An exhibit in Ira Cohen’s honor opened earlier this summer, displaying 40 artworks selected from the thousands of portraits and sculptures he posed for during his 30-year career as a model, primarily for students at UMass Dartmouth’s College of Visual and Performing Arts in downtown New Bedford. “Ira: 30 Years of Standing Still” also featured a painstaking recreation of the used bookstore Cohen ran on the same block as the art school.

Elena Peteva: Something that set him apart from other models is that there was nothing fake about his poses. They never felt like they were enacted. They felt real. And I think this is probably the biggest reason why he inspired so many. I don’t think I’ve worked with such a model ever in my life. 

Elena Peteva is a professor at UMass Dartmouth who hired Ira to model for her drawing and painting classes. 

Peteva: He was aware of the centuries-long tradition of modeling for art. And he was proud to be part of it. He was very serious about what he was doing and he expected the same seriousness of everybody else, as he should have. So in a way he was faculty the way we were faculty too. He was very helpful. And he would have little comments, and I loved him for it. 

Allison Borges: He never actually used to like to look at people's work or work of himself. But I had been working on this one pose for like three classes. And I remember he was like, “How far did you get? Turn it around.” And I showed him and he said, “That's it?” And I was like, “Oh, I feel like I need to work faster.” He made me so nervous.

Allison Borges is a painter who recently graduated from UMass Dartmouth. 

Borges: He would have so much emotion, like, just in his body that was captivating, that you wanted to try to captivate in your painting, in your work.

Borges painted Cohen one-on-one during his last modeling session at UMass Dartmouth. Her oil painting, which hung in the show, was the last of roughly 8,500 works of art that Cohen posed for. That figure was calculated by Memory Holloway, a professor emeritus of art history at UMass Dartmouth, who wrote the text on the exhibit’s walls. 

Memory Holloway: He’d model for everybody and everything. Not just figure drawing, but also sculpture. If you look over there, there’s a cast which has Ira’s hair in it. So Ira is really here. 

Elise Rapoza was an arts columnist at UMass Dartmouth’s campus newspaper. 

Elise Rapoza: So it’s 1,000 years in the future. Some people are excavating New Bedford to try to understand our culture and they find all these busts of Ira and they wonder, “Who is this Ira? He must’ve been a god.”

When Cohen wasn’t modeling at UMass Dartmouth’s Star Store, he was often sipping tea from a thermos at the bookstore he ran on the same block. Upstairs Used Books was located on a side street above a Thai restaurant. Phil Winslow works as a cook at the restaurant. He was also Ira’s landlord and friend. 

Phil Winslow: He actually was very low-key. Did not want even a sign, really. We had talked to him about advertising before, and he was against advertising and just preferred that people seek him out and actually want to be in his space.

Carl Simmons is a New Bedford-based artist and historian who made a painstaking recreation of Upstairs Used Books inside the Star Store's gallery as part of Cohen's memorial exhibit. 

Carl Simmons: At some point I must have just wandered up there…I didn’t realize until I was older how unique Ira’s was, especially the prices being so wildly low, which he had a philosophy about. You know, just moving this stuff and not making it this precious object. It could just go through readers’ hands.

Jim McKeag: Well, I saw the sign, and then one day the door was open, and there was Ira sitting in the window. So I went up and I was wondering if he had any kids’ books, and he gave me a look like, you know, we don’t carry kids books here. And I was actually looking for the Laura Ingalls Wilder books to read to my kids. And he lit up and he said, “Yeah I actually do have that set.” And as I was leaving, he said that was the set that he had when he was a kid, and his dad had read it to him. So it was, you know, this extra special set. … It was like $7.

Jim McKeag lived a few blocks from Cohen in New Bedford’s West End. McKeag’s son Ian remembers watching Cohen bike home from work. 

Ian McKeag: We would know that he had a good day when he would be riding past our house on his bike whistling a very, very happy tune. We’d know he had at least one customer that day. 

Winslow: He would make a point to be open early and all day on Christmas, New Year's, Thanksgiving. Days that you wouldn't think a business would be open, he would be here early. That was part of his statement, just not conforming to the norms of selling stuff.

Simmons: Someone who I only knew on social media asked if there are any bookstores in New Bedford. And I said, “Yeah, one of the best bookstores is in New Bedford,” and gave him the address. But then I messaged back and said, “Oh by the way, don’t try to chat the proprietor up. Like, don’t try to impress him with your knowledge of books or anything. Just go in and look and if he wants to talk, he’ll talk.” That’s kind of the way I would sum him up, I guess. The store’s great, but be aware of the…Ira.

Peteva: I loved the range of books that he had, and also it didn’t really feel like a shop. It felt more like somebody’s library that you were allowed to visit and enjoy under his kind of watchful eye. He wasn’t an ordinary bookstore owner, but he had some hidden treasures that you could not find elsewhere. 

Simmons: You go to the bookstore to not necessarily find what you’re looking for — that was pretty rare to find a specific title — but you would go, like, knowing that Ira was finding this stuff out in the world that was interesting. 

Holloway: He was very, very well read. And he would argue with you about the best books. He would argue about the books you had chosen. 

Simmons: I had asked Ira to keep an eye out for Thoreau stuff for me and if you find something, you know, put it aside. And he said, no, he wouldn’t, which was a very Ira thing to do. … [Later] he got me the Thoreau journals. And you know, he could have gotten, I don’t know, we’ll say like 100 bucks or something for them, easily. But he knew I was looking for that stuff and he sold those to me for maybe $20. And he was like, “I’m sorry I have to ask this much.”

Elissa Paquette: You had to really like a curmudgeonly kind of attitude, a little sarcastic commentary to be into the icon that was Ira. … I was 22, and I was just like, “You’re so cool!” And he was like, “Leave me alone.” And I was like, “No!”

Elissa Paquette used to rent an art studio down the hall from Ira’s bookstore. Later, Paquette opened a popular fashion boutique in downtown New Bedford called Calico. 

Paquette: He wasn’t super in favor of it. He thought that it was a little frivolous, you know, which it is. 

Holloway: He was serious about what he believed, and he let you know. If you saw him in the supermarket, he’d look in your cart and he’d say, “I have some other suggestions for you.”

Peteva: He had high expectations, in a good way, of everything. He was critical, but there was a lot of wisdom behind it. I know that everyone who has met him has felt this, and it’s impossible to forget such a person. 

People who knew Cohen knew he lived against the grain of New Bedford. His father owned a scrap metal junkyard; Cohen devoted his life to art and literature. Cohen’s customers and the artists whom he posed for often describe his fierce independence like it was a gift to the city.

Simmons: It was only because of Ira that we had something like that — because of his uniqueness. There’s no reason that that should have happened in New Bedford. 

Peteva: There’s certain people who are part of a place, truly a part of a place — and I don’t say this lightly — I think Ira was one of these people. 

Simmons: I still see him. I do a double take all the time because I was so used to seeing him in the landscape. 

When Cohen died in January, the faculty at UMass Dartmouth made arrangements to clear out their gallery downtown and showcase their favorite portraits of him. Simmons packed up Upstairs Used Books one book at a time, and recreated a new version of the store inside the gallery, complete with Cohen’s cluttered desk, his concealed pantry of canned foods, and personal items that were scattered around the store like a thermos and a digital camera. 

Simmons: It’s a destructive process, like archaeology, where you’re just dismantling the store. While you’re peeling back all these layers, you’re seeing how the store was built. That was a revelation to me in a way. It was like gravity and good intentions, I think, was all that keeping some of those shelves up. …  I put it back together again the way it was. And then there are dust bunnies stashed behind these shelves here. I had that opportunity to include actual Ira dust, which, you know, we all know what dust usually is — particles of our own self. I really wanted the smell of Ira’s to carry through. I don’t know if the right word is alchemy, but I believe in the magical component of including dust and stuff like that. … Moving stuff back and forth, my car smelled like it for weeks. And I still have like a piece of wood that I just put in my car to smell like an air freshener, an Ira air freshener. … It helped me personally with my grieving — just being able to be in a space when otherwise I would have just not been able to. The door would be locked and I wouldn’t be able to get in ever again. 

Simmons’ recreation of Upstairs Used Books, as well as the paintings, drawings and bronze sculptures of Cohen in the surrounding gallery, were disassembled ahead of schedule as UMass Dartmouth closes its campus at the Star Store in downtown New Bedford. 

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Ben Berke is the South Coast Bureau Reporter for The Public’s Radio. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @BenBerke6.