In 1980, when Ted CoConis decided to leave the world of illustration, he and Kristen, his partner now of 40 years, moved to Europe to “avoid being tempted by the next interesting assignment.”
CoConis sat down to paint en plein air on the Left Bank of the Seine, a location so beloved by artists that the charm of it has been left threadbare. Thirty years later CoConis unwittingly proved it otherwise. Buffeted by the whim and caprice of the public world beyond a studio, he absorbed the flood of humanity, the stories embedded in the lines of a face, the histories that had yet to unfold. In The Carousel, a moody painting rendered in rich ambers and umbers during that first fruitful year, a pale nude woman with fire-engine red hair sits upon a vintage carousel horse. Her grip is as firm as the set of her mouth, leaving no room for carelessness, query, or deviation—a strong emotional image drawn from the palpable fear CoConis observed in a young girl whose first merry-go-round ride was accented by her parents’ ongoing argument nearby.
The power of Women in Paris, as the evolving series of CoConis’s work has come to be known, is the same one that fueled his first illustrations: Every face, every gesture, every choice in clothing and setting tells a story. And within that story, the dignity, discovery, and depth of the human experience is laid bare.
Ted CoConis was born in 1927, the year Charles Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic from New York to Paris. Adventure was in the air, and every red-blooded American boy wanted to be a pilot. Being a precocious lad—CoConis had received a scholarship to the Art Institute of Chicago while still in grade school—he joined the United States Air Force at 15, using an altered baptismal record. This risky deception lasted almost two years before his father finally exposed the forgery. Honorably discharged at the hoary age of 17, CoConis enrolled in Chicago’s American Academy of Art despite his dispassion for academics.
It wasn’t long before the peregrine again heeded the call of the wild blue. This time CoConis joined the U.S. Merchant Marine and found himself in Russian-occupied Romania. Drawing, drawing, drawing all the while.
On his return to the States, CoConis followed the recommendation of an Air Force colonel who had admired his drawings and encouraged him to apply for a position that would make use of his prodigious talents. The 18-year old went to work in the publicity department of the Fifth Army in Chicago, creating illustrations for magazine covers, brochures, and posters. “It was way over my head,” says CoConis with characteristic modesty.
Within a few years he was offered a similar position at the Presidio in San Francisco. It was there he developed the California approach to illustration with its heavy emphasis on design. CoConis’s considerable merit as designer and draftsman eventually led to free-lance commissions that would very soon attract the attention of Chaite Studio in New York. As his reputation and client base grew, so did his desire for independence and solitude. By the late 1960s he had achieved his goal of total self-reliance.
CoConis’s skill was unique. Capable of capturing the brassy charm of Doris Day for an album cover one day, while satisfying the meticulous demands of muscular authors like James A. Michener the next, CoConis developed an uncanny knack for stepping inside the head of any character, drawing on their strengths, recognizing their frailties, and capturing a particular moment in time.
In “Dibs,” a story CoConis illustrated in 1967 for Reader’s Digest Condensed Books, the inner world of a troubled boy is reflected in a vision of American childhood that was changing even as CoConis drew. It was no surprise that two years later Betsy Byars chose CoConis to illustrate what would become her Newberry Award-winning children’s book, Summer of the Swans, a story about a courageous little girl and her mentally challenged brother. What is somewhat surprising is that, after seeing such illustrations years later, the Department of Defense came knocking on CoConis’s door. The resulting commissions by the U.S. Army and Air Force currently hang in the Pentagon.
By then, most people knew CoConis could invoke within a single image what every writer, PR man, or studio exec hoped to attain within the arc of an entire story. As CoConis’s reputation and awards accrued, his style became more uninhibited, more iconic. Standing side-by-side, movie posters for Petulia, Dorian Gray, Fiddler on the Roof, Man of La Mancha, Labyrinth, and Hair, clearly bear the same progenitor—a proto-psychedelic font of sensuality, corporeality, emotion, memory, and fantasy writhing and weaving together to tell a tale.
Vladimir Nabokov was so taken by the image CoConis created for his book Ada, he insisted on adding the original painting to his collection; award-winning Polish author Jerzy Kosinski soon followed suit. Then, in 1976, CoConis was asked to create what has become an enormously collectible album cover for Sinbad, the final major-label release by civil rights anthem maker Weldon Irvine. The following year, CoConis painted Odyssey’s eponymous album, featuring the disco-era hit Native New Yorker. For both, he captured the energy and power of a flourishing black youth movement.
CoConis was on the crest of the next great wave. Then he stepped off the boat.
For the past 25 years, Ted and Kristen have lived in a remote little fishing village on the Gulf Coast of Florida and an even more remote little fishing village on the Bold Coast of Maine. In between, they travel to Paris to find subjects to add to their growing company of ladies.
For example, he was inspired by the itinerant street vendors to paint Le Panier des Rêves (The Basket of Dreams). It depicts a young girl bundled against the snow, clutching a spray of colorful spring flowers. Her eyes, hidden in the shadow of a large hat, manage to convey a lifetime. And in Partir en Bateau de Jardin des Tuileries (To Set Sail from the Tuileries Gardens) CoConis follows wooden toy boats through the waters of the Tuileries Gardens into the somewhat psychedelic reverie of a well-coiffed It Girl. She sits on the precipice of adventure—at once plucky and unsure, awkward and elegant; a captivating augur for CoConis’s more mature muses—the breathtaking matrons, patrons, and queens who hold court in the cafés, shops, and galleries of Paris.
“It feels like I’ve been groping to learn how to draw and paint for 85 years,” says CoConis, winner of numerous awards from the Society of Illustrators as well as the Art Directors Clubs of New York and Los Angeles. “I think I’m finally getting it. Sort of. But I never quite achieve what I hope to. I think it will happen with the next painting. Or maybe the next one. Or the next. That illusive goal always seems to remain slightly beyond my reach.”
2013 Acker Award Winner