sculptor, was born in Bendigo on 25 April 1892, one of five children of Julius Cohn, a brewer, and Sarah Helen, née Snowball. She studied drawing, then modelling at the Bendigo School of Mines (1904 and 1910-19). Following her father’s death, the family moved to Melbourne and Ola continued her modelling studies at Swinburne Technical College (1920-25) under J.R. Tranthim-Fryer. She was a member of the Victorian Artists’ Society from 1921 and began a lifetime association with the Melbourne Society of Women Painters and Sculptors (MSWPS) in 1922, being its president from 1950 until she died.
With her sister Franziska, Ola went to London in 1926 and enrolled at the Royal College of Art; her teachers included Ernest Cole and Henry Moore. She received her diploma in 1929 and was awarded a scholarship. She also studied at the London School of Arts and Crafts and travelled extensively in Europe. During this period she produced sculptures in a wide range of mediums: wood, stone, plaster, bronze and clay.
Cohn returned to Melbourne in 1930 and opened a studio in Collins Street. An exhibition of her overseas work at Melbourne in March 1931 established her as one of the most important modernist sculptors in Australia. Predictably, her simple massive forms attracted as much condemnation as praise, but she maintained a pragmatic attitude to conservative critics: 'Having spent my life studying sculpture, it seems ludicrous to be upset by the opinions of those who have not’.
Stone-carving, learnt at the Royal College of Art, became increasingly important to her. Her first public commissions (1938) were for a memorial fountain in Bendigo and two (controversial) six-foot sandstone figures representing Science and Humanity for the porch of the Royal Hobart Hospital (Tas.). Her most important public sculpture was a monumental figure commemorating the pioneer women of South Australia (1940-41). The simplified organic forms of these early works have the vitality, directness and architectural simplicity of the most significant European figurative-modernist work.
Undoubtedly Cohn’s most popular work is The Fairies’ Tree she carved in Fitzroy Gardens, Melbourne (1931-34). She also published three children books: The Fairies’ Tree (1932), More about the Fairies’ Tree (1932) and Castles in the Air (1936). Later she wrote Mostly Cats (1964) and an unpublished autobiography, 'Me in the Making’ (c.1950, SLV).
Cohn was committed to making sculpture accessible. She gave lectures, demonstrations and private instruction and was a part-time lecturer at the Melbourne Kindergarten Training College (1940-54). During World War II she conducted recreational sculpture lessons for soldiers. After moving to East Melbourne in 1937, she made her studio a centre for artists. She encouraged younger women artists and provided a permanent home for MSWPS at her studio, which she bequeathed to the Council of Adult Education (now the Ola Cohn Memorial Centre).
Cohn travelled through Europe and Iceland in 1949-51. She continued to work until she died, her last public commission being for St Paul’s Anglican Church, Bendigo. In 1952 she won the acquisitive Crouch Prize at Ballarat for her woodcarving, Abraham – the first time that this had been awarded to a sculpture. In 1953 she married John Green, a retired government printer and longstanding friend. In 1964 Cohn was awarded the OBE; she died on 23 December.