Obituary: Dave Cohen, ceramic artist and teacher

David Cohen
David Cohen
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Dave Cohen, Ceramic Artist-Craftsman. Born: Milwaukee, Wisconsinin in 1932. Died: North Berwick, East Lothian in 2018

Dave Cohen arrived in Scotland in 1958, having proudly served in the US Navy (1953-57) aboard the destroyer USS Hale. He was a welder aboard ship having previously been an apprentice carpenter (1947-51) – skills that served him as an artist and contributed to his fearless approach to material, whether metal, wood or ceramics.

Clay became his most-loved medium, expressed through a diverse and vast oeuvre sealing his legacy as one of Scotland’s greatest ceramic artists.

He attended the Edinburgh College of Art (ECA ) from 1958-61studying sculpture under Eric Schilsky and as a secondary subject ceramics, with his teacher Katie Horsman. After sculpture classes ended for the day he walked over to the ceramics department to throw pots for as long as he was allowed, only to return first thing in the morning as the janitors arrived to open the building – the first signs of his unrelenting work ethic and self discipline.

Horseman recognised his talent early. “We always knew how good Dave was going to be and he didn’t let us down – of course, Dave went on to teach us.”

The late critic W Gordon Smith wrote that Schilsky and Horsman “... found him a rewarding pupil. In addition to his Jewish-American get-up-and-go and a formidable aesthetic and technical ability to combine hand and eye in making things... he developed a fierce creative intelligence and began to acquire the artistic integrity that would discipline all his future work.”

Dave returned to the US for his post-diploma at Scripps College in California with his Scottish wife Frances, to study with Paul Soldner, but decided that the Scottish climate suited him and came to live in his adopted home.

“American by birth, Scottish by choice” is how he used to describe himself. He returned to establish his studio in Juniper Green, raise four children and teach ceramics at the Edinburgh College of Art (ECA) from 1965 -86.

In 1975 the family moved to North Berwick where they established their home, art studios and gallery, continuing to operate to the present day. In 1986 Dave became Head of Ceramics at the Glasgow School of Art before his retirement in 1991.

Gordon Smith observed that: “Throughout his long career as a teacher Cohen worked incessantly at the studio complex he created. He contributed to most major national art exhibitions, sold steadily in commercial galleries, and had his work collected by all the major art institutions. He was adventurous, innovative and original. His most exciting work achieved a rare synthesis of seductive sculptural form and rich ceramic decoration.”

Another art critic , Cordelia Oliver, described a casserole dish she bought in 1967 as “...marvellously right and true in balance both visually and in the hand. This beautiful, useful object seemed to me to exemplify the falsity of the separating line that is often drawn between the so-called fine arts and the craftsman’s work at best.”

Dave was a passionate, generous and dedicated teacher. He loved his students and delighted in their shared energy and passion for creativity. He was strict but fair in his critique, always pushing his students to achieve everything they were capable of achieving. He developed a strong pedagogical foundation based on visual language and in 2012 co authored a textbook, Visual Language: Elements of Design. He also wrote The Basics of Throwing in 2008.

Oliver wrote about Cohen’s teaching practice. “ It is as a teacher that David Cohen has been able to share his experience and his knowledge in the nurturing of a succession of students. The pursuit of craftsmanship, he believes, is necessary to the development of the self in the individual – a development based on discipline, motivation, achievement and determination... the desire to give full expression to the creative spirit within oneself must be fed on continual practice and discovery in the chosen craft.”

Gordon Smith commented on Cohen’s teaching, stating that: “He sets great store by the exercise of visual language. In a teaching manifesto he insists vocabulary should be developed through a strong encouragement of drawing, collage, and three dimensional fabrication to keep ideas developing.”

Dave’s ceramic art continued to evolve during his long teaching career and throughout retirement. He never used teaching as an excuse for not being able create his work. Far from it. He never stopped making. The breadth of his work is remarkable in the exploration and application of the ceramic medium. As Oliver recognised: “ David Cohen’s mastery of craft has continued to keep pace with his creative imagination... from great, globular, one-off raku pots, their surfaces suffused with films of colour, to impressive lidded jars, angular, gilded and hieratic, like Samurai warriors, remain in the memory as real presences. His circular plates became the matrix for a long and impressive flowering of ideas in which signs and symbols are made to carry the intimations of the seasonal, as well as the human cycle of life and death.”

Dave’s influence in helping others stretched far and wide. He loved sharing his knowledge and skills with anyone who demonstrated an enthusiasm or need for making art no matter what their age, experience or ability. It was a great testament to his generosity and deep love for the creative spirit.

Christine Flynn, Chairman of the Scottish Potters Association, of which David was an enthusiastic supporter, upon hearing of his passing said he was “... a great inspiration to us all in the Scottish Potters Association. He will be greatly missed.”

Dave is survived by his loving wife Frances and four children, Kirstie, Scott, Esther and Ailie.

PROF SCOTT ANDERSON