Just over 100 years ago, a group of Cleveland artists founded a unique group known as the Kokoon Arts Club, in the interest of promoting Modernism and exploring the avant-garde form of “art nouveau” which they saw as the new direction in the art world. The Kokoon Club (sometimes spelled Kokoon Klub) was started in 1911 by Carl Moellman and William Sommer along with thirteen other charter members, most of whom worked as commercial lithographers in Cleveland’s nationally-recognized printing industry. According to the club’s roster, the name derives from “the lowly cocoon… forerunner of the beautiful butterfly [in] hope that from this small beginning something of beauty should develop and emerge.” The group regularly scheduled exhibits, sketching excursions and live model sessions, lectures, art classes, performances and more. And to fund it all? The Kokoon Club threw some of the most notorious parties Cleveland has ever seen!
2013 marks the 100th anniversary of the club’s first annual costume party, the Bal Masque, held each year in late winter. In addition to this lavish annual spectacle, the club threw Halloween parties complete with spooky posters and invitations, as seen above. The primary goal of these events was fundraising for the club’s activities through the rest of the year. Attendees were required to show up in original costumes (no store-bought masks allowed!) in keeping with the year’s theme, and guests who didn’t follow the rules were often kept from entering the location where the party was being held. Themes varied each year, and included “Hollywood Party,” “Tia Juana Night,” “Tropical Nite” and “Klondike Knite.” The Kokoon Arts Club and Philip Kaplan Papers, held at the Kent State University Archives, includes examples of some of the unique costumes worn at these balls. Among the holdings:
- A “purple and ivory striped silk dress with hand-painted clefs and musical notes. Plastic rats have been tied to the dress with pieces of blue yarn.”
- “A pair of woman’s high-heeled shoes, hand painted green with luminescent paint.”
- “Men’s white, wool long-underwear hand painted with images including a woman’s face inside a heart with an arrow through it, a turkey dinner, apples, ribs, a fig leaf and a vampire bat.”
Plus much more! Newspapers regularly reported on the risque costumes and wild goings-on at the Kokoon Club events, and in 1923 the Bal Masque was actually cancelled by Cleveland mayor Frederick Kohler due to its reputation for debauchery. The club was a staple in the Cleveland scene from its founding through the 1930s, and is recognized as being a transformative force in the city’s cultural history. After several decades of success, the club’s membership began to wane in the 1940s, and the last ball was held in 1946. The club disbanded 10 years later, but is still remembered in Cleveland for its impact on the city’s role in the art world.
Ohio Memory has a selection of eight posters and invitations that you can view, courtesy of Kent State University and the Kokoon Arts Club Papers. To learn more about this fascinating group, visit the collection’s finding aid as part of Kent State’s Special Collections and Archives. Happy Halloween!
Thanks to Lily Birkhimer, Digital Projects Coordinator at the Ohio History Connection, for this week’s post!