Wife, grandmother, businesswoman, uber-volunteer, lover of art. Born July 27, 1929, in Brooklyn, N.Y., died July 22, 2012, in London, Ont., of lung cancer, aged 82.
When Phyllis Cohen lay dying, she wanted to talk about art. Not art-world politics (as interesting as that could be), but art itself, and what it meant to her.
She said art taught her not to be afraid of questions, and to realize that it is in the journey that pleasure and learning are found.
She said over and over again how the art world, which she embraced later in life, enhanced her sense of being in the world and connected her to others.
She had a remarkable life, balanced exquisitely within the triangle of family, work and community.
Phyllis was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., came to London, Ont., to visit an uncle, fell in love (and remained so for the rest of her life) and never went to live at home again.
London is a small insurance town, and far away from the Brooklyn Museum and the Museum of Modern Art. But Phyllis valued relationships and family above all else and London allowed her to create her world. New York never seemed that far away.
She and Alan, her husband of 62 years, were successful in business. Alan’s father had founded Young Canada Ltd., a legendary children’s clothing store in mid-century London. With Phyllis’s and Alan’s ambition, it expanded to wholesale merchandising and, when sold in 1987, was one of the largest companies of its kind in Canada.
Phyllis also served on health-care and educational committees and boards, had an early term as a board member at the art gallery in London, where she returned at the age of 80 to chair the board. For 10 years, she served as a founding member of the executive board for the Ontario Association of Community Care Access Centres, which provides and monitors health care across the province. A cruel fate, or perhaps a wonderful circle completed, meant that in her final days she was attended to with grace by professionals with Community Care Access in her home, as she wanted it.
After retiring from business, Phyllis and Alan volunteered as consultants to not-for-profit organizations in Canada, Eastern Europe and Central Asia, including Russia, Kazakhstan and Slovakia.
They travelled widely and always came home with stories of adventure. The stories always included a subplot or two about art, artists and artisans they had sought out and met.
They always found ways to challenge themselves. Phyllis asked questions, wanting to know “why” as much as “what.” Many artists loved her because of the way she challenged them to articulate what they were attempting to convey through their art. She wanted to know about not just effect, but purpose too.
When my wife Susan and I recently walked through Janet Cardiff’s elegiac The Forty Part Motet at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, we had a sad moment, reflecting that we could not share this pleasure with Phyllis.
But then we remembered that she had seen the work, had talked eloquently about its wit and pleasure, and celebrated the way it engaged her in thinking about how a work of art was made to communicate meaning.
She remembered this work and others, and spoke of art and the joy of learning, in her last days for a simple reason: It was all inside of her.
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