Visual Vernacular: Mitch Cohen
The Market at Sawyer Yards.
A native Houstonian and a 23 year resident of the Houston Heights, artist and organizer Mitch Cohen holds the magical talents uniting those who create to help make lasting events. Someone who has been diligent in his own work, mastering a multitude of creative forms, Cohen has handled his art career with knowhow and humor. Known for his work with Houston Vintage Festival, White Linen Night in the Heights, as well as with the First Saturday Arts Market (now in its 13th year), he rounds up both talent and a supportive audience in order to help our cultural scene thrive. A similar concept to the monthly event in the Heights has expanded into another arts district that has been booming for the past few years with Cohen aiding The Market at Sawyer Yards. Cohen spoke with Free Press Houston to explain his own personal background and how he became involved with artistic event planning.
Free Press Houston: You have an excellent viewpoint on how artists often portray their first encounters with art. How did you find that you had a great hand for creating visuals?
Mitch Cohen: I always shake my head when I read an artist’s biography that begins with a statement something like, “I’ve been an artist since I could hold a crayon.” Weren’t we all artists as children? I will always remember that in second grade, my teacher singles out my renderings of famous historic figures like Benjamin Franklin and Abraham Lincoln to the class as good examples of art. I quickly became known as the “best artist” in class. Later that same year I learned all about curse words and demonstrated with my newfound fame by illustrating in pencil, the definition of the word “shit.” Turns out that was an easy way to get out of school early too. Regardless, I’ve thought of myself as an artist ever since, although my rendering of the Benjamin Franklin looks like a balloon with a bad haircut to my adult eyes.
FPH: What are some of the nontraditional ways you were creative in your college days?
Cohen: My higher education experience was, for lack of a better word, fleeting. I excelled in the art classes I took, but quickly devolved into a post-high school, free-to-be-me party animal. Despite my lack of academic interests at the tender age of 18, I still found ways to be creative. I sold t-shirts with a cartoon I created that I called “Studley,” designed album covers for friends — I was at the best music school in the south, University of North Texas State. It wasn’t until I finally came home that I really learned a thing or two about art.
FPH: What are some of the influential moments that impacted your art practice?
Cohen: The biggest influence on me as an artist came from what I thought would be a summer job after dropping out of college. I went to work as an apprentice sign painter at a billboard company. I literally was taught how to paint anything they gave me, cars, baseball bats, giant cleavers even, with artist oils, and of course all the methods for sign painting. I was the youngest in the field and a fast study. I loved it. I was admonished by my colleagues for painting too fast and making them look bad!
Around 1989, I was recruited by the editor of University of Houston Downtown’s newspaper, a former high school friend, to draw the weekly editorial cartoon and my own strip. I learned the value of consistency, and fast. Unbeknown to me, the second year editor entered my work in the Rocky Mountain Collegiate Press Association’s annual competition — and my cartoon won 1st place over universities and colleges from 13 states. When I found out Matt Groening was a judge my ego grew nearly to the size of my second grade proportions before being deflated by the “shit” demonstration. This led me to my next big influence — it was time to return to school.
To increase my value at the sign companies I took what I would guess was Houston Community College’s last class in graphic design sans computers. My instructor, artist Sharon Hendry, must have shown great patience with my short attention span and penchant for incorporating my cartoons into all of her assignments.
It’s ironic that two of my biggest skills that are mostly forgotten arts now, sign painting and traditional graphic design, then shaped the next 15 years of my life. About two years after leaving the sign painting business, I started painting faux and decorative finishes. I said yes to every job and taught myself how after. The first big job, which included restoring and duplicating a 130-year-old mural, was published in a national design and antiques magazine and our career was set.
FPH: What made you want to get into organizing artists and events?
Cohen: After ten years of painting decorative finishes, I was restless. I volunteered with the Houston Heights Association’s business committee in 2003 and was organizing art crawls in the neighborhood. I think several influences hit me at once: the desire to showcase all the artists in one space, the recently opened Farmer’s Market at Onion Creek, and a well traveled friend that kept insisting I replicate the common markets he’d visited around the world. I’d hosted several successful art receptions at bars, too, and was convinced I could pull of a monthly art market, though I had little to go on. There was nothing like that in Houston at the time and no one I knew had heard of such thing.
I definitely learned from my mistakes, I’m lousy at failing. I just figure out a new way to do something, and keep going. My tenacity is what helped the market succeed, of that I’m certain. I took the advice participating artists gave me and in turn, they supported my efforts in those early years. By 2008, when I changed my market’s name to First Saturday Arts Market, we were on a roll.
There was never a time where I decided to organize events or artists, opportunities knocked and I answered propelling me further in the direction of “event coordinator.” I’ve loved every minute of it, there’s a rush about creating something that brings so many creatives together in one place and then seeing the public accept it as part of the great big artist landscape Houston supports.
FPH: Tell me about your Art Market endeavor and how it has evolved over the years:
Cohen: First Saturday Arts Market has definitely evolved over the years, from a mixed art and craft show to a curated fine art and fine craft show. The most profound change was when I asked the artists themselves to help me curate the show. A little background first:
The market began as the Yale Street Arts & Flower Market on March 6, 2004. Visualizing a combination art and flower market never got off the paper as no flower vendor was willing to give up their busiest day of the week for a fledgling market place. I was not very discriminating about the art that was shown at the market either and items that I would consider to crafty today were much more prevalent then. As word spread and the applications started piling up, I started getting pickier. The first medium I asked for help on curating was jewelry. I liked the results and by 2007 I had developed a system to curate incoming applicants.
The success was amazing and almost immediate. The price points began to rise and a buying audience looking for quality art increased. In just a few years, we had established ourselves as a go to place to purchase fine art in Houston. More and more of the artists attending were recognized in other shows, too.
I did not kick anyone out, there are still a few that may not have made it in the show today if they were new. However the atmosphere is definitely inspiring and creative and demands that everyone bring their best, and they do.
There was an element of the art world that I felt I was missing out on. First Saturday Arts Market found its niche audience and is still doing well. There were a large number of applicants getting turned down that I thought should be represented that were not quite a good fit for the art market.
In 2016 I had my ah-ha moment when I was invited to present a market to Sawyer Yards, one of the largest creative campuses in the nation. My pitch was a folk art market that combined specialty foods, and the niche market of artisans that I already knew were out there. The people have been coming and the first show we did in January was an absolute success.
The Market at Sawyer Yards is what we’re calling it and it’s located between The Silos on Sawyer, Winter Street and Silver Street Studios on the newly paved over former rail-line. Shows are currently only on second Saturdays coinciding with the open studios. I’ll only allow about 10% fine artists in that show. With 300 fine artists in the surrounding studios, the folk art and food is the perfect combo to draw in a big diverse audience. My goal is to make this market a folk art destination. Houston so needs that.
FPH: How has your interaction with the community affected your work?
Cohen: My interaction with the arts community has truly been a humbling experience personally. There are many unbelievably talented people in this city. I have only recently started pursing painting again after many years of dabbling every so often. The biggest influence from artists would be their encouragement not to give up, just keep going.
Community is ironically what I never expected to see come out of my efforts to create a market. I thought when I got started hosting these shows that I was providing a service for artists to reach the pubic, and I did. A community of artists also came out of my efforts. The artists are friends, they socialize and encourage each other. Many have launched businesses that help and promote other artists such as web and graphic design, marketing and a few galleries. I’m a little thick headed I guess because I’m always surprised when an artist thanks for me for their success. I hope I never get used to that.
FPH: Especially in times like these, how do you see art and positive cultural events helping us move forward and grow in understanding?
Cohen: One of the things that I love about Houston is that our vast and diverse cultures all living in the same place. There is no group more welcoming of other cultures and ideas, from my observations, than the arts communities. My shows are as diverse as our awesome City of Houston and I mean politically, too. Perhaps because my shows are only for one day, opinions of the outside world rarely make an appearance.
I’ve never allowed political groups at my shows, I don’t think that’s the place for them. We’re there to showcase our art, tell you our stories behind it and create good will and good times, not sway public opinion. That’s not to say you won’t find opinions where perhaps it has always come up first, in the art itself. To me, an art show is the perfect place to inspire community; unity and healing.
First Saturday Arts Market is located at YogaOne Studios (540 W. 19th St.) and is open year-round on the first Saturday of each month from 11 am - 6 pm. September through May and from 6pm -10pm from June through August. The Market at Sawyer Yards takes place every second Saturday of the month from 11 am - 5 pm at 1502 Sawyer. Admission is free at both markets.