Don Coen’s large-scale paintings bring us face to face with rural America
By Gussie Fauntleroy
This story was featured in the January 2016 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art January 2016 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story.
There are plenty of people who drive through the seemingly endless expanses of eastern Colorado as quickly as possible because, they believe, “there’s nothing there to see.” Don Coen would beg to differ.
The painter, who grew up on those plains on his family’s farm near Lamar, CO, sees both subtle and stunning physical beauty, as well as the almost invisible yet immensely important work that goes on continuously in rural agricultural America. As an artist he combines his personal memories with a deep love of the land and decades of painting experience to reveal some of what we miss when we speed through these ostensibly empty spaces with our eyes metaphorically closed.
And because these places and aspects of our culture are so essential yet so often overlooked, the 80-year-old painter presents them on a scale whose power and impact cannot be ignored: Most of Coen’s paintings are in the 6-by-8-foot range, and they can be as large as 7 by 10 feet. His “miniatures,” as he jokingly refers to them, measure 4 by 4 feet. His widely collected work has been shown in traveling exhibitions and is in the permanent collections of several major museums. Among other honors, he was selected as the featured artist for this month’s Coors Western Art Exhibit and Sale in Denver, CO.
Coen’s boyhood experience of the American family farm was as authentic as it gets. With two mules each and a plow, his father and uncle grew grain and raised cows on 640 acres they bought during the Depression. Young Don worked in the fields alongside his family and several Latino families. Although the Coens lived in a four-room farmhouse with no electricity or running water, the artist experienced no feeling of lack. Among his most prized memories is that of drawing with a pencil directly onto the white enamel of the kitchen table, whose ultra-smooth surface allowed him to smudge-shade his pictures with his fingers. “My mother was the sweetest woman I ever met,” he says admiringly. “She never once told me not to draw on the table.”
Indeed, with no background in or access to art, Coen’s parents were surprisingly encouraging of their son’s interest in drawing and painting. When he was 10, Coen copied a picture of Roy Rogers. His father looked it over and gently said, “Not too bad. Try it again.” Coen redid the drawing five times until his father was pleased with the result. It was one of the many ways the farm boy was matter-of-factly taught to always do his best and to put in the work required for that. Long hours in the fields and with farm animals were also excellent training in self-discipline, just as necessary in the studio today as it was on the farm, he says.
Coen’s first art instruction came during his senior year of high school. Not long afterward he was helping a friend move when he saw a print of a Charles M. Russell painting for the first time. Convinced he would become the next Charlie Russell, he assiduously put his hand to painting cowboy and Indian scenes. That came to an abrupt end during his freshman year studying art at the University of Denver. “My design teacher looked at my paintings and said, ‘Don, do you realize it’s not 1890?’ It was like a bomb went off in my head. I never painted another cowboy or Indian,” he says. Instead he vaulted directly into mid-20th century abstract art—and discovered he loved it.
Following graduation, Coen worked briefly in the ad-design department at Martin Marietta but was not happy there. He returned to school for a teaching certificate, taught in Denver- and Boulder-area public schools for a few years, and received a National Endowment for the Arts grant to serve as an artist-in-residence in Evergreen, CO, for a year. He then established the art program at Red Rocks Community College, a job that finally gave him time to pursue his own artistic endeavors on the side.
His painting, which had shifted back to realism, then underwent another sudden change. It was prompted by seeing the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey and also inspired by the work of abstract expressionist Mark Rothko. Coen began exploring symbolism and space, painting large shapes with brushes and then using an airbrush to overlay the images in veils of color. To others, these paintings suggested the cosmos; for Coen, they spoke of the vastness of land and sky near his beloved Lamar.
In the late 1970s, symbolism gave way to realism again: Coen and a friend were goose hunting at a lake near Lamar—a place the artist calls “my favorite spot in all the world.” The friend turned to Coen and said, “You love this area. You should paint it.” Thus was born the idea for the Lamar Series, which took three years to create and comprised 15 paintings in the style and scale for which he is known today.
Working realistically with an airbrush for the first time, Coen drew on his years of experience as a non-objective painter to convey images by incorporating abstract qualities of surface, color, pattern, and shape, all rendered large and up close. As he was painting reflections of cow faces in the water of a stock tank, for example, he realized that if he started thinking about the subject itself, it wouldn’t work. “I’d be thinking, this isn’t what water looks like,” he recalls. “But sure enough, when I stepped back across the room, it looked like water.”
Coen not only taught himself to paint using an airbrush, he invented an ingenious method for doing so: He installed a pulley system that allows him to raise and lower his canvas into a slot in the floor of the studio at his home northeast of Boulder, thereby keeping the area of canvas he’s working on at any given time at the right height. Each image contains up to 60 transparent layers of airbrush-applied paint. The artist also designed an 8-foot-long black box (about 3 feet tall and 4 feet wide) inside of which a reference photograph is projected. As he’s working, he looks at the photo through a 12-inch-square opening at one end of the box. The effect is of seeing the image in a darkened room, every detail visible and clear.
The scale of Coen’s paintings produces a visceral impact, which, depending on the image and the viewer, can be fascinating or unnerving. PRAIRIE RATTLER is a good example. When he decided to paint a rattlesnake for the Lamar Series, he asked himself how he had seen the creature depicted in western art and how he would do it differently. The stereotypical picture was of a rattlesnake coiled beside a bush and a cowboy being bucked from a spooked horse. But that wasn’t Coen’s experience—in grade school he rode a horse three miles each way to a one-room schoolhouse every day, and his horse was never spooked by the dozens of snakes he saw. At about 8 feet wide and 7 feet tall, PRAIRIE RATTLER is an intense presence. Some viewers, understandably, can’t be in the same room with it. “It’s funny because before [I painted it], I thought they were ugly, but I realized they’re absolutely beautiful,” the artist says of rattlesnakes. To his eye, the area where the rattles connect to the snake’s body conjures the petals of the nasturtiums he grew as a boy; other details bring seashells to mind, and the scales remind him of artichoke leaves.
THE FLOCK represents a very different kind of connotation for Coen. Some years ago he was with his father-in-law on a Christmas morning drive when they came across a flock of sheep being moved down the road. “I jumped out and laid down in the road and took two or three rolls of pictures,” he says. “I’ve always loved that painting. To me it was almost like Jesus and his flock.”
Indeed, the more spiritual aspects of the land in rural America, and the humanity of those who work it, have always been in Coen’s awareness, and highlighting those elements is part of his mission as an artist. His recently completed Migrant Series, which entailed 20 years of meeting and photographing migrant farmworkers around the country, presents 7-by-10-foot images of the men and women who produce much of this country’s food.
The paintings reflect the land’s quiet beauty as they honor and give identity to individuals who are all but invisible to the American public—except, perhaps, as symbols of political divisiveness. For Coen, they are real people doing the same kind of hard work he and his family did every day when he was young. Denver Art Museum Director Emeritus Lewis Sharp, who wrote a catalogue essay for the traveling Migrant Series exhibition, expressed Coen’s intention when he told the artist, “You’ve captured these people’s souls.” Adds Coen: “I think, in a strange way, it’s perfect for someone like to me to have done this series—I can see these people for the beauty of what they do.”
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