If you mention the words pottery, clay, or wheel demonstrations anywhere in Door County, undoubtedly the first person that springs to mind if Abe Cohn. The renowned potter and his wife, Ginka, are celebrating over 50 years together, in business and in marriage.
Ginka calls the meeting of her husband Abe in 1953 serendipitous. Both were in Milwaukee at the time; Abe was teaching pottery and Ginka was beginning to show an interest in working with clay. She took a class in Whitefish Bay that taught pouring clay into molds, but wanted to learn more about the wheel. After asking if anyone in the area taught wheel pottery, Ginka was told about Abe Cohn’s class being held at his studio in Milwaukee. Around that same time, Ginka’s cousin (a former classmate of Abe’s) was in town. She had Ginka invite Abe to the house for a party. Ginka recognized the name as her soon to be teacher. Abe smiles while Ginka explains their meeting and simply states, “It was meant to be.”
Their arrival in Fish Creek in 1956 was as much of a business decision as it was a lifestyle preference. After attending art fair after art fair to sell Abe’s work, Ginka had the foresight to know that they would not want to be selling at fairs when they got older. By setting up a summer location in Fish Creek, there was more time to focus on creating as well as more time for the couple to enjoy all aspects of Door County’s cultural community. They were specifically drawn to Fish Creek for the music. “We heard that there was a music festival in Fish Creek. We spent many an evening in the old gym at the Gibraltar high school. You could rent cushions for your folding chairs and enjoy the wonderful music! Now we get to listen to it in the beautiful Door [Community] Auditorium,” Ginka reminisced.
Throughout a half a century together, they have remained avidly committed to each other’s artistry and space: Ginka runs the gallery (they feature 35 other artists as well) while Abe creates at the wheel. Like so many Door County couples who work and live together, they have tapped into the balance that is necessary to be successful as business and life partners. John Dietrich, a potter from Ellison Bay Pottery and someone who trained under Abe observed, “It’s not an easy lifestyle. There is a lot of intensity involved, but they manage to really make it work.”
Outside of the gallery, Ginka finds time for teaching dance and exercise. “Dance was what I was trained to do before I met Abe or began to be curious about pottery. That is actually one of the things I love most about Abe – he was the kind of guy to really encourage me.” Time has not lessened the appeal of dance and in the summer Ginka teaches six classes four mornings a week for Peninsula Dance. She also offers an exercise class at the Wagon Trail for the Elderhostel tourists. Later during their stay, the Elderhostel groups visit Abe’s work area to see how his pottery is made.
While they are undeniably thrilled to be celebrating such a remarkable milestone this year, Abe and Ginka are not the type of people to be caught up in timelines. The concept of retirement, for example, does not really apply since they are both so enthusiastically involved to really consider it work. Abe is asked often enough when he will retire, but the wheel spinning in front of him seems to answer it best.
They are just as energetic and determined about their interests beyond their business as well. The Door County Potter’s Guild that Abe and Ginka founded in 1976 has been a tremendous help to the other potters in Door County. Prisca Benson-Fittschur of Stoneware by Prisca remarked “They really laid the groundwork for other artists and made this a pottery destination. More importantly, they have always been willing to give encouragement and offer helpful advice whenever it is asked of them.” Abe just humbly refers to this type of support as part of their mission to support the arts in Door County through the guild. John Dietrich remembered when he first approached Abe about working with him in the early days in Milwaukee. “I couldn’t believe that he didn’t want to see my work first. I had a collection of ugly pots from my college years and thought Abe would want to look at them. He said it wasn’t necessary – desire was the only ingredient necessary.”
Their enthusiasm and mentoring will surely continue during this extraordinary year, although it is going to be business as usual. In between running the gallery, doing demonstrations, creating pottery, offering advice, teaching classes, and going to visit their three children in California, they may have time to head down to Sunset Beach to watch the sunset, skip a couple of stones and reminisce about their life together.