Ninety and Nimble

Despite decreased mobility, Tucson's Rose Cabat keeps working hard on her highly demanded porcelains

On a sunny fall morning, Rose Cabat wheels herself into her Tucson carport, headed for the kiln she's been using for decades.

She fired it up over the weekend--"I get better electricity rates on Saturday," she explains--and now she's eager to see the kiln's yield. Stacked on three racks inside is her latest batch of "feelies," the brightly colored porcelains that have been winning her acclaim in the art world since the 1960s. She's been working on them for months, first throwing them on the wheel and then glazing each one with her "secret recipe." The concoction, developed by Cabat and her late husband, Erni, produces brilliant purples, pinks, greens and a finish that's irresistibly silky to the touch, hence the feelies' name.

Daughter June Cabat is doing the unloading, because a bad spine and hips keep the 90-year-old Rose from reaching into the deep kiln. June gently places each piece into a cardboard box on her mother's lap, gradually filling it with glimmering feelies, most of them small enough to fit in the palm of a hand. Cabat carefully inspects each one.

"This one has a flaw," she declares. "I'm leaving it for Fred," a friend who will insert a turquoise into the small cavity in the gourd-shaped piece's otherwise smooth exterior.

"On some, the glaze drips down," she says, all business. "I'll have to grind those down" to make sure they have a flat bottom to stand on. "And they'll all have to be smoothed down and burnished. Then I have to write things up. I keep a record of every one."

One piece suddenly catches her attention. Most of the feelies have opaque finishes, but this one glitters a silvery light.

"Hold it to the sun," she commands. "It iridesces."

The beauty of this small, shiny bit of shaped porcelain is what's sent Cabat's reputation soaring in recent years. Her biggest feelies, about 6 inches high, sell for more than $4,000, and even the teensy 2-inchers go for $250. Her work this summer made the cover of the national American Art Pottery Association Journal, which devoted five inside pages in full-color to her work. When she celebrated her 90th birthday in June, a Los Angeles Times reporter came calling.

Locally, she's being honored with a one-person show at Tohono Chul Park. Most of its 41 pieces were made during the last two years, when Cabat was an octogenarian-going on-nonagenarian. It's a jewel of an exhibition, with the feelies organized into cases by color. Their impossible pinks, gorgeous greens and blazing blues glisten on small shapes not unlike those the vegetables Cabat still cultivates in backyard pots: onion, eggplant, gourd, tomato.

Cabat has perhaps always had a greater reputation outside Tucson than in, where she was overshadowed somewhat by her late husband, a flamboyant and productive artist who did everything from clay sculpture to water colors of local scenes. But Rose has been selling her feelies around the country since the '60s. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art exhibited them in 1966; the Smithsonian bought up dozens in the '70s; and New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art owns a piece.

"We sold them all along, but not the way I sell now," Cabat says.

Part of the recent clamor has to do with spiking interest in "mid-century modernism," the stripped-down design movement that had Cabat abandoning her earlier craft-fair-style wind chimes and coiled-clay heads in favor of the simplest possible shapes.

"The old things did not look good," she says. "I wanted simpler shapes that went with the glazes."

Cabat first started playing around with clay in the 1930s in New York, where she and Erni both grew up poor, the children of Jewish immigrants. When their first baby, George, came down with asthma, they transplanted themselves to the desert, arriving in 1942. Rose became a real-life riveter in a local munitions factory, and definitely did not like her new home place.

"I hated Tucson," she says. "It wasn't like New York. The mountains looked like cardboard cutouts."

Gradually, though, their desert lives took shape. They had two more kids, Mike and June, and bought a two-room house on a dirt road that in those days was on the outskirts of town. They got to be friends with the local art crowd, people like ceramicist Maurice Grossman and Berta Wright, and helped organized the Art Center, the forerunner of the Tucson Museum of Art.

Rose's feelie revolution didn't erupt until she was well into middle age. In the late 50s, the otherwise self-taught artist took a glazing class at the University of Hawaii that was more chemistry than art.

"It was just a glaze calculation course," she says, but it led both Cabats into an intense decade of chemical experimentation, until they came up with the feelie glaze Rose has used ever since.

Now unable either to walk or to stand easily, Cabat still works four to 10 hours a day on her labor-intensive feelies.

"I do it because I want to do it," she says. Sometimes, when her daughter calls to check whether she's had lunch, June says, Rose tells her, "I can't talk to you. I'm too busy."

Rose rolls around on a series of wheelchairs and office chairs strategically positioned around the house and yard. She throws the porcelain on the wheel in a potting shed out back, a "tar-paper shack" that Erni set up for her years ago. The former two-room house grew multiple rooms over the years, at Erni's hands; he converted the first kitchen into a glazing studio, where she still stacks her pigments in ice cream and yogurt containers.

"I'm partial more to the bright, sunny colors," she says cheerfully, a fact proven by her two-tone purple and lavender outfit. "I love turquoise, royal blue and pink." She considers a bit more, unwilling to leave out any hues. "I also like yellow. But people from the East are partial to these moody colors," so she also cooks up mottled grays and olives.

In fact, she loves all the colors, but she still has an artist's discernment for quality. Looking over today's crop, she declares, "In this batch, the white turned out the best."

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