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A life's refined shape

ART

Rose Cabat's midlife innovation featuring satiny-finished pottery put 'feelies' into the art lexicon.

July 18, 2004|Paul Lieberman | Times Staff Writer

Tucson — Of the Cabats, the husband, Erni, was the one who cultivated the image of the artist. He grew a handlebar mustache, shaved his head and wore look-at-me hats tilted to the side -- ski caps in the desert, for instance. Erni had some credentials too, having gotten the U.S. government to send him overseas to teach creativity, and talked Las Vegas casinos into letting him do his watercolors in their gambling palaces, where he become another attraction for the tourists, the character painting amid the poker tables. He did occasional portraits as well, including a playful one of his wife with a broom -- plump and plain Rosie posing in her horn-rims with the tool of the housewife, a woman who would disappear in any crowd.

The joke, of course, was that if there was artistic genius in that family, it rested in the fingers holding the broom.

Rose Cabat was 45 when her husband painted "Rose 'n Broom," but she's twice that now, having turned 90 on June 27. Her birthday party drew family, friends and fellow artists to toast her longevity in life and her craft -- and her trademark "feelies." There were tributes to Erni also, though he's been dead for a decade, his ashes sitting these days in the living room, in one of those pots that gained his wife the sort of acclaim he so wanted for himself.

Erni sensed the talent in her hands as early as the 1930s in New York, when he brought a lump of clay home to their apartment. A Cooper Union-trained graphic artist and advertising man, he hoped to make decorative plates from it. But Rose remembered playing with clay in kindergarten and got to it first, while he was at work. When he saw what she did, he got them both memberships in Greenwich House, in the Village, where she taught herself how to use a heavy wooden potter's wheel.

There weren't such art centers around when they moved to Arizona in 1942, to make life easier for their son, who had asthma. There wasn't much time for potting, either -- Rose's hands were needed at a local defense plant, where she became a real-life Rosie the Riveter. But before long Erni was wrangling clay for her from a local brickyard and finding what passed for a wheel -- a converted washing machine. When that wouldn't do, he ordered a more professional Randall wheel from back East and installed it in a shed behind the bare-bones home that had an outhouse when they bought it on a dusty street on the outskirts of Tucson. The seat beside the wheel? From a tractor.

She made weed pots and wind bells initially. "Girl Scout stuff," she called it, items people might buy at crafts fairs to put on their porches. "No, it's archaic," he'd tell her, and threaten to "tie her to the wheel."

She didn't really learn glazing until the late '50s, when Erni had a convention in Hawaii and the university there was offering a course. He said, "Why don't you stay?" -- he'd look after their by-then three kids. Later, he helped her develop a glaze that was so smooth, like a baby's skin, they called it "feelie glaze."

Even then, she didn't come up with the actual feelies right away. When she began experimenting with vase-like pots, the mouths were conventional, with longer, heavier necks, and openings you could place flowers in. But she eventually shrunk them down until most of the pots were 3 to 5 inches tall, the necks tiny and delicate, like the stem of a fruit -- and with no room to stick anything. Then she applied the glaze in a way that made some oval ones resemble onions, so organic-looking that you were tempted to take a bite. Others were midnight blue and emerald green, but all looked so smooth you had to touch them, making the name apt.

Erni loaded boxes of feelies into their station wagon and they went searching for galleries and gift shops that might buy them for $15 each. He wouldn't let anything go on consignment, saying, "We're not a bank." That policy would make it difficult later, when he tried to market his own paintings that way. From the start, however, they found customers who eagerly paid up front for Rose's pots, like the shopkeeper in Columbus, Ohio, who would take them to her home so they could do their laundry.

But it wasn't until well into the '60s that she put it all together, the forms and the glazes, and her pieces began appearing in museums around the world. "You know, you go from crawling to walking," she said, "to running to sprinting."

THE POTS ROLL ON

YOU could look at Rose Cabat's career in two ways then: One would be "Why did it take her so long?" for she was over 50 by the time she found her artistic vision, the feelie. But you also could ask, "How has she done it so long?" for she is making those same pots four decades later, even if she has to wheel herself out now to the backyard setup that Erni installed for her eons ago.

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