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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.