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Max Kahn  

Max Kahn, My Father

By Noah Kahn

Max lived for over 103 years. He was vigorous into his 90s � for instance, he would climb up on the roof of the Martha's Vineyard house to help take down his weathervane for the winter. He worked until age 100. It was a very sad day when he told my sister Katie, who is also a painter, that she could use his studio because he �didn't need it anymore.� In the last couple of years, he devoted himself full time to caring for Mom. They were inseparable, staying close to each other, holding hands. They were like one being. This was not the case in their creative years, when they were both engaged and successful. Throughout his life, Max enjoyed working. It was the process, the act of creation, not just the end result which gave him pleasure. He did art the way other people breathe. He was generous and accomplished without vanity. He had a sense of humor and was comfortable with himself. He loved his family, friends, socializing, good food, drink and his work. He loved life.


Max Kahn was born March 15, 1902 , in Slonim, Belarusia. He had two older brothers, Abe and Jack. His father Zavel was the first of the family to come to this country, leaving Russia before Max was born. He saved enough money as a cigar maker to buy passage for his family. Dad came to this country in 1905. He remembered roaming around on the ship. People from the upper decks would throw things down on the people in steerage. Max arrived at Ellis Island , and then went directly to Peoria , Illinois . A fond memory of Dad's was watching his Mom, Anya, bake bread. She would give him a piece of doe to form into something. This is where he learned how to cook and perhaps, to sculpt. Anna died when dad was nine years old. Zavel was very social man and dad remembers him making the rounds to visit people on Sundays. Zovel realized that working as a cigar maker wouldn't get him very far, so he started to buy and sell property, and he ended up with 32 houses.

Dad was dyslexic, he would say, �Right, left what's the difference�. His older brothers were both very accomplished in school and when dad came along they expected him to be as good a student as his brothers. But, he felt like a dunce in school. His spelling was bad, but as he said, �it kept improving�. He was good at poetry and writing, but he remembered the teachers saying that �it was a good paper, did your brother help you with that?� He remembered doing a lot of drawing as a kid, and the teacher showing his drawings to the class and had them hanging around the school. There was a brickyard in Peoria where he got old broken up bricks and rehydrated the clay so he could model with it.

Max graduated from Bradley College with a degree in art. After that he wanted to go to Paris to continue his study of the subject. When we asked him, in his nineties, what his father thought of his plans to be an artist, he said his father thought that he'd never amount to much, so it was worth a try. Max said his dad was glad that he had a plan, and he sold a house and gave dad $900 to start out. Max's brother, Abe, sent him money to support him while he was studying in Paris . While he was there, 1926-1928, Max primarily studied sculpture with some of the greats, Charles Despiau and Antoine Bourdelle and drawing with Othon Friesz at the Academy Suede West. He said that he liked Paris and had a good social life, �eating and drinking.�

In 1928 Max got a telegraph. Zavil had been mugged when collecting rents and was in the hospital. Max returned from Paris but arrived the day after Zavel died. It was the year before the big Crash. Back in Peoria his studio became a hangout for other artists and writers. Then the depression came. Dad worked on the houses, however the houses were all lost to the bank when no one could pay their rents. At this time dad built, over a couple of years, a 32' skipjack sailboat that he planned to take around the world. He made the sails and everything. When he met mom he gave up idea of world circumnavigation and sold the boat. It wasn't until I left for college that he realized his dream of circling the globe.

Dad and Eleanor Coen met in 1935 when, at the age of 19, Eleanor and a friend went to Peoria . Dad picked them up at the train station. �There� Mom said �a man with a cap came up to them and said, is your name Coen?� That is how they met. Dad said, �Love at first sight.� Later in the evening they went Ice-skating. There was a January thaw and Max skated too close to the edge, broke the ice and fell through to his hip. His pant leg immediately froze stiff. Mom asked if he wanted to go back and change, and he said �No, it doesn't bother me.� Mom was impressed. Mom planned to go to school at the Art Institute of Chicago for graduate school, so dad decided to go too. Mom said � He follow me.� At that time, dad won a prize at a show at the Art Institute of Chicago.

When Max first came to Chicago , he got a job in the stockyards whitewashing the walls. He use to tell a story of the day he cleaned out his brushes after whitewashing and was pouring the bucket down a drain when a man yelled for him to stop because he was poring it in the hole where they put the ingredients for the blood-sausage. Mom worked, while at the Art Institute, as a waitress at Marshall Fields, until she was fired for having dirty hands (printing ink under her nails). Max would wait for her to get off work and they'd go out to eat, two bits for a five-course meal. I think that set the standard for what a restaurant should cost for the rest of Max's life.

Max and Coney were part of the WPA's Federal Arts project from 1939-1940, which allowed them to focus on their work. They described it as a wonderfully creative period for artists because they didn't have to worry about selling their work to support themselves. Then in 1941 Mom was the first woman to get the James Nelson Raymond Traveling Fellowship for painting at the school of the Art Institute, which came with a $2000 first prize. People who won usually went to Europe , but because of the war they decided to go to Mexico . They drove down to Mexico with a Chicago painter, Julio De Diego. They lived in Mexico City with Alfredo Zalce, one of their best friends in Mexico . They worked with the Taller de Grafica popular, TGP, and became friends with many artists there. Coney was the first woman to work with the TGP and influenced other Chicago artists to come down to Mexico and join the group. They went to San Miguel de Allende where Max set up the printmaking studio and taught printmaking at the Universitaria de Bellas Artes, which had recently opened. When we visited it several years ago, the studio was practically the same as when he left it. The amazing thing was that looking at the print studio after all of these years, you could recognize dad's stamp on it. It felt like home. While there Coney completed a large mural, which still graces a wall in the courtyard of Bellas Artes. The school is a national monument. In 1942 after war started, they went back to the US and got married. Dad got a wartime job in a tank factory, and in 1944 he started teaching at the Art Institute.

In the mid �40s, dad had a show of his prints at the Weyhe Gallery in NY. It was the first large show of color lithographs in this country. Before this, they didn't allow color lithographs in shows. From the show, he sold prints to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York . At this time they had a studio on South side of Chicago near University of Chicago It was above a stable and the entrance was off an alley. After Katie's birth in 1949 they realized that this was no place to raise children. Dad saw a house, in Old Town . It had been a garage for a detective agency and before that a stable. They bought the house in 1952 for $2000. The house was in bad shape. When Mom saw it for the first time she burst into tears. It took two years of work to fix up. But once they moved in, �Life just got better and better,� mom said. Katie and I arrived late in dad's life, and some men might face the prospect of fathering in their fifties with timidity, but not dad. His love for Katie and me was deep, constant and uncomplicated and it infused with and invigorated his art. Growing up, we took for granted the gift of watching him work at home at something he loved.

Dad came of age in the Great depression, and the lessons it taught stayed with him. He paid cash for everything, didn't like eating out if it cost more than two bits, always enjoyed finding bargains or better yet, treasures at the dump on Martha's Vineyard . He made things from what was at hand, rather than buying them. I have fond memories of working with him on projects, looking for parts in cans full of screws and miscellany, we'd figuring how to use what we had. He placed sculpted heads of baby Bryn on the front fence, made a collection of things on the fireplace in the studio he and mom shared, and always had art on the wall. The house had his touch. It was not always clear where his art left off.

One time, mom said that what she loved so much about Max was that he was not vane. And clearly that was the case. He never sought fame as an artist. His consummate pleasure an meaning derived from doing his art, not promoting it, Recently we were looking through all the prints he had done in his life, the number and beauty of them was astonishing, even to him, and he remarked: �At least you can say I wasn't idle.�

Max Kahn was born in 1904 in Russia and came to the United States as a small child. Max died in 2005 at the age of 103.