By Lucie Shelly
Carrboro Commons Staff Writer
I am masterful when it comes to leveraging my bike on to the pull-down rack of the bus, but I am full of self-pity as I teeter away from the grocery store, bags about to break, and wait for the bus to get me up the East Franklin Street hill so that I can perilously free-fall down Hillsborough Street to my home.
So when I saw a woman – not old, but older than myself – approach the bus with a bike, a basket, a backpack and an art portfolio in tow, I wasn’t just empathetic, I was impressed.
“It looks like I’ll have to be riding through the windiness today!” she says, smiling as she springs on to the CW bus.
Serious biking and busing is not a new experience for Connie Cohn, 71, who lives in an apartment complex near Jones Ferry Road in Carrboro. She says she works out at Curves three times-per-week because it makes the bike easier to mount on the bus, and has been known to transport everything from artwork to hula hoops on her journeys.
But there is added peril today; it’s blowing hard enough to move a bike backwards up Hillsborough Street.
“Normally, I would just ride the bike, but when it’s windy out like this it’s scary!” she says as she sits down, folding her art portfolio. “The sketch books aren’t that big,” she explains.
Connie is on her way to the N.C. Botanical Gardens for an art class.
“It was just recently I got into art,” she says. “I never had any classes, I always thought I was terrible at art, I had no idea about perspective until after reading about it. Finally, last January, I said, ‘I really really really need to do some classes. I’m tired of not being able to draw.’ And they were saying, ‘Come learn perspective and come learn how to draw.’ That was the Carrboro ArtsCenter.”
Connie says she quickly became immersed in her new hobby. She began with the simpler sketching classes, but soon began posting her work on a Flickr website program run through the ArtsCenter.
“It was called ‘Every Day In May.’ So, every day, there was a different challenge; draw something green, draw a flashlight, draw something sour. And you had to do it and put it online and that got me finishing things,” Connie recalls.
The ability to complete a project was a turning point, she says. “I’d been taking classes and I was slow and I’d never finish anything in class. I’d go home with an unfinished drawing and work at it a little bit and be discouraged. The Flickr program got rid of a lot of fear.”
At first this tale of finding, trying, and developing a new hobby sounds common to the experiences of many people. But Connie’s story soon reveals that this wasn’t her first time mounting a seriously intimidating prospect, nor was it her first foray into the world of the arts.
In her youth Connie was a photojournalist, and her break into the career had all the excitement of crime drama, and being in the right place at the right time. But first, she had to pay her dues as a novice.
It was April 1973, and Connie and her family had just moved to Winston Salem, NC. “I was putting together a photographic portfolio and trotting around the portolio or photos individually for anyone who might give me a job or freelance or pay me for single shots,” Connie remembers.
She finally did get some freelance work – first with United Press International where she travelled to South Carolina to the Darlington races.
“Let me tell you, it’s very dizzy-making being up there on the high stand, panning with each car that goes by. You have to be careful you don’t fall off,” says Connie, half-jokingly.
Connie says she found some work closer to home at the Twin City Sentinel in Winston Salem. “That was the evening paper and the Winston Salem Journal was the morning paper, and all the photographers were in one dark room and I had a lot of help from the other guys who were mostly Sentinel staff. I was pretty much self-taught. They were teaching me all kinds of tips and tricks in the dark room which I had never learned on my own. I did that for four months. I was a replacement photographer for Cookie Snyder.”
The thing is, Connie says her freelance submissions weren’t the reason she found a bigger position.
“I think I got that job because I had either the guts or the insanity to step outside when an announcement came through in the Caldor department store, ‘Don’t anybody leave the store,’ and I went to see what was happening and there was a guy out in the parking lot holding a gun on somebody,” says Connie, with all the off-hand blasé of someone who found their reaction natural. “I got behind the mailbox and took pictures and then called the paper that night to see if they were interested. They said come right in and they did the developing and printing because I still wasn’t very skillful at that point. They showed me how to use ferricyanide to bleach the gun up a little bit more so that it stood out more. Two weeks later they called me and offered me this replacement job.”
Back in the present, the bus moves along West Poplar Avenue, turns on Main Street, and eventually makes its way through downtown Carrboro, and passes the ArtsCenter. Connie’s original destination of the N.C. Botanical Gardens has not been forgotten.
“I’d always admired botanical drawing and thought, ‘Oh wow, that’s way beyond me.’ But I’ve started there and I’m just in love with the stuff,” she now says.
So, despite the windy weather and an impressive load to bring on the bus ride, in a spirit that is revealing itself as a common thread in all her endeavors, Connie says she’s not about to be kept from attending.
“I wasn’t gonna miss this class! It’s my first chance of actually being taught how to do a wash with water color,” she says with a set face.
From a Brownie camera that her father gave her at age 7 in 1952 that started her developing photographs in a bathroom, to studying linguistics as a Senior Citizen in order to understand Mayan Steli hieroglyphs, there are too many intriguing hints and pieces that Connie drops to get into everything on a short bus ride.
Of her interest in drawing, language and hieroglyphs she casually lets out a whimsical thought, “Some part of me that would love some fame and glory would like to break the code of those Steli that haven’t been broken yet.”
But for now, it’s time to hop off the bus, and ride the wind to the Botanical Gardens.