A Collection of Kokoonery: The Kokoon Arts Klub, an Introduction

Change was coming for the arts, though not as yet in 1911 Cleveland. Although traditional art schools had been in existence since the late 1870's, Cleveland's working industrial and commercial artists, by day laboring lithographers and engravers, had trained under European artists, and they knew about Modernism. Carl Moellman, an "ardent disciple" of the late Robert Henri, wanted to promote Henri's loose and free style. His friend and fellow artist, William Sommer, was in his post-impressionistic period of painting. Together these two men experienced an awakening of spirit, both from the prestigious Kit Kat Club in New York City, and from exposure to an exhibition of French "Cubist" paintings that stopped in Cleveland on its way from New York to Chicago.1 Why not, they reasoned, form a Cleveland club of artists where a new energy and free spirit reigned?

Moellman, Sommer, and other founding members (all men) were employees of the Otis Lithograph Company. They produced a large volume of theatrical lithography for Otis, including posters for motion pictures and sensational magic productions. The new club, the Kokoon Arts Klub, had not only a sense of the new modernism, but a theatrical flair provoked by new medium and visiting troupes such as the Ballet Russe.2 The club first met in the interior design studio of Louis Rorimer. But by 1911 the artists had a rented building on East 36th Street, between Cedar and Euclid. It is said that Moellman chose the name, but watercolorist Joseph Garramone invented the crazy spelling of the Kokoon Arts Klub.

Activities included evening lectures such as "Conditions of Living in Spain," art instruction, and two exhibitions per year. An annual art auction took place in December. One reporter described the Kokoon members as "revolutionary, purposeful and distinctly unique."

The Kokoon artists had trouble affording rent and heat for their club, and dreamed of a warm studio with leather couches at a classy location. It was with this dream in mind that the members decided to hold a ball. First, a dance permit had to be obtained from City Hall and then a location had to be found. Securing both, the members worked for weeks creating decorations for the Elks Club on Huron Road and costumes for themselves. The annual Kokoon Bal Masque was born.3

A gigantic cocoon had been made, large enough to carry a silver winged model who would emerge from the chrysalis shape at the proper time and bid welcome to the assembled guests.4

The balls became an annual sensation, and except for the cancellation of 1923, continued until 1938. The artwork, costumes, posters and invitations they produced can be seen in many of our local collections in the Cleveland area.

Though risqué and wild, the balls became the cause celeb for the Kokoon Arts Klub. Carle Robbins said it best in 1931:

Bringing it down to the practical, these balls have done much to further the cause of art in Cleveland. They have enabled the Kokoon Club to continue their programs of study and exhibitions. These have been of immeasurable value to so many young artists. They have encouraged the experimenting, the freedom of thought and viewpoint, the radicalism which makes for progress in art.5

Please visit the Kent State University's "Kokoon Club Nocturnes" Research Project online.

1. Haverstock, Mary Sayre, and Ann Olszewski. "Midnight Madness: the Kokoon Arts Klub." Timeline 22, no.2 (April/June 2005): 65.
2. Sergi Diaghilev brought the Ballet Russe to Cleveland to perform Stravinsky's "The Firebird" at the Hippodrome in 1913.
3. Haverstock: 56-70.
4. Robbins, Carle. "Now Comes Carnival." The Bystander of Cleveland (June 1930): 16-18, 62.
5.Ibid.: 62.