campaign, Allain decided to use the novel, Shadow Wars, as the story line. “There are five of them, 17-19,” Allain described his nephew’s friends. “They’re super preppy and stuff, from nice families. They pull up in their vehicles to my trailer house and we go into the shed and play. They are all about it. They rearrange their work schedules so they can play.”

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Allain also started making figurines and props for the campaign, and now sells D&D starter kits on Etsy. He found that creating the props was a stress reliever, and the guys that participate in the campaign love his work. “They’re the tiniest little hot glue things that they freak out over,” said Allain, who uses hot glue, matchsticks, popsicle sticks and polymer clay. “That’s about it. It’s just how you put it together. It’s a lot of fun.”

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Allain focuses on continuing to create, no matter the medium. “Ninety percent of the stuff I’m making is just art and stuff,” shared Allain. “I’ll make it. If someone buys it, cool. If it’s not a commission, I’m just making it for me. It’s lowbrow. I’m not the next big guy or anything. It’s just me. I make stuff.”



If you’re in Louisiana, catch Danny and Morgan at their next event on June 18, LUNArt Sunday Art Market Luna Live, 11 am – 4 pm.

Danny shares his work on Instagram and sells prints through Morgan’s Etsy store.

This is the seventh in a series of articles I’m writing, called “Sustaining Craft”, which focuses on people who make money creating. Hey! My first newsletter is hitting the web this Wednesday! Click here to sign up and get an awesome newsletter with other profiles, including a brand-new feature not yet posted, and more art and quotes from Danny, and other fun tidbits.