May 2007

Paying attention to details

By Connie Gotsch

ARTIST JERRY COHOEIn the early 1990s, Cortez artist Jerry Cohoe didn’t consider the pencil a serious drawing medium. His pencil was a tool to sketch plans for paintings and prints.

Then he spotted pencil drawings at an art show. “It amazed me what [the artist] could do with just a pencil,” Cohoe says quietly.

He wondered if he could produce pencil images. So he tried. “I got better and better,” he chuckles. “It’s like I tell my students, the more you practice, the better you get at it.”

He got so good that he quit painting and printing, and let himself fall in love with the fine details he could produce with a pencil.

“With graphite, you can sharpen it to a needle point,” he explains. “Now I get carried away with my details.”

In addition, he enjoyed the challenge of creating a pencil drawing. “You can do things with color to make [a painting] look a certain way.

“But with pencil, you only have light and shadow. You have to work with those to make things look threedimensional.”

He has not painted or made prints since 1995. Today, he specializes in pencil portraits, and other commissioned works.

Slowly turning the pages of a thick black portfolio, he reveals drawings of everything from goats, to Navajo elders with deeply-lined faces, to rodeo cowboys and horses, to his grandchildren, Presley and Miles, on their first birthdays.

Cohoe’s interest in art began in childhood. Born in December 1957 in a four-walled canvas tent in Cortez, to a traditional Navajo medicine man and a mother who knew only the Diné way of life, he grew up with the fundamental Navajo reverence for all living things.

He also watched his mother weave Two Gray Hills rugs, and his father create ceremonial sand paintings on hogan floors. “I believe that’s where I picked up my artistic ability,” Cohoe says.

After receiving his primary education at the Sanostee Boarding School in New Mexico, he attended Aztec High School. There, he took art classes, but generally ignored his talent, going on to study forestry for two years at Fort Lewis College.

He worked for the U.S. Forest Service in Gunnison, Colo., then drifted into uranium mining, where he learned to operate heavy equipment.

Around his day jobs, he kept drawing, married, and started a family. In the early 1980s his wife, Etta, recognized his talent, and encouraged him to develop it. He began by copying pictures and drawing objects, scenes, and animals from Navajo culture.

“If you’re familiar with your subject, you’re going to do a lot better job drawing it,” he comments, though after enough practice, he also realized he could “draw just about anything.”

Soon, he began showing his work to other artists. They suggested he enter exhibits to get his name in front of people.

He did, and quickly discovered that the public liked his paintings, but couldn’t always afford them. He began making limited-edition prints and note cards.

He also noticed subtle shifts in the Navajo life around him, and after his father died in 1992, he became interested in preserving his past. “I wanted to present some of the things I knew about the Navajo people — the style of clothing, the way of life, and all that.”

From there, all Cohoe had to do was discover the pencil to express himself exactly as he wished.

Today, he shows drawings in Phoenix, and Santa Fe, and plans to expand to galleries in other parts of the country. “I have private collectors coast to coast,” he adds.

In June, he’ll open a one-person show at the Cortez Cultural Center, his first there, since about 2001. The exhibit will run the entire month.

When he isn’t drawing, Jerry Cohoe works with the Cortez after-school art classes, encouraging students to start drawing by using subjects they know, just as he did.

“Once they master techniques with familiar subjects, they can go on to new things.”

He also donates art to charities such as United Way and the American Cancer Society. He has painted a picture of a dog and her pups for an Arizona Golden Retriever rescue group. Cortez’s Head Start program will use one of his images on graduation certificates and T-shirts.

The Denver-based American Indian College Fund raises scholarship money and other support for the nation’s 32 Native-run colleges, in part by selling a Holiday Series card package from selected Cohoe prints and paintings. The AICF also offers Portraits, a notecard collection containing his pencil drawings of Navajo faces.

On Friday evenings in the summer, Cohoe uses his art to explain the Navajo lifestyle to tourists and locals who visit the Cortez Cultural Center.

“It makes people more aware of their own [culture] when you hear of someone talking about theirs. The more we educate people about other cultures, the more we’ll all get along.”

He has been invited by colleges in Minnesota and California to make cultural presentations to students. Wherever Cohoe speaks, he likes especially to discuss the Navajo Code Talkers, whom he calls “a national treasure,” and to describe the resilience of the Navajo Nation, “which has been growing by leaps and bounds over the last century.”

And — oh, yes — Cohoe still operates heavy equipment around the Cortez area, but only in the summer. He creates his pencil drawings in the winter when it’s too cold to work outside.

“That’s my enjoyable job,” he says with a laugh.