By Todd Wilkinson EBS Environmental Columnist
For decades, there’s been a growing beef about “Western Art”: an insurrectionist criticism claiming the genre’s become hopelessly stranded in a 19th century pipe dream dominated by idealized portrayals of cowboys, Indians and wildlife on the verge of disappearing.
Not only is it imagery that stands accused of being frozen in time and unimaginative, but many art collectors in the 21st century—especially young people coming into their prime—find it to be passé and lacking in substance.
Anne Coe is a contemporary Western painter whose work I’ve followed with delight for 30 years. With this sweet, fearless, irreverent, unassuming visionary of the New West, I can tell you a maxim holds true: If you want to know who the important artists will be in history, whose work is likely to stand the test of time, then take a look at who is collecting and exhibiting them.
Coe’s fans include a distinguished group of private individuals as well as public museums including the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.; the Whitney Museum of Western Art in Cody, Wyoming; the Eiteljorg in Indianapolis, Indiana; the Booth Museum in Cartersville, Georgia; the Charles M. Russell Museum in Great Falls, Montana; the Thomas Gilcrease in Tulsa, Oklahoma; and the National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson, Wyoming.
Her work has also adorned all kinds of public spaces, including Phoenix’s Sky Harbor International Airport where her terrazzo floor piece, titled “Topo Magic,” was installed in 2013 and meets the journeys of millions of travelers. “Topo Magic” draws its inspiration, she told a reporter with the Arizona Republic, from colorful topographic maps she uses in hikes through the Arizona desert.
“Applying a palette of eleven colors, she adopted the graphic stylizations of topo maps to depict rivers, canyons, farm fields and mountains in a whimsical landscape of wiggling shapes and contours,” the article read.
Coe, whose distinctive home and studio is located in Apache Junction, Arizona near the foot of the Superstition Mountains, is an astute observer who has a flourish for irony. It doesn’t land on the eye, however, like a blunt club delivering blows of conscious awareness but as soothing pictures of beauty that draw you in and let you reach your own conclusion.
If one were to describe her primary motifs, I would call her an exponent of “magical realism” in the same vein as others with avid followings, including Montana’s own Monte Dolack, Parks Reece, Jenni Lowe, Tina Close and Mimi Matsuda, Jackson Hole’s Greta Gretzinger, as well as artists like Alaska’s Ray Troll and the acclaimed Walton Ford and Alexis Rockman in New York City. The list of contemporary nature painters, unafraid to paint more than mere pretty pictures, is long and growing.
Sometimes, however, environmental and social issues are so big and overwhelming that it’s incredibly difficult to confront them head on. A provocative example is Coe’s “Covert Operation: Range War Refugees” which portrays cattle and sheep losing their public land grazing allotments as victims, analogous to refugee crises happening around the world.
Born in 1949, Coe is a rural girl by instinct, a fourth-generation Arizonan who grew up on a windblown farm/ranch where her creature comforts were not human made but the bonds that formed around constant contact with desert flora and fauna. After earning degrees from Arizona State University, she was enlisted to complete mural designs for McDonalds Corporation and Warner Brothers. She even served as an arts producer for a TV station in Phoenix.
Coe has the same kind of technical skill and worship for allegory wielded by Italian Renaissance painters in their explorations of archetypes and religious symbolism. But in her case the subject of her fascination is the meaning of prosperity and how humanity intersects with nature. Mirthful, her canvases use levity as a mirror reflecting our manic disconnection from the forces of creation.
When pondering the West, Coe will tell you she has a special fondness for the wildest ecosystem in the Lower 48: Greater Yellowstone. During an earlier time in her career, she made trips to Jackson Hole and displayed her work in that well-known art town along with a group of other young contemporary Western painters.
Among them was her boyfriend at the time, Billy Schenk, whose Western pop-art canvases are highly collectible and had been inspired by Schenk’s apprenticeship in the studio of Andy Warhol in New York.
Coe, however, took a different path, delving into wildlife though no one would suggest that she’s a typical “wildlife artist.” Here are just a few examples: Black bears, backdropped by the Tetons, lounge in a swimming pool instead of the Snake River. Coyotes and wolves crash through trophy second homes. Imperiled species gather in a diner for a final meal. Cowgirls charge forth on horseback lassoing trout.
As Julie Sasse once shared when she was curator of modern and contemporary art at the Tucson Museum of Art: “Over the years, Coe’s paintings evolved from lighthearted whimsy (such as radioactive, mutant Gila monsters destroying the world in a retaliatory rage) to more mature works with a confidence of message and style. Throughout her artistic development, her commitment to change through art has remained constant.”
Coe’s use of bright color is aesthetically mesmerizing. When she does incorporate human figures, her heroines are often green-minded cowgirls, possessing the convictions of St. Francis and the fearless mockery of Thelma and Louise.
“Reality and the divine are both made manifest to me in the rawness of Nature,” she told me. “Pure nature, that seems to diminish daily before my eyes, is the only truth and the greatest beauty. It is filled with possibility and great potential. For these reasons I am compelled to express that vision metaphorically. It was one thing, when in our ancient past, we acted as the master of the world but could not destroy it. Now we can and are!”
Yes, she is an unapologetic advocate of conservation and what she sees around the West—destruction of wildlife habitat, killing campaigns waged against predators, development racing forward with no regard given to water shortages being worsened by climate change, and tactless suburbanization—provides a treasure trove of fodder.
“I am greatly influenced by the world around me in the built and the wild environment, and their interaction. I don’t feel like I am a prophet of our times but rather a handmaiden of the prophets,” she once said in an interview. “I take what they say and with metaphor, try to make it timeless and universal.”
Todd Wilkinson has been a journalist for 30 years. He is author the recent award-winning book “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek: An Intimate Portrait of 399, the Most Famous Bear of Greater Yellowstone,” featuring 150 astounding images by renowned American nature photographer Thomas Mangelsen. EBS publishes Wilkinson’s New West column every week online and twice a month in the printer version of the paper, under a partnership arrangement with the Wyoming online journal thebullseye.media. We encourage you to check out The Bullseye.