Rose Cabat is not impressed with the hoopla planned for her birthday.
Cabat, a ceramic artist with a national reputation, turns 100 in June.
“It feels like 50,” she says with a slight shrug.
To mark the milestone and her art, there is a major retrospective of her work at the Tucson Museum of Art.
“I’d just as soon not have one,” she says nonchalantly.
Here’s the thing: Cabat doesn’t make her art because it sells (and it does) or because museums are interested (they are).
“I didn’t consider it a career,” she says. “It was what I felt like doing. … If I didn’t like it, I wouldn’t do it.”
What Cabat does is make small porcelain pots she calls “Feelies.” They have narrow necks, fat bellies and satiny glazes that beg to be touched.
“They have a shape that’s organic and beautiful,” says Oakland, Calif.-based collector Andrew Demcak, whose young-adult novel, “Ghost Songs,” will be published in April. Demcak discovered Cabat’s works a decade ago, and has bought and sold about 20 of them over that time. Though he has found them to be a good investment, he still holds on to the three he originally purchased.
The ceramics “have a joy to them; they are just so charming,” he says.
Cabat creates the Feelies in her studio in the backyard of the house she and her late husband, Erni, moved into in 1942.
The narrow, converted, tar-paper, one-car garage houses a small potter’s wheel, a table, a few chairs, and lots and lots of clay dust. It has a small window at each end. Not far from her studio, under a ramada, sits her kiln.
The studio still gets lots of use. Though she’s slowed down some due to age, she still makes her pots.
As if to prove it at a mid-January visit, she maneuvers from her wheelchair to the chair at the wheel, puts on an apron handed to her by her daughter June Cabat, turns the wheel on and tosses a ball of clay onto it.
She dampens her hands, dipping them into a jar of water just within her reach.
“It has to be absolutely centered,” she says as she maneuvers the clay around the spinning wheel, which goes faster or slower depending on her foot action.
“See, now it’s centered.”
When Cabat is at the wheel and has guests, she does a running commentary, explaining what she’s doing along the way.
When the clay is about the right height for the pot, she dips her hands into the water again and begins to shape it.
“I’m going inside now,” she says as she puts a finger down the center of the clay.
“You have to be careful not to go to the bottom; you could go right through it.”
She drags her foot on the wheel to slow it down. “I’ll pull it up a little more,” she says as she shapes the narrow neck. “But not so much that it will fall over. You work the neck until it is just so.”
She eases her fingers up the clay. “I do it slowly because I don’t want the to neck to waffle.”
She coaxes the clay, a few fingers inside, a hand on the out, as she continues to shape the pot. Her hands are strong, sure and incredibly nimble.
Within 10 minutes, she is done throwing the pot, a small one with a round belly and an exquisitely narrow neck. This is a variation of the shape that begs for the glazes she has become known for.
“I look at a pot and say, ‘That would look lovely in a cobalt,’ then I put cobalt on it,” the self-taught artist says when asked how she decides which glaze to use.
Later, she sits in the sunny kitchen of the home she shared with her late husband and their three children. In the light, she looks much younger than her 99 years — her white hair is pulled into braids, and the perfectly straight bangs grazing her brows give her a girlish look. But it is her attitude, with a touch of irreverence and plenty of humor, that really wipes those years away.
The Cabats moved into this midtown home in 1942, when they relocated from New York City. The road was dirt then, and the house had just two rooms, no plumbing and a chicken coop in the back. Today it is a rambling house packed with art she and Erni created. They built each room themselves.
“I did all the varnishing in the house,” she says proudly as she points to the massive wood cabinets in the kitchen.
Cabat grew up drawing and even made a pot when she was in kindergarten. But she didn’t pursue it until the late 1930s, when her husband brought home some clay with the intention of making plates he could paint on, instead of the paper plates he was using.
He didn’t get to it fast enough.
She decided to play around with the clay. When Erni saw what she did, he knew there was talent there. The two of them started making ceramics, but it was Rose who fell in love with it and stuck with it.
Clay is malleable, she says. “You can make it into whatever you want.”
She hasn’t always made the small Feelies. She has busts in the house she made, an umbrella stand in the Tucson Museum of Art show, a fountain in the side yard she and Erni made together, and bells hanging from the mesquite tree in the front yard. “That’s hard labor, I tell you,” she says of the bells. “It was too much to do.”
Her ceramic work was sandwiched between raising children, spending time riveting airplanes at Davis-Monthan Army Air Field — later Davis-Monthan Air Force Base — during World War II (an actual Rosie the Riveter), and being a wife and companion to the gregarious Erni, a popular illustrator and painter in Tucson.
She doesn’t remember when her first piece sold, or even when the Feelies emerged. The time element isn’t as important to her as the fact that she is doing something she loves.
“They are the most sensual pieces and just the right thing for my glaze,” she says.
That glaze is a formula she and Erni created after she had attended a summer-long course on glaze calculation in Hawaii.
“My husband was a pusher,” she says with a grin. “He was going to Hawaii for an advertising convention and he found out there was going to be a course on glazes at the university, so I went along. He left me there and said he would take care of the kids.”
She still uses the same formula. And the glazes are what make the work particularly appealing: They are lustrous, sometimes iridescent, in colors such as the deep cobalt, a silky light green, vibrant yellow and a gunmetal gray. Sometimes she’ll mix them, with one color peeking out from another.
“I’ve never had an experience with pottery like I’ve had with Rose’s works,” says collector Demcak. “The glaze is just amazing.”
The quality of her work is particularly impressive when you consider she operated far from the major culture centers where artists have one another to bounce things off of, as well as access to major collectors, museums and galleries, says TMA’s chief curator, Julie Sasse.
“It’s easy to be swept away by the big collectors and museums,” said Sasse, who has amassed about 200 of Rose’s works, dating to the ’30s and including her larger works as well as the Feelies.
“She’s chosen to live in the desert and has had this happy life. It never stopped the quality of her work. … It’s not about the career; it’s about the art.”
Art that Cabat will continue to make. She may be 100 soon, but she sees good years ahead.
“If Beatrice Wood could live to be 105,” says Cabat, referencing the famous ceramic artist who died in 1998, “why can’t I?”
And she has a plan to do just that.
“If I can avoid going to a doctor, I will,” she says with a grin.
“If you stay away from doctors you live a long, good life.”