Asked how long he’s been painting, artist Benjamin (Ben) Cohen, 88, replies, “I guess forever.” Cohen’s painting, “Lakeside,” an idyllic scene of a lakeside house with autumnal trees in the background, is the signature artwork for Philadelphia Corporation for Aging’s (PCA) 10th annual senior arts festival “Celebrate Arts and Aging” http://www.phillyfunguide.com/page/Celebrate. It will be on exhibit during May at Independence Visitor Center in the city’s historic district and featured on posters, mailings, and electronic media publicizing the citywide celebration.
“My philosophy is that art should be uplifting and thought-provoking and may allow for quite a smile. There is enough horror and aggravation going on nowadays. If I can make someone smile, I want to do that,” the artist says.
“Lakeside” was inspired by the one of the many outings Cohen has enjoyed with the Rancocas Valley Plein Air painters, a group of more than 30 local artists, who visit a different outdoor site to paint each week, weather permitting. “I bring my backpack with a bunch of pastels and sit and relax and paint,” Cohen explains.”People will see me and ask: ‘Are you an artist?’”
Cohen’s talent was noticed early on. The son of an iceman and a homemaker, he grew up in New York City’s Lower East Side, and attended the Henry Street Settlement http://www.henrystreet.org/, a social service agency there dedicated to “opening the doors of opportunity” to residents in the community through social services, arts, and health care programs. “They were very interested in keeping kids on the right path,” he remembers. “They thought I had talent and sent me to a life-study art class. But at nine years old, I was too embarrassed to look at the [nude] model.”
Cohen later studied at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn on the GI bill, after serving in the U.S. army in World War II.
He fought in many of the war’s most famous battles, including the Battle of the Bulge and the Battle of Metz in France that followed the Normandy landings. Earlier this spring, during a special ceremony at the French consulate in New York City, he was one of 18 U.S. veterans presented with the Legion of Honor Chevalier for their services in the liberation of France during World War II.
“War taught me to face reality,” Cohen reflects. “I try to follow my instincts. When I do something, I don’t look back.” That goes for painting too, he says. “When I paint a nose, it’s really a nose, not just a metaphor or a philosophical statement.”
Cohen graduated Pratt with a degree in industrial design and spent 50 years as a commercial artist, designing everything from toys and sweaters to catalogues and displays. It often meant working around the clock. While those demands left little time for fine art pursuits, he squeezed in what time he could to paint in the pastel medium he favors.
After such a demanding work schedule, “I was a little leery about retiring,” he admits of that decision 10 years ago. “I thought, ‘I’ll go crazy. What will I do?’”
The answer came quickly enough. Tuesdays are spent with his fellow plein air painters. On Thursdays, he attends a class at the Philadelphia Sketch Club, where he has helped to organize exhibitions. He taught at the Philadelphia Art Alliance and Fleisher Art Memorial and currently teaches at the Willingboro Art Alliance near his Cinnaminson, New Jersey home. Most of all, life these days is centered on his home studio, “where I still work around the clock. It’s still a crazy, busy schedule.” His expressive landscapes and figure paintings have found homes in many private, corporate and public collections.
In September, the Home Fine Art Gallery in Mt. Holly, New Jersey, will open an exhibition of his work entitled “The Flip Side.” One of these artworks features Santa Claus sitting in front of a window and eyeing the raging snow and ice storm outside. “I titled it ‘I Ain’t Going Out in That,’” the artist says with a laugh.
Cohen now manages to fit in a few hobbies, including gardening. “It’s one of my passions because it’s so relaxing,” he says. “I can dig in the garden and forget the world around me. Art, when it’s on a serious level, is not overly relaxing because you are never satisfied with what you do.”
“Lakeside” will be on exhibit through May at Independence Visitor Center, 1 Independence Mall West, in Philadelphia.
For more information on this exhibit and other PCA “Celebrate Arts and Aging” exhibits and cultural opportunities this month, visit www.phillyfunguide.com/celebrate.
By Marcia Z. Siegal
Source: Philadelphia Corporation for Aging