‘Visit’ with the legendary Abe Cohn’s pottery

Among those devoted to shaping spinning pots by hand, the name is revered and remembered: Abe Cohn.

Cohn, who died in 2013, made pottery for more than a half-century, starting in the 1950s. He ran Potters Wheel Gallery out of Milwaukee and Fish Creek, making usable art while training the next generation of potters.

Jewish Museum Milwaukee, a program of Milwaukee Jewish Federation, is offering a virtual exhibit on Cohn and his work. The museum has had materials online before, but this exhibit is being designed for the current era. “This is the first time that really, specifically, the idea was generated during this time of social distancing,” said Molly Dubin, curator with Jewish Museum Milwaukee.

Cohn opened his Milwaukee studio in a musty, cramped basement behind the Usinger’s building in downtown Milwaukee. But a circa-1976 fire there forced a move.

“I helped him dig out from the fire and move over to the other studio,” recalled Steve Cohen of Shorewood, who apprenticed for Cohn in his 20s. The new place was brighter, with windows, at the intersection of Water Street and East Juneau Avenue.

Function

If you “attend” the museum exhibit and see the art, imagine pouring from a Cohn jog, stirring a Cohn pot.

Function was important to Cohn for his pieces. “Although they’re beautiful on their own, they were intended to be used and they were designed in a way where they would function well,” Steve said.

Pottery by Abe Cohn is usually functional. The longtime potter trained many of Wisconsin’s other potters.

Steve has a pair of teacups by his old mentor that he uses every day. The Shorewood resident found them at a garage sale, he thinks. He’s made a hobby of finding old Abe Cohn objects, among others.

Cohn’s pottery has been exhibited at various galleries and museums. His longtime inventory of work includes plenty of Judaica, including Pesach plates and menorahs.

His galleries have exhibited the works of countless potters and his Door County gallery represented an early foray of the arts into Door County. The Door County Pulse reported after his death that he “made his mark on many (perhaps even most) of the county’s potters. If you were to call around to galleries throughout the county you’d not only hear stories about Abe, but you’d also be directed to a list of other people who worked with him at the Potters Wheel and could tell you even more stories.”

Role model

Steve remembers Cohn as a role model, a good person. A much younger Steve was using too many glazes at the Milwaukee gallery. Cohn advised, kindly: “I think it might be time for you to narrow it down.”

Steve used to add curls on rims of bowls. Cohn’s gentle response: “If you have to do it, go ahead.”

Cohn and his wife, Ginka, were among the co-founders of the Door County Potter’s Guild. In 2010, Abe Cohn was granted a Wisconsin Visual Arts Achievement Award. In 1964, he was the first craftsman ever to be given a solo exhibition at the Milwaukee Art Museum, according to an awards statement.

Steve, now 65 and a master harmonica musician, would like to see Cohn get more recognition posthumously. It was he who suggested featuring Cohn to the museum.

“I love Abe,” he said. “I loved him. I still love him.”


How to Participate

For links to the Abe Cohn virtual exhibit opening May 4, visit JewishMuseumMilwaukee.org or @JewishMuseumMilwaukee on Facebook.