Paying tribute to a man who taught, encouraged and flamed the creative spark of countless individuals was what blues musician and clay enthusiast Steve Cohen had in mind when he shared his idea for an online exhibit about renowned Wisconsin potter, Abe Cohn. With Steve’s collection of Abe Cohn’s work and recollections of the iconic pottery mentor as a jumping-off point, other of Abe’s friends and family members shared their memories and photographs of his work.
After serving in WWII, Abe, a visionary and pioneer, opened his first studio in Milwaukee in 1953, The Potter’s Wheel, and married his wife Ginka in 1954. In the summer of 1956, they established the first pottery studio in Fish Creek, laying the foundation for Door County to become a renowned destination for potters and pottery fans alike. Following a fire in 1975, the Milwaukee branch of The Potter’s Wheel found a new home in an old warehouse shared by the Milwaukee School of Art and Design. After years of maintaining both locations, founding the seminal Door County Potter’s Guild in 1976, and spending solely summers in Fish Creek, Abe and Ginka moved there in 1994, making the Door Peninsula their permanent home.
Along the way, he received several awards including the Louis Comfort Tiffany Award (1958) and a Smithsonian Institute Purchase Award for its 7th Annual Exhibition of Ceramic Art (1961). In 1964, Abe was granted the first one-man show by a craftsman at the new Memorial Art Center in Milwaukee – the precursor to the Milwaukee Art Museum, which has several pieces of Abe’s in its permanent collection. In 2010, Abe received the Wisconsin Visual Arts Lifetime Achievement Award.
Following a lifetime of prolific creative productivity and inspired guidance, Abe died in May 2013, leaving a legacy to students, collectors and other artists. A number of those people provided information and materials to make this online exhibit possible. I would like to thank Steve Cohen (Milwaukee), Robin Cohn, Tamar Cohn, Jon Cohn, Steve Cohen (California), Dick Woppert and Greg Miller for their contributions.
Curator, Jewish Museum Milwaukee
MY TIME WITH ABE COHN
By Steve Cohen
I was among the many potters who passed through the doors of Abe’s two studios. I was 24 years old and had briefly operated my own pottery studio a few blocks away from The Potter’s Wheel. My studio was also destroyed by fire shortly before the fire at The Potter’s Wheel. I had been buying some supplies from The Potter’s Wheel during this period, and though this had been the extent of my association with Abe at the time, I was one of many who helped him relocate. It was the beginning of what became an important period in my life.
When his new studio was set up, I became an apprentice to Abe. One of the other potters working in the studio at the time was Greg Miller. Through Greg and Abe, as well as another associate potter, Dick Woppert, I absorbed great information about potting, glazing, kilns, firing, aesthetics and expression, and in exchange, I helped sell supplies, taught some classes and helped with the day-to-day upkeep of the studio. Greg, Dick and I remain friends to this day.
Snapshot of potters at The Potter’s Wheel, in Milwaukee, 1978.
(Left to right)
Steve Cohen, Ivy Balian, Joan Backes-Sills, Ginka Cohn, Abe Cohn, Greg Miller, Dick Woppert. Image courtesy of Steve Cohen.
Steve Cohen at the Wheel
Abe was a quiet person, but he chose his words carefully and offered his critical opinion only when he felt it was absolutely necessary. He had a wry and understated sense of humor, and I never saw him lose his temper. He worked slowly, meticulously, and pragmatically. What he chose to contribute to my education was always carefully considered, and his example as a potter and as a person helped me become the person and the potter that I am today.
My time as one of Abe’s apprentices concluded when I and my future wife, Karen, traveled for a year. When we returned, I opted to have a career as a musician. Though my time as one of Abe’s apprentices lasted only about 18 months, the lessons I learned stuck with me, and I have returned to making ceramic art at the age of 65, still much influenced by my time at Abe’s studios.
Through the last 10 years, I have accumulated a couple dozen of Abe’s pots, mostly at estate sales and Goodwill stores. Abe’s pots are among the very few things that I collect, and they are important to me. This presentation of my small collection has been a pleasure to assemble. Thinking about Abe and looking at the pots that he made takes me back to a happy and developmental time in my life. I think of this project as an opportunity to look back fondly at my time with Abe.
ABE COHN: EARLY CAREER, FRIENDS, FAMILY
Abe Cohn grew up in Waukesha, the youngest of six brothers. He joined the army at a young age, studied painting in Paris and at UW-Madison, where he discovered his love of clay. This led to studios and galleries in Milwaukee and Door County, a marriage to his wife Ginka and a rewarding life filled with teaching, children, grandchildren and many friends.
ABE COHN: PROLIFIC POTTER
During his decades-long career, Abe created a prolific body of work. Public and private collections throughout Wisconsin and the country include his creations. His children have diverse collections of their father’s work, proudly displaying many pieces in their homes.
THE POTTER’S WHEEL
Abe and Ginka learned of the beauty of Fish Creek, Door County in the early 1950s and after visiting, became smitten. The Milwaukee Potter’s Wheel gallery gained a second location following their establishment of the first pottery studio there in 1953. The venue would soon become an iconic destination for potters seeking guidance and for pottery enthusiasts.
We know that there are many Abe Cohn pieces, experiences, and stories in the greater Wisconsin community and beyond, and we want to collect those experiences! Share your story and any Abe Cohn pottery you have collected throughout the years with us via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or by emailing us at [email protected]. Use the hashtag #FiredUpWithJMM so we can find your story on social media and share it with our visitors. Select stories are shared below.
Carol Vihon Hirsch (Evanston, IL)
Roger and I enjoy Door County with its charming little stores, beautiful nature to drive through, the same Inn we like as well as the art galleries. Quite a while ago we found this piece of pottery at The Potter’s Wheel. Then we found out Abe was Jewish. I did think I saw the spirit of Judaism in this piece of pottery. After I found out our favorite Jewish Museum Milwaukee was having a showing of his work I was going through old business cards while being kept inside due to COVID-19. Lo and behold, there was a card from The Potter’s Wheel among those old business cards. I could not believe it.
I worked with Abe starting in 1968 after graduating from UNI, Cedar Falls, Iowa. When I was drafted into the Army, I served in RVN and returned home in June 1970. I worked at The Potter’s Wheel until May 1972, when we moved to Missouri until I retired in 2018. Whenever I think of making pots, I think of Abe and how stoic he could be. We had many conversations about the smallest details of throwing, glazing, firing and selling the work. I only hope I had the same effects on young potters I met along the way. So when it was time to leave, he gave me this pitcher which I’ve used daily for over 40 years as our water pitcher
Kathy and Tacitus Bond
For one summer in 1999, Road Scholar (then called Elderhostel) conducted 6 week-long programs in Door County, for which I was the facilitator. These life long learning programs featured local artists, educators, musicians and even a taxidermist. Abe and Ginka were two of our experts, kindly offering tours of Abe’s studio to our 48 participants per week. Abe, in his quiet way, welcomed these oversized groups into his studio so they might watch him at his wheel. I sometimes think that this was the highlight of the week, a week that featured up to three events per day. In addition, Ginka gave a dance/exercise class on the last morning of the week that translated to a wonderful farewell memory. These two were an amazing couple! We did manage to purchase our pot from Abe during one of these week-long programs, a pot we have treasured since.
Rachel Baron Heimovics (Maitland, FL)
I have one piece by Abe Cohn – a casserole that I have never used other than to display. We visited Door County and the Potters Wheel in Fish Creek most likely in the mid-1970s – with my husband and three children in tow. We made a point of visiting the studio because my mother (Bernice Baron) urged us to do so. She was a friend of Ginka’s, especially admired her dancing, and spoke highly about Abe. When we went to the studio, I felt that it was important that I leave with something of Abe’s. These pictures show my selection and I have treasured it ever since.
My mother-in-law, Jean Frackman, was a student of Abe’s and her pottery and glazes are so incredibly reflective of the pieces in the exhibit on your web site. Jean took classes from Abe in downtown Milwaukee. When my wife, Kippy, and I traveled up to Door County each summer for a few days and stopped at the studio, Abe always had wonderful things to say and memories of Jean as his student. He was such a nice man and a mentor to so many people.