A few years ago Beverly and Bill Cottman were dining at a restaurant in Puerto Morelos, Mexico, when they heard a voice from across the room.
"Are you that Bill that's on the radio show 'Mostly Jazz'? It was someone who recognized his voice," Beverly Cottman said.
That KFAI program was just one of many ways Bill Cottman contributed to the Twin Cities scene. He had the mind of an engineer and an artist — more specifically, a photographer, projectionist and writer whose curiosity seemed boundless.
A mentor to young artists, a longtime board member at Juxtaposition Arts and a frequent exhibitor at Homewood Studios in Minneapolis, Cottman died Dec. 5 of cancer. He was 77.
"The entire arts community is saddened with the loss of Bill Cottman," said artist Seitu Jones, who met him in the early 1970s.
Born in Salisbury, Md., Cottman met his wife, Beverly, in 1966 at Howard University in Washington, D.C., where he studied engineering and she biology. Within a year, they were married.
"He graduated on a Friday, we got married on a Saturday, and we came to Minnesota on a Sunday," said Beverly, also known as Auntie Beverly Storyteller.
His first job out of school was with the St. Paul-based computer company Univac, where he was an application engineer.
In 1967 he joined the Hallie Q. Brown Camera Club, frequented by Black photographers in the Twin Cities. But he didn't have a photo exhibit until 2003, after he and his wife moved next door to Homewood Studios in north Minneapolis. It was the first of many.
"It was a slow growth through what he wanted to accomplish with his photography," said George Roberts, co-founder of the art gallery and artist gathering space. "Did he see himself as a street photographer? As a historian? As a documentarian? As an artist and creator of new things? He was asking all of those things all the time and continued to answer those questions."
Inspired by the photos of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Garry Winogrand and Roy DeCarava, the art of Romare Bearden, the poetry of Langston Hughes and the music of John Coltrane, Cottman positioned his own work somewhere between street photography and what he called "social landscapes … compositions of people, places and things that cross my path daily."
From the early days of the North Side arts crawl FLOW, founded in 2005, he was always a supportive presence, whether exhibiting work or mentoring younger photographers.
Cottman believed in keeping art active. At his 2016 exhibition "Disturbances" (also the title of a book he published), he frequently changed the location of artworks during the show's 20-day run while hosting weekly events focused on different elements of his work.
"As a photographer, one of his favorite subjects was his family," Jones said. "Bill was truly multidisciplinary — he was a poet for those of us lucky enough to be linked to his continuing observations done in kind of a haiku form — a 'Blackku' form more than anything."
As a writer, Cottman often used the form he called "17s," because each work had only 17 syllables.
At the time of his death, he was nearly finished with a fourth book of writings and images, titled "Precarious." His previous books — "Surface Tensions," "Presence" and "Disturbances" — are for sale on Blurb.com or through his website, billcottman.com.
"Bill was a very kind person, and he did really kind things, but not for people to notice him," his wife said. "He really believed in himself and especially his creative ideas."
Cottman began hosting KFAI's "Mostly Jazz" with Beverly's mother, Patricia Edwards Walton, in 1996. After she died in 2003, his daughter Kenna and granddaughter Yonci joined him as co-hosts.
For the Dec. 11 show, Kenna played some of her father's favorite tunes and took requests by phone with former KFAI executive director Janis Lane-Ewart. She and Yonci will continue hosting the show, ensuring the family legacy lives on.
Cottman is survived by his wife, their daughter Kenna Cottman and grandchildren Yonci Jameson and Ebrima Sarge of Minneapolis; his brother Harry Quinton, of Williamsburg, Va.; nephew Daryl, of New York; and niece Debra, of Maryland.
A family memorial has already been held. There will likely be a celebration of life at a future date. Memorials are suggested to Walker West Music Academy in St. Paul or Juxtaposition Arts in Minneapolis — or just purchase work from local artists.