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McGee ('06) savors her time with Professor Cohen

Jennie McGee

The following testimonial is by Jennie McGee ('06), an art major who has taken several classes with Professor Lewis Cohen. —Ed.

Professor Lewis Cohen breezes into the Art 420 foundry class wearing splattered jeans and holding a cup of Starbucks coffee. He sets his cup down on the table to allow his hands to be free for turning, pointing and handling students' work. "All right, show me what you have," he says. Class has officially begun.

For the last four years I have been very fortunate to have had Cohen for a teacher. As a freshman, I timidly approached this man because I was hoping to secure a spot in his Life Modeling class. I succeeded but started having second thoughts when I was informed we would be sculpting live models—nude models. I had not been exposed to such an experience in high school, and I briefly considered dropping the course because I would be pushed out of my comfort zone. Luckily I stayed, but I was right about being pushed beyond what I was used to.

Cohen is not an easy professor, but he is a good one. As an active sculptor himself and one who has made connections with artists all over the world, Cohen imparts a wealth of knowledge and freely offers his advice and help to anyone smart enough to take it. He has exposed his students to new techniques and a variety of artists and their work but does not encourage imitation. Cohen is also a tough critic. However, in this way he has made me as well as others explore the full scope of our creative talents. He has taught me not to settle for the easiest idea that pops into my head, because good work is labor-intensive and many times a frustrating process. Cohen knows what his students are capable of and will not settle for less effort than he would expect of himself. Sometimes I have had a desire to be lazy and cut corners, but Cohen has prevented me from falling into that bad habit. I have worked hard in his class. He has kept me coming back year after year.

When I think about Cohen in the classroom, I think about his thumb. Hands are vital to an artist, who relies on the ability to hold, feel and shape, and Cohen's thumb is an integral part of his work method. He uses it like a sculpting tool. The pressure of that thumb can shift clay in a subtle or dramatic way to show movement and texture. He draws with his thumb into a medium, and it is more effective than if he had used a pencil. There is so much strength and flexibility in that appendage that, even though it might sound silly, I am jealous of it.

Cohen has a few idiosyncrasies. The man always seems to be moving—bending, turning, standing, striding, peering and looking. Sometimes he makes me nervous by jumping around so much. He wants to be involved and, more importantly, he wants his students to be involved. He will get close to a work in order to examine it from all angles, usually placing it on a turntable or a pedestal to see it better. He will even touch it and draw on it, if you let him.

Professor Cohen cares about his students. He has written numerous recommendations for and has made himself available to us for countless hours outside of class. Through much personal effort and financial support from the school, he has turned the William and Mary sculpture studio into one that some graduate students would envy. Since he arrived on campus, Cohen has continually added materials and improvements, such as a venting system for the welding studio, to the sculpture department and helped to create a foundry. Many schools do not have the capacity for bronze-casting and welding courses, but Cohen has made them possible for William and Mary students. We are lucky to have held onto him for 19 years.

As a senior I would have to say my farewells to professors anyway, but it feels special to me that my favorite teacher will be saying goodbye at the same time. It is sad that other students will not be able to learn directly from him any longer, but he deserves a chance to devote himself fully to his work. Cohen has spent more than 30 years imparting his knowledge to his students and helping them realize their potential. That is the legacy that spans beyond his popular James Blair sculpture and what has made a difference for me.

Thank you, Professor Cohen, and good luck.