A painter’s colorful life
Painter Lois Cohen turns 90 and continues to inspire with her art
Chico, CA 95928
“I always loved to draw,” said the bright-eyed woman with the pert, short, silver hair. Seated near her walker at the dining room table of the Paradise home she shares with her son, Lois Cohen is surrounded by numerous striking watercolor and oil paintings of various California landscape scenes from throughout her long career. The paintings jostle for elbow room amid the countless ceramic figurines of all sorts collected by her son—widely known yet reclusive musician Danny Cohen.
The iconic local California Regionalist painter and printmaker turned 90 on Feb. 22 (“George Birthington’s Washday,” she joked), and for the first two weeks in March, James Snidle Fine Arts is holding a celebratory tribute capped off by a birthday party/reception on Thursday, March 12.
Born Lois Elaine Green in 1919, in Chicago, Cohen had an Eloise-like childhood, living in fancy Windy City hotels with her wealthy stockbroker father, mother and her older sister, Florence (who, at age 97, lives in Oxnard).
“I always lived in hotels. My parents liked hotels,” the charming Cohen said. “So I never had a room to put my stuff in. I always kept everything—like the paper dolls I used to make—under my parents’ bed.”
Cohen remembers beginning to draw at age 6 on the cardboards from her dad’s shirts—crayon pictures of the sheep and shepherds that were carved on the furniture in the family’s hotel room.
“We had two chauffeurs, and my sister had a fur coat,” Cohen continued. “Then my father got clobbered in the Depression and went from wealthy to not-wealthy. He became a traveling salesman, selling lamps.”
Cohen’s family left Chi-town for Pittsburgh when she was 13 years old.
“I loved Pennsylvania,” she recalled. “I’d never seen mountains before, and all the beautiful trees.”
By the time she was 14 or 15, Cohen had become a prolific sketch artist, charging $25 “to do portraits of people and dogs.” She had become a close friend of the daughter of the man who managed the hotel her family lived in, and he offered her an empty hotel room as a studio.
“I had an exhibit there of all these portraits I had done,” said Cohen, still showing an endearing touch of the pride she must have felt as a teenager realizing she was entering the realm of becoming a mature artist.
After graduating a year early from high school (as class valedictorian), Cohen studied fashion illustration at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh. Her husband-to-be and father of her four children, Eugene Cohen (whom she met in high school), attended the Art Institute as well. She and her family moved to Southern California for her dad’s health, and she and Eugene married shortly after World War II, when Eugene returned from serving in the Army and traveling around England as an actor in a traveling troop show.
“Because we had all these kids he had to support, he became a shoe salesman,” Cohen said of her husband, who died in 1990.
A fashion-illustration job at the Macy’s-like May Co. as well as her work in art classes at the prestigious Chouinard School of Art, led Cohen to be offered “too much money” by MGM Studios’ art department to paint sets and do continuity sketches. She is adamant that she does not do art for the money, but because she loves it so much.
Cohen worked for MGM on and off for about 30 years, on such well-known Hollywood films as the 1951 Gene Kelly musical An American in Paris, Around the World in 80 Days (she designed the film’s spectacular balloon) and Ziegfeld Follies, starring legendary water-ballet artist Esther Williams. She also put in sketch time on science-fiction films at Fox, and films at RKO and Columbia, where she did an incredible 250 drawings (some from “up on cranes and up on a boom”) of just the ballet scene in the Rita Hayworth picture Down to Earth.
“I worked with a lot of famous people,” Cohen said. “But I liked the behind-the-scenes people the best.”
The last L.A. job she had (overlapping her movie work) before moving to Paradise in 1986 had Cohen putting her Fox sci-fi experience to work in a big way: She filled the vacated seat of Chesley Bonesteel, “the most famous space artist of all time,” at L.A.’s Griffith Observatory. As planetarium artist for 13 years she did all of the outer-space paintings for the observatory’s huge diorama project.
Cohen has shown her work in numerous California museums, including the San Diego Museum, the Pasadena Museum and San Francisco’s de Young. She continues her almost life-long habit of painting every day whenever possible, and has “never stopped doing night school”—she currently takes five art classes per week at Chico Art Center.
“She is such a positive inspiration to so many, not just in the arts community, where she is a living icon, but to all who get to know her and see her still going at it,” said Dean Willson, manager of the Snidle gallery and longtime friend of Cohen’s. “The passion that drives her to put her feet on the floor in the morning and take on another day, while creating the beautiful art that she truly loves, is awe-inspiring.”