Mint Museum of Art celebrates underappreciated talent
By Lawrence Toppman
Posted: Friday, Jul. 13, 2012
The Charlotte Observer
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
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