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Joan W. Cohen, artist and educator who helped forge relationships between city schools and local cultural institutions, dies

Joan W. Cohen wrote grants to secure funding for programs that linked students to Baltimore's cultural institutions.
Joan W. Cohen wrote grants to secure funding for programs that linked students to Baltimore's cultural institutions. (Handout / HANDOUT)

Joan W. Cohen, an artist and educator who firmly believed that city public school students should have exposure to local cultural institutions and worked diligently to make it a reality, died of mycobacterium avium intracellulare infection, better known as MAC, an extremely rare lung disease, Nov. 6 at the Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center. The resident of Phoenix in Baltimore County was 79.

“It’s a disease that is so rare that it affects one in 1,000,000 people,” said her husband of 56 years, Irvin Cohen, a retired hospital administrator. “And because of it, Joan received the fickle finger of fate award.”

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The former Joan Willen, who was born in Baltimore and raised in Ashburton, was the daughter of Jack Mayer Willen, an attorney, and his wife, Janice Willen, an artist and homemaker.

After graduating from Forest Park High School, she earned a bachelor’s degree in education in 1963 from the University of Maryland, College Park and a master’s degree in art in 1973 from the Maryland Institute College of Art.

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After college, she began teaching art at Venable Junior High School in the city’s Pen Lucy neighborhood, and eventually moved to school headquarters, where she was a curriculum specialist. There she created an outstanding cultural and academic program, which resulted in a strong working relationship between the school system and local museums, theaters and the symphony.

“She worked closely with directors and staff from local museums, theaters and performing groups, adapting resources from these cultural institutions to reinforce curriculum in all the major disciplines,” according to a biographical profile submitted by her family. “Through her leadership, thousands of inner city school children were exposed yearly to the finest arts programs.”

Ms. Cohen often said that because she grew up in a home where art and music were valued, she wanted to share her passion for art and music with city schoolchildren.

She also became a proficient grant writer, seeking state and federal funds to make her program not only a reality, but also an educational experience for students who might not otherwise have that opportunity.

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“Joan was a really good close friend of mine who was a very creative and artistic person with a very excellent cultural background,” said Camay Calloway Murphy, an educator and writer.

“She did a lot of work at Booker T. Washington Middle School and worked closely with its principal, Ruth Bucketman. They really wanted to make Booker T. a school for the arts. She also was involved with the [Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s] OrchKids and the School for the Arts after-school program,” Ms. Murphy said. “She wanted to make sure that students had field trips to these institutions and appreciated what was there.”

Ms. Cohen became close friends with Joanna B. Kann, who was in charge of training docents who worked with city schoolchildren at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

“She wanted to get the kids to enjoy the cultural life of the city and always had her eye out to make and improve the program and make it better and she enjoyed the process,” Ms. Kann said. “Her dedication to city students and art was unreal. She was so caring and a person with an adventuresome spirit.

“She was persistent and always worked for what was right.”

The nature of Ms. Cohen’s work brought her into contact with Joan S. Feldman, who was supervisor of school programs at the Walters Art Gallery, which is now the Walters Art Museum.

“She and I worked very closely through the education department at the Walters,” Ms. Feldman said. “She was a wonderful advocate for Baltimore City schoolchildren and her advocacy got so many children into the museum. She became a fabulous spokesperson for the city and was always a pleasure to work with.

“After I left the Walters we kept in touch. She was such a gracious and lovely person in every way — plus she was a talented artist herself.”

Ms. Cohen retired in 2004.

In her own artwork, she produced tie-dye works of art, her husband said, and later worked with acrylics.

“I would describe her art as eclectic, and much of it was things she had made up in her mind,” her husband said.

Dr. Howard I. Woolf, a retired Baltimore optometrist, and his wife, Barbara, were also part of Ms. Cohen’s social world.

“I got to know Joan later in life but she was my go-to person whenever I had an art question,” Dr. Woolf said. “She was an incredible artist, and every card she sent she had drawn and personalized it. She was such a sweet person.”

Recalled Ms. Murphy: “Joan was a very attractive blonde who always wore her hair with a little bun in the back. She didn’t look like she belonged in Baltimore and looked more like she belonged in the San Francisco art scene. She was just a lovely person who was devoted to kids and her work. That’s what made her so popular in the school system.”

Ms. Cohen, who was a jazz aficionado, enjoyed playing the piano. Other pastimes included bike riding and spending time with family and friends.

She and her husband were world travelers and Ms. Cohen particularly enjoyed being exposed to different cultures and their native art. One time, they decided to take a two-month trip to Africa and didn’t bother to make any advance reservations, Ms. Kann said.

“When they went to India, they made one reservation, because her brother who had traveled to India told them to. I’m simply not that adventurous,” said Ms. Kann, with a laugh.

Funeral services were held Nov. 9 at Beth Tfiloh Cemetery in Windsor Mill.

In addition to her husband, Ms. Cohen is survived by two sons, Mitchell Jacques Cohen of Pasadena and Thomas Henry Cohen of Vienna, Virginia; a brother, Richard S. Willen of Santa Fe, New Mexico; a sister, Sue Willen Needle of Pikesville; and a granddaughter.

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