Rose and Erni Cabat: The Eameses of American Midcentury Ceramics?

Feelie vases, group of 23 various sizes, Rose & Erni Cabat. Feelie vases, group of 23 various sizes, Rose & Erni Cabat. Sold for $8,750 Toomey & Co. Auctioneers (December 2018).

“My hands are guided like a violinist’s. With lots of practice, he just does it… I have had a very long and fulfilling career working in clay,” said the renowned American potter, Rose Cabat, who is best known for her vases, called the Feelies, and her vivid glazes. 

Who was Rose Cabat?

Rose Cabat, examining one of her “Feelies”. Image taken from the Pima County Library’s Centenarian Project, 2012. Image credit: Lisa Bunker.

Rose Cabat’s career as a serious ceramics artist didn’t take off until she was in her 40’s. Life got in the way: three children, a move from New York to Tucson, Arizona, the Second World War, and even a job as a riveter in an aircraft factory. But a love for art and pottery had been seeded early on. Born in New York in 1914, Cabat spent her childhood in the Bronx. She attended the same school as Erni Cabat, the brash boy who would one day become her husband. A shared love of art brought them together.

Rose & Erni Cabat: A lifelong partnership

Rose & Erni Cabat, taken from the Pima County Library’s Centenarian Project, 2012. Image credit: Lisa Bunker.

Erni’s own career spanned advertising, ceramics and painting but he nurtured and supported Rose’s interest in pottery, sparked when he brought home a lump of clay which she promptly shaped into a vase. Erni was delighted with her effort and went on to buy her membership at Greenwich House, a social club that once helped immigrants get settled in New York. There, Rose took up pottery in earnest, and taught herself to throw on the wheel; Erni joined her to work on glazes and decorate her pots. 

Late bloomer

Rose was forced to give up the wheel at Greenwich House when she and her young family moved to Tucson in Arizona due to her son’s ill health. Eventually, she returned to pottery and Erni built her a shed and rigged up a makeshift wheel, which was powered by an old washing-machine motor. As her work became her main focus, she bought electric kilns and a motor-driven Randall kick wheel that she used until her death in 2015. For more than 10 years, she made earthenware and stoneware clay bells, casserole dishes, bowls and planters that she sold at craft fairs. 

Discovering the Feelies

A turning point in Rose Cabat’s career came about almost by chance. In 1957, she accompanied Erni to a conference in Hawaii. Rose signed up for a course in glaze calculation offered by the art department at the University of Hawaii. Here, she learnt about studio ceramics and glaze chemistry. On her return to Tucson she switched to using porcelain and the couple experimented with crystalline glazes. Together they came up with a glaze notable for its satiny smoothness. But now Rose needed a pot to go with it. “I wanted it to have a more svelte look to go with the glaze,” she said. Eventually, in about 1960, she created a pot that could sit on the palm of her hand. “When I felt it, I said, ‘That’s a Feelie!’”

For the next four decades, Cabat worked on her Feelies – small, delicate, round vases with narrow necks that came in all sorts of luminous colors. Her freeform Feelies – some squat and round, others long and narrow – are suggestive of objects found in nature, from pears and onions to tomatoes and apples. The luminous glazes she created also often spoke of nature, from the bright green of Granny Smith apples to the gentle hue of onion skin. When an onlooker observed that the Feelies’ necks were too narrow to insert even a single stem, Cabat simply replied, “A vase can hold weeds or flowers, but can’t it just be a spot of beauty?” She worked intuitively, her pots sitting comfortably in both the Arts and Crafts tradition and what became known as the Midcentury Modern movement.

How did she do it?

Although she kept her formula for glaze a closely guarded secret, she was happy to share how she made her tactile Feelies. She created them in stages, sanding each down after firing. The glazing is layered, with one color melted on top of another – in some cases, you can see the glazes pooling at the bottom of the vases. She worked tirelessly, making several a day, simply signing the base of each pot ‘Cabat’. Slowly but surely, Rose Cabat’s Feelie vases became more widely exhibited and better known around the country.

A lasting legacy

Erni passed away in 1994, aged 80, and Rose lived until she was 100. For the last decade of her life, she had a painful spine condition that made it difficult for her to stand and move around. Nevertheless, she continued to work on her beloved Feelies, using wheelchairs or rolling around on office chairs that were positioned around her house and potting shed. Her children June and Michael assisted her by running the studio and weighing out the glaze ingredients. Today, Rose Cabat’s Feelies fetch anywhere from $250 to $25,000 (for a batch) at auction and remain in permanent collections in places such as the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. 

by Sonia Zhuravlyova