Many artists come to their work in accidental, indirect, or mysterious ways; Rose Cabat came to hers when she was 42. She had a background in clay—some childhood experiences, along with a few classes in glazing and throwing at Greenwich House Pottery in New York City in her late 20s; basically she was self-taught. She always had an intense interest in art, and she was married to an artist, but life intervened; a child with bad asthma, a move from New York to Arizona, the births of two more children, World War II, a job as a riveter in an aircraft factory—these demands took precedence over an art career. Like many before her, she had an entirely different life before she developed into a serious artist; for a woman of her generation (she was born in 1914), her career was nothing short of extraordinary. For many years, she worked in Tucson in relative obscurity, but nonetheless had an international career.
Cabat had an enormously supportive artist husband who often worked alongside her and did everything possible to foster her creativity. Her first wheel, when she returned to pottery, was one he made for her using a junked washing-machine motor. As her work expanded in scope and quantity, she acquired electric kilns and a motor-driven Randall kick wheel that she used until her death in 2015. For over a decade, she made earthenware or stoneware clay bells, wind chimes, casserole dishes, bowls, planters, and other functional ware she sold at craft fairs. Her break from this kind of conventional production ware to something completely different was circumstantial rather than deliberate.
The Iconic Feelie Vases
In 1957, Cabat’s husband Erni traveled to Hawaii for an advertising conference and she went along with him. The art department at the University of Hawaii was offering a five-week course in glaze calculation at the same time and Erni encouraged her to remain in Hawaii to take it. This course exposed her to range of ceramic possibilities and introduced her to modern studio ceramics. As a result, Cabat began to solely use porcelain. She and Erni experimented with crystalline glazes, known for their blooms of iridescent color, and together created a glaze notable for its silky smoothness—they called this a “feelie glaze.”
For the next 40 years Cabat created small porcelain vessels: delicate, rounded vase forms with tiny, narrow necks and jewel-like color. Every aspect of these vessels, titled Feelies, worked toward creating an object that asked to be held. The Feelies are sophisticated, non-utilitarian, purely sculptural objects. When one observer objected that the vases’ necks were so narrow she couldn’t insert a single stem, Cabat replied, “A vase can hold weeds or flowers, but can’t it just be a spot of beauty?” Although she made the Feelies in a variety of sizes, the largest is scarcely bigger than a baby’s fist. Her engagement in ceramics as a serious artist couldn’t have happened at a more fortuitous time; what is now termed Mid-century Modern was emerging as the premier design principle of the era. The pots Cabat was throwing—stripped-down, simplified forms—perfectly fit that sensibility. Her use of color was totally intuitive and unbound; when asked what determined her color choices, she said, “I look at a pot and say, ‘That would look lovely in a cobalt,’ then I put cobalt on it.”
Cabat’s forms and colors are rooted in nature, the pinks, hot greens, and blues flame out from objects whose shapes are not unlike those in her flower pots and vegetable garden. The forms can be related to pears, onions, eggplants, gourds, and tomatoes. The glazes relate to them as well; one of her special glazes is called onion skin and her apple green glaze is the bright vibrant green of a Granny Smith apple.
Although Cabat was very secretive about her glazes and never revealed her formulas, she was very open about her techniques.
She achieved her finishes in stages, probably sanding after the bisque firing. The glazes are layered, with colors melted over and around one another—you can see them pooling at the bottoms of the vessels. She noted, “On some, the glaze drips down. I’ll have to grind those down and they’ll all have to be smoothed down and burnished.”
In Los Angeles, California, Couturier Gallery’s “Memorial Exhibition” of Cabat’s work from the 60s and 70s, was a tribute to the Feelies and the beauty of Cabat’s vessels. The gallery broke the cardinal law of ceramics exhibition practices—the law known as look, don’t touch. Touching raises the stakes, particularly when it comes to a sense of connection. Where most other galleries and every museum would have presented this work under glass, Couturier brilliantly turned this practice on its ear and exhibited the work with no protection whatsoever. The work was presented at chest height in a single row on narrow shelves encircling the gallery–you could touch each tiny pot.
A Lengthy Career
For the last 12 years of her life, Cabat had severe spine problems and was unable to walk or stand easily. Regardless, up until her death at 100, Cabat worked 4–10 hours a day on her labor-intensive Feelies. She rolled around on a series of wheelchairs and office chairs strategically positioned around her house and yard. She threw porcelain on the wheel in a potting shed, which she described as a “tar-paper shack” that her husband set up for her years before. In her 90s she continued her artistic production with the assistance of her daughter June, who managed the daily operation of the studio and business, Fred Van Camp, who loaded the kiln, and her son Michael, who weighed out the glaze components.
Her lengthy exhibition resumé includes: “Rose Cabat at 100: A Retrospective Exhibition of Ceramics,” at the Tucson Museum of Art (2014); exhibitions at the Couturier Gallery in Los Angeles (2006 and 2017); “Contemporary Crafts of the Far West,” at the Museum of Contemporary Crafts in New York City, and an international touring exhibition organized by the Smithsonian Institution. She has also exhibited in Brazil, Japan, and Switzerland. Her work is in the collections of numerous major museums including the Everson Museum of Art, in Syracuse, New York, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Arts & Design in New York, New York, and the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution, in Washington, D.C.
All images courtesy of Couturier Gallery.
the author Kay Whitney is an artist and writer living in Los Angeles, California.