Oakland artist paints his life story

Looking back on a long, happy life, Stan Cohen decided to write his memoirs. And paint them, too.

For 34 years Cohen taught art in Oakland’s public schools, but only since retiring in 1983 has the 82-year-old had time to blossom as a painter. His latest exhibition, “Inside Memories and Outside Impressions,” wraps around the third floor corridor of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission building near Lake Merritt.

To promenade down that hallway is to share in the story of a remarkable life well lived.

Every canvas features Cohen’s stylized romanticism, echoing past masters like Thomas Hart Benton. Some depict memories of life in the Brooklyn apartment of his boyhood living with Yiddish-speaking parents and grandparents. Another shows a Passover seder. And another is of sitting shiva for his great-grandparents, immigrants from Eastern European shtetls.

There’s even one depicting the then-16-year-old Cohen meeting a cute girl named Naomi in class at Manhattan’s High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts. The two have been happily married for 64 years, which, he says, “have gone by in a blink.”

Cohen started painting his memoirs back in 2000 after a long emphasis on landscapes. “My wife said, ‘Did you ever think of the people who live in those houses?’ I flashed on my grandparent’s house in Brooklyn. I painted that house, and that was the beginning. From there it generated all these places and people, events that were painful or traumatic.”

Not every canvas evokes Jewish themes, but there’s no question about the role Judaism and Jewish culture has played in Cohen’s life.

“All my life has been entwined with Judaism,” he says. “I went to the Sholem Alecheim school. My parents were high on Yiddish culture, and I read and write Yiddish.”

When Cohen announced his intention to become an artist, his middle-class immigrant parents were shocked. “My father knew that painters starved in garrets and painted naked ladies,” laughs Cohen. “They couldn’t understand why one of their four sons wouldn’t want to be in the [family] business.”

After serving in the Coast Guard during World War II, Cohen brought his young bride to California. Once in the Bay Area, he fell in love with Oakland’s College of Arts and Crafts, where he later earned a degree. The couple has lived in the East Bay ever since.

The demands of a young family forced Cohen out of the studio and into the classroom. He taught art and later rose to a district-wide post, overseeing all art instruction in the Oakland public schools. Since he retired in 1983, that position no longer exists; then again, neither does much art instruction in these days of slashed school budgets and crumbling classrooms.

Sad as that makes him, Cohen remains immovably cheerful. “One of the things about art is that you have to be kind of childlike,” he said. “There’s something about the practice of being creative that makes you take off some of the strictures of adulthood and rely on that openness children usually give up when they get older. There must be something about being in art that’s enlivening.”

And genetic, apparently. Cohen’s three children have an artistic bent: His son is a photographer and cellist, and his daughters are both artists. Even his grandchildren showing an interest in painting.

The Cohens are members of Oakland’s Temple Sinai, and are regular attendees of the JCC of the East Bay as well as Berkeley’s Magnes Museum.

But most of the time, Cohen can be found in his studio, brush in hand. So far he has completed more than 50 canvases based on his memories. And they aren’t only misty watercolor memories either. Some depict more recent events as well.

“One of the paintings is of me writing my memoirs,” says Cohen. “I’m sitting in the Eames chair my wife got me and I have a laptop.”

Stan Cohen’s “Inside Memories and Outside Impressions,” is on display 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays through August at the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, 101 8th St., Third Floor, Oakland. Admission is free. Information: (510) 817-5700 or http://mtc.ca.gov.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a J. staff writer. He retired as news editor in 2020. Dan can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.