Cortez artist Jerry Cohoe will be among more than 20 artists featured at the third annual Rims to Ruins Show this weekend in Denver.
Born in a canvas tent south of town in 1957 to traditional Navajo parents, Cohoe said knowing that he had a small role in helping to preserve the area where his ancestors once thrived was especially meaningful.
He said he was honored to participate in the fundraising campaign benefitting the Mesa Verde Foundation and Mesa Verde National Park.
“The park has suffered a lot of federal cuts,” said the self-taught graphite artist. “This is one way to help with the shortfalls.”
Always doodling at a young age, Cohoe’s first canvases were brown paper bags from the grocery store. His earliest inspiration came from the intricate designs in his mother’s Two Grey Hills rugs and the ritualistic sand paintings his father, a Navajo medicine man, created atop buckskins.
“My mom and dad raised us traditionally,” said Cohoe.
Not only did those opportunities shape Cohoe’s own identity, but they also allowed him to develop an appreciation for beauty and form. Today, whenever appearing at art shows or leading art lectures, Cohoe said portraits that he sketched of both his parents are on hand.
“Through my drawings, I try to preserve not only the past, but also the present,” said Cohoe.
“Every piece,” he added, “it’s done with my heart and soul.”
Cohoe attended a reservation boarding school in New Mexico before transferring to the public school system in Cortez as an eighth-grader. He later graduated high school in Aztec, N.M., and studied forestry for two years at Fort Lewis College in Durango.
After working for the U.S. Forest Service in Gunnison, Cohoe shifted into the construction industry, serving as a heavy-equipment operator. He only seriously started to follow his natural talent after his wife, Etta, encouraged and supported him.
“I always doodled and sketched, but it was never anything serious,” said Cohoe. “Without her, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing.”
Using photography to capture his subjects in their natural environment, Cohoe’s sketches are world-renowned. But growing up on a ranch near Arriola, he never envisioned that his name would circulate among global art collectors.
“When customers walk into a gallery and ask, ‘Do you have any Jerry Cohoe,’ that’s the ultimate dream,” Cohoe said with a broad smile.
Cohoe said another hero was late pencil artist Wilton Charley, who he discovered at the now defunct Native American art show held at Mesa Verde National Park over Memorial Day weekend.
“When I first saw his drawings at a distance, I thought they were black-and-white photographs,” Cohoe recalled. “The closer I looked, I realized they were pencil drawings.”
At the time, Cohoe said his pencil work consisted of drawing outlines for his acrylic paintings. He said Charley’s work opened his eyes to a new realm.
“He just blew me away,” said Cohoe, “and I wondered if I could make drawings that looked that real.”
A true artist
Cohoe discovered there was more than one type of pencil, the conventional No. 2, and more than just ordinary typing paper. Today, he prefers the 2B pencil and 100-weight smooth Bristol drawing paper.
“With pencil, all you have is black on white,” said Cohoe, describing the way painters, for example, use colors to create depth.
“I had to retrain my mind to see that,” he continued. “It was a real challenge, because with pencils, it’s all shading and highlighting to get the same effect.”
Although never afforded an opportunity to meet Charley personally, Cohoe said things came full circle when he was commissioned to commemorate Mesa Verde’s 100th anniversary with two sketches. Those limited edition drawings, which included Square Tower House and Cliff Palace, are currently on display at Far View Lodge.
The USS Mesa Verde, a Marine transport vehicle, was commissioned in 2007, also helping to mark the 100th anniversary Mesa Verde National Park. Capt. Shawn W. Lobree, the first commanding officer of the 684-foot vessel, specifically requested autographed copies of the drawings to hang in the ship’s museum.
“Those drawings have sailed around the world,” said Cohoe. “That’s quite an honor.”
“This all started as just a hobby,” Cohoe said.