Saturday, January 17, 2015

Lee Brown Coye (1907-1981)-Part One

Fine Artist, Illustrator, Commercial Artist, Muralist, Sculptor, Photographer, Silversmith, Jewelry Maker, Modelmaker, Writer, Teacher
Born July 24, 1907, Syracuse, New York
Died September 5, 1981

The other day I wrote about Lee Brown Coye and witches together. Now, I'll write about them separately. First the artist.

Lee Brown Coye was born on July 24, 1907, in Syracuse, New York, but as a child moved with his family to the nearby small town of Tully. Fittingly, for a later artist of fantasy and the macabre, Coye grew up in a house built in the Gothic style with a tall Gothic window under its front eaves. Like many artists of his generation, Coye copied pictures out of the comics as a boy. The Gumps and Toonerville Folks were two favorites.

Coye graduated from Groton High School in Groton, New York, in 1926. His first job out of school was as a draftsman at the typewriter company where his father worked. Drawing pictures of typewriters was not for the young artist, however, and in 1928, Lee Brown Coye, with his new wife, the former Ruth Carmody, settled in Syracuse and began attending art classes at Syracuse University. His teacher there was George Hess. In 1929, Lee and Ruth Coye moved to Leonia, New Jersey, the location of a famed artist's colony that included Harvey Dunn and Dean Cornwell, two heirs to the Howard Pyle school of American illustration. There Coye took lessons from Howard McCormick (1875-1943), an accomplished illustrator and wood engraver. In attempting to get his work into the public eye, Coye rode a ferry every week or so from Fort Lee Landing to Manhattan where he made the rounds of art director's offices and art galleries, usually without success.

When the stock market crashed in 1929, Lee and Ruth Coye, their savings nearly gone, retreated to Groton. By 1931, they were living in Syracuse, where Coye landed a job as a commercial artist at an advertising agency. The following year he opened his own studio, Coye & Kaplan, with a friend, Leo Kaplan. The two produced Coye's first extended work of illustration, a limited-edition book called The Seventh Ogre (1932). And very limited it was: only 350 copies were printed. In 1934, Coye began work on a series of murals for Cazenovia Central School under the auspices of the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP), an alphabet-soup agency of the Federal government. "I was a big shot," Coye claimed. His pay was $37.50 a week.

The murals for Cazenovia occupied Coye for most of what was left of the 1930s. At the same time he worked at various commercial art jobs and illustrated a number of publications, including dust jackets or interior illustrations for The Vicar of Azay-Le-Rideau by Honore Balzac (1937), The Land Is Large by Emerson Waldman (1938), Scylla the Beautiful by Albert and Helen Fowler (1939), and Beat! Beat! Drums! A Poem of the Civil War by Walt Whitman (1939).

In the spring of 1938, Lee Brown Coye was on a trout fishing trip near the town of DeRuyter, New York, when he had a strange experience that would one day help define his work. Deep in the woods and following an abandoned railroad grade, Coye came upon a thicket of pine trees and scrub. Once in the thicket, he began noticing "a strange pattern of stones lying on the ground," a maze-like pattern through which he passed to find something stranger still. Nailed and wired together were collections of sticks and boards "in fantastic array," stuck in piles of stone or in stone walls. Further on, Coye came to an abandoned and decrepit farmhouse and still more stick structures in the yard and trees around the house and even on its walls.
I went inside [he recounted] and on the walls in some rooms were drawings, in what appeared to be charcoal, of these weird, abstract concoctions . . . . Some of them covered a whole wall; huge fantastic murals. (1)
Still he continued, descending a set of stone steps into the cellar of the house. Suddenly, from the darkness, a hand grabbed him. Using the only weapon he had--a small frying pan hanging from his belt--he struck at whatever held him and fled from the cellar and the house.

Whether Coye's tale is true or not, he began using the stick-lattice motif in his work to such an extent that it became a kind of signature. His tale survives not only in his art but also in fictionalized form in a short story by Karl Edward Wagner. Appropriately enough, it is entitled "Sticks."

To be continued . . .

(1) Quoted in Arts Unknown: The Life and Art of Lee Brown Coye by Luis Ortiz (2005), p. 7.

Other Dimensions by Clark Ashton Smith, published in 1970 by Arkham House with a stick-motif cover by Lee Brown Coye.

Text and captions copyright 2014 Terence E. Hanley

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