on June 27, 2009
Kokoon Arts Club: Cleveland Revels
When: Through March 2010.
Where: Rockwell Hall at Main and South Lincoln streets, Kent State University Museum, Kent.
Admission: Free. Call 330-672-3450
A woman wearing only a hatbox suspended below her waist, a couple “clothed” in colorful body paint that faded as they swirled around a sultry room — such party costumes became the talk of the town.
Not in 1968, in Cleveland Heights’ free-wheeling Coventry neighborhood. No, this was 1913, at the infamous Bal Masque given each year by the Kokoon Arts Klub in Cleveland.
These soirees shimmered with sensuality in a time when women’s fashions were just beginning to expose the ankle. Salivating newspaper reporters — some of whom always managed to get invited — wrote vividly about these affairs.
Politicians, publicly at least, seemed nervous about these masked balls. Cleveland Mayor Frederick Kohler even canceled the 1923 party, fearing potential debauchery.
Yet the Bal Masques were only the public face of the Kokoon Arts Club (the K in Klub was often dropped for the more conventional spelling). Always held before Lent, usually at a hotel or dance club, these parties were one-night-a-year fund-raisers for a club with a serious mission — furthering the Modernist form of art not yet accepted by most Clevelanders.
The Kokoon Arts Club was part of a dynamic as old as time: the avant-garde opposing the old guard.
But when it comes to parties, bohemians do them better. And a new exhibit at the Kent State University museum shows the amount of elaborate thought and artistry that went into these parties — starting with a competition among Kokoon member-artists to create the posters and invitations for each year’s themed event.
Kokoon Arts Club: A timeline
1891: Western Reserve School of Design for Women renamed Cleveland School of Art.
1911: Kokoon Arts Klub (the K in Klub was often dropped for the more conventional spelling) founded by Carl Moellman and William Sommer. Thirteen charter members — 11 with German roots — begin meeting in a former tailor’s shop on East 36th Street, between Euclid and Cedar avenues.
1913: The first Kokoon Arts Club Bal Masque is held. Four men carry in a large cocoon, out of which steps a model in a butterfly costume.
1914: The club holds an exhibit of its artists’ work. The disparaging headline in the Cleveland Leader says, “Biggest Laugh in Town This Week Not in Theater, but in Art Gallery.”
1916: The Cleveland Museum of Art opens, and Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes performs at PlayhouseSquare, inspiring more avant-garde art locally.
1919: The May Show, a juried competition of locally created artwork, debuts at the art museum. For years, many Kokoon members sweep the awards. Member Joseph Jicha wins the Logan Medal at the Chicago Institute for Art for watercolor.
1921: The Kokoon Club moves to its new headquarters at 2121 East 21st St.
1922: Fifty policemen try to crash the annual party, attended by the mayor and City Council. The following year, the mayor denies a permit for the ball, which was then canceled. It returned in 1924.
Late 1920s/1930s:Club membership declines through the Great Depression.
1934: A Plain Dealer story on the party reports that several women at the Bal Masque wore cellophane costumes.
1946: The final Bal Masque is held.
1956: The Kokoon Arts Club folds.
— Evelyn Theiss
Talk about pressure. Even on the night of the ball, Kokooners manning the doors vetted invited guests. If their costumes weren’t in keeping with the theme, and if every detail wasn’t historically accurate, the guest was barred from entrance.
Rented costumes were forbidden, as were “dominoes, tramps and ordinary clown costumes and the like.”
Not that the Kokooners didn’t give guests an opportunity to get it right — each year, they’d show costume sketches for inspiration, offer lessons on how to create abstract costumes and set aside research materials at the Cleveland Public Library that Kokooners and guests were expected to delve into to prepare their outfits.
The themes varied. Among them were the dance, with blue-painted dancers performing the Congo Dance; another year, it was the moon and stars, followed by “King Midas’ golden touch.”
The Kent museum features several of the themed costumes — many of them worn by one-time Kokoon President Philip Kaplan and his wife, Esther Rose. Their daughter, Luba Paz, donated costumes that her father and mother wore to the balls, as well as some of the club’s famous posters and invitations, and photographs taken on those festive evenings.
But who were the members of the Kokoon Arts Club? A list that today comprises a “Who’s Who” of Cleveland artists, including Henry Keller, August Biehle, William Sommer and Paul Travis, and several other painters who were later collectively known as the Cleveland School.
As Kokoon member Richard Sedlon said then of the Cleveland School, “There was a sense of togetherness because they were all so talented. And there was a need for their art. It was a splendid time.”
Born from a hunger to create
When the Kokoon club formed, though, it wasn’t by “name” artists but rather by bored and frustrated lithographers, most of German descent.
Few people today know that at the turn of the 20th century, Cleveland was a capital of lithography, an industry whose craftsmen cranked out movie posters. Morgan Lithograph Co., formed in 1864, was one of the largest of these firms and the one where the soon-to-be-famous Sommer worked.
It was bad enough that lithography work was repetitive, but the men were also tired of designing posters for the blossoming movie industry that were utterly traditional in their depictions.
The abstract and bold art that people would come to associate with the looks of the late 1910s and ’20s was not yet in evidence here. Cleveland’s art world at that time was largely represented by a group called the Cleveland Society of Artists, a defender of art’s conservative tradition.
But in these years, when Cleveland was America’s fastest-growing city, there was naturally a bubbling up of other views, inspired by the Modernism that was sweeping Europe.
Many artists here had traveled to Europe for their studies, and they were inspired by the futuristic turn that art was taking, in painting in particular. In fact, the Kokoon club’s formation in 1911 preceded by two years New York’s famous Armory Show, often cited as the birth of Modernism in the United States.
The Kokoon Arts Club poetically explained the origin of its name: “As the lowly cocoon was the forerunner of the beautiful butterfly, so might they hope that from this small beginning something of beauty should develop and emerge.”
And that emergence was nurtured by the club, whose members pledged to explore “New Art.” That exploration included sketching excursions and lectures as well as visits to theatrical and musical productions.
Organizing against conformity
For their own exhibitions, the aesthetic standards were set very high, says Jean Druesedow, director of Kent’s museum.
Kaplan, a free-lance artist and designer, joined the club in 1925 and became president in 1932. He cultivated friendships with the art community, here and around the country; he also had the idea of starting the Parisian-like “Artist Curb Markets,” which became a way for Kokooners and other artists to sell their wares for income during the Depression.
At the first curb market in 1932, near Wade Lagoon, 12,000 people showed up to peruse and buy the arts and crafts.
As a 19-year-old bank guard, Kaplan had discovered Richard Laukhuff’s bookstore in the Taylor Arcade on Euclid Avenue during his lunch hour. There, he spied a collection of obscure, art-oriented magazines.
Kaplan was fascinated by their art, typography and illustration, and he began taking evening classes both at the Cleveland School of Art and at the Kokoon Arts Club. By 1925, he was collecting Modernist art and had joined the movement — and the Kokoon Club.
One of the club’s best-known artist members was Paul Travis. His daughter, Elizabeth Travis Dreyfuss, still has some memories of her parents dressing for one of the Bal Masques in Egyptian-style costumes, which they enjoyed because they’d already traveled to Egypt.
“Even though they were best-known for their parties, one of the most important things about the Kokoon club was that they represented the outsiders who organized against rigid conformity,” Dreyfuss says.
“As outsiders, they were supportive of each other, and they created a place to exhibit their work.”
The thing that not as many people recall, too, she says, is that the club members were very serious about their regular meetings, became adept at breaking down artistic barriers and had serious discussions and seminars on art-related topics — the use of color and light, “and all the things that were re-forming the artistic eye.”
Art and design as Cleveland hallmarks
Though Kaplan moved his family to New York when his daughter Luba was still young, she recalls that by her parents’ conversations, “It was clear that their true life had been in Cleveland.
“The subject came up constantly, and my father stayed friends with some of the members, and they’d get together and go over the old times and their hilarious stories.”
One of the more unusual costumes in the Kent exhibit was her mother’s. It was a dress decorated with rubber rats; when black lights were turned on at the 1938 ball, only the rats were seen.
More notably, though, Kaplan was the man who brought poet e.e. cummings to Cleveland, in the first-ever display of his paintings, at a Kokoon club exhibit in 1931.
As Dreyfuss puts it, “The Kokoon club helped make art and design become very important. So Cleveland became something other than just an industrial town.”
Shirley Teresa Wajda, the former Kent State history professor who curated the exhibit, said she took this away from all her research: “The history of art in Cleveland is always told in term of the elite. Here is an example of interested individuals from all walks of life — there was even a firefighter who was a member — who came together to explore their common interest in Modernism.
“And they changed art in Cleveland forever.”