The Kokoon Arts Klub

For decades, Cleveland was home to a hotbed of modernist art, risqué events and progressive cultural ideals. Maybe the city wasn't quite as staid and stuffy as its reputation at the time suggested.

The Kokoon Arts Klub was anything but conservative. Online sources describe it as a “Bohemian artists group.” The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History highlights its “unconventional activities and espousal of ‘new art.’” In 1923, the Bishop of Cleveland denounced the Klub’s annual Bal Masque’s “moral defects” and “immoral excesses.” That year, citing the event’s reputation for debauchery, Cleveland’s mayor cancelled the Bal.

But make no mistake: The Kokoon Arts Klub was deadly serious about art: Making it. Promoting it. And perhaps most important, challenging its conventions. The group was founded by Carl Moellmann and William Sommer, talented lithographers whose mainstream occupation—designing promotional posters for the Otis Lithograph and Morgan Lithograph Companies in Cleveland—offered little room for artistic expression. So in 1911, in a former tailor’s shop on E. 36th Street, they launched the Kokoon Arts Klub, proclaiming “as the lowly cocoon was the forerunner of the beautiful butterfly, so might [we] hope that from this small beginning something of beauty should develop and emerge.” In addition to Moellman and Sommer, the Klub’s members included nationally recognized artists such as August Biehle, Joseph Boersig, Elmer Brubeck, Joseph Jicha, Henry Keller and Rolf Stoll. Many of these artists later became part of the “Cleveland School,” an arts community that helped (or had helped) found the Cleveland Museum of Art, The Cleveland Institute of Art and the City’s annual May Show.

Many of the Kokoon Klub’s founders were literal and figurative Bohemians—highly trained and forward-thinking artists from Bohemia which, prior to World War I, was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and now is the Czech Republic. In their lifetimes they had watched and learned as art traveled through “Modernistic” phases such as Impressionism, Post Impressionism, Cubism, Abstract Expressionism and Constructivism. At the Kokoon’s inception in 1911, the highly popular Art Nouveau style was evolving into Art Deco and all manner of creative types—painters, illustrators, ceramicists, musicians, dancers and writers—were drawing inspiration from the futuristic turn that art was taking. In Cleveland, the Kokoon Klub was home to many of the foremost proponents of Modernism.

In addition to making art, the Klub held biennial exhibitions which, not surprisingly, drew controversial reviews. Their product, after all, was “new art” and Cleveland was hardly a cutting-edge town. Kokooners invited critics, artists and the general public to lectures and exhibitions. And they held several “Artist Curb Markets,” which became a way for creative types to generate badly needed income during the Depression. The first Curb Market, held in 1932 in University Circle, drew 12,000 people.

Beginning in 1913, Kokooners held an annual “Bal Masque.” These events were the talk of the town: wild (and wildly creative) celebrations of bohemianism that featured one-of-a-kind costumes, exotic dances, provocative art, periodic nudity, chaotic processions, giant props and over-the-top decorations. Newspaper writers were enthralled. Cleveland elites were appalled. But with the exception of the aforementioned 1923 cancellation, Bal Masques remained one of Cleveland’s most radical events for more than 30 years (1913 to 1946). They were always held before Lent (a sort of North Coast Mardi Gras), usually at a dance club or hotel such as the Masonic Hall, Hotel Winton, and Hotel Cleveland.

So what, exactly, could one expect at a Bal Masque? Well, first of all you had to get in, which required intensive preparation and originality, was well as an invitation. Attendees’ costumes had to adhere to the event’s theme, such as “Bal Dynamique,” “Bal Bizarre,” or “Bal Risqué.” A handmade costume also was essential: According to chroniclers, rented costumes were forbidden, as were “dominoes [half-masks worn over the eyes], tramps and ordinary clown costumes.” Kokooners manned the doors and vetted all entrants. If costumes weren’t up to snuff, you didn’t get in.

Inside, there was no end to the creativity and cacophony: A human butterfly emerged from a cocoon. Nude female dancers sashayed through kaleidoscopic lighting. Couples painted all blue danced the Conga. A women sported a purple and ivory-striped silk dress with hand-painted clefs, musical notes and plastic rats that glowed in the dark. A rubbernecker once described guests as “a strange troupe of revelers dressed in the fashion of all known tribes of the earth, and some believed to have only existed on Mars, if at all.”

But Bal Masques, otherworldly as they were, had down-to-earth goals. They were the organization’s principal funding source, as well as an essential PR vehicle—a high-profile way to showcase the Klub’s creative endeavors and promote artistic modernism.

As “new art” slowly became more acceptable, the Kokoon Klub lost some of its original intellectualism and became more of a social organization. Brought low by the Great Depression, Klub finances and membership declined. The last Bal Masque was held in 1946. The Klub held on for another ten years.

For 40-odd years, the Kokoon Klub was a transformative force in Cleveland’s (and even the nation’s) cultural history. According to chronicler Henry Adams, “[Kokoon] helped establish a market for a sort of modern art that had been considered absurd only a few years before.” Thankfully, the Klub’s creations live on, displayed in museums, galleries and private collections around the world. Scores of its posters and fine art pieces can be viewed online. Myriad original pieces, as well as the Kokoon Arts Club Papers, are housed at Kent State University.

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2121 E. 21st Street, Cleveland OH