Lee Brown Coye was born in Syracuse, N.Y. on July 24, 1907, and lived his entire life in the Central New York area. He spent his early days in Tully, where his father, William, operated Coye’s Tearoom in the Hotel Slayton. The family moved to Syracuse when Lee was 17. When he was 21, in 1928, he married Ruth Carmody of Waverly, N.Y., two years his junior. They remained married until Lee’s death in 1981. Lee and Ruth had one son, Robert, born in 1932.
Mild-mannered, with a head full of red hair, Coye applied himself to art-related work, succeeding as a full-time professional artist in several media. He was almost entirely self-taught, taking only one night course in art, but was a perceptive student of nature and human anatomy. At first, Coye planned to become a children’s book illustrator, and in 1929, went to work in New York City. After the stock market crashed that October, Coye could not sell his children’s book illustrations, and returned to Cortland, to work as a sign painter. Along with sign painting, he began to concentrate on creating landscape paintings and murals.
He first rose to prominence in 1934 when the federal Public Works Administration hired him to paint a mural in the auditorium at the former, now-razed, Cazenovia High School. The subject of the first mural was the early settlement of Cazenovia. Likenesses of the founder, Colonel John Lincklean, and other early settlers, figured prominently in the painting, along with images of the first mill, first general store, local militia, Native Americans, and maple-syrup production. The local citizens were so impressed with his work, that they hired him to paint three additional murals that depicted Samuel de Champlain’s skirmish with Oneida Native Americans in 1615, the Erie Canal, and agriculture in Central New York during the 19th century.
Throughout Coye’s long art career, he portrayed a wide array of subjects in just as many media. He was not only a painter, illustrator, and muralist, but also a sculptor, photographer, and silversmith, as well as a model and diorama maker. His work ran the gamut from medical illustrations, advertising for the WSYR radio station, ghoulish drawings for horror and fantasy magazines, models of frontier towns and a colonial coffee house, sculptures of Don Quixote and Moby Dick, as well as paintings of the Central New York landscape.
In 1937, Coye won first prize for oil painting in the Associated Artists of Syracuse exhibit, and the following year, he won first prize for watercolor painting. The Syracuse Museum of Fine Arts, predecessor of the Everson Museum of Art, purchased Coye’s tempera painting, “Across the Street,” painted in 1938, for its permanent collection that same year. The scene depicts the red brick buildings on the corner of James and State Streets in Syracuse in the early 20th century. In 1939, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City purchased a Coye watercolor titled, Dark House, painted in 1938, for its permanent collection.
As a history aficionado Lee Brown Coye recorded various historical scenes throughout his career. In 1940, he created a series of paintings depicting the American Civil War. He also painted scenes from New York’s colonial days and into the 19th century: Trading between the Dutch and the Indians, 1634; The Battle of Oriskany, 1777; and The Busy Corner, 1850. This last painting illustrated a section of Utica during the mid-19th century. In the 1940s, Coye also painted several historic scenes featuring the Erie Canal and railroads.
The 1940s also marked the beginning of Coye’s long practice of illustrating horror stories. He is perhaps best-known today for his spooky images and ghoulish figures. In 1944, Farrar & Rhinehart publishers awarded Coye a contract to illustrate an edition of mystery and horror stories, “Sleep No More: Twenty Masterpieces of Horror for the Connoisseur,” edited by August Derleth, an American writer and anthologist. When asked about illustrating the macabre, Coye replied, “I love horrific pictures.” Coye illustrated other Derleth horror anthologies: “Who Knocks and The Night Side,” as well as anthologies by two other horror story authors, H.P. Lovecraft and Manly Wade Wellman. From 1945 to 1952, Coye illustrated for Weird Tales, a fantasy and horror fiction pulp magazine founded in 1923. Coye’s “horrific pictures” appeared on the covers and on the inside pages of Weird Tales. His ghastly drawings appeared in books and magazines throughout the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, and he was presented with the World Fantasy Award for best artist in 1975 and 1976.
Coye also achieved recognition for his medical illustrations. Beginning in about 1946, a local surgeon asked Coye to create spontaneous drawings of an operation. He later took an anatomy course at Syracuse University to polish his skills. Two years later, Coye was spending considerable time conducting further research in dissecting and operating rooms and studying X-rays to draw illustrations of the human brain and nervous system. In an article that appeared in the October 1948 issue of American Artist, Ernest W. Watson credited Coye with “contributing to research work which may be of considerable importance in the understanding of diseases of the nervous system.”
At this time, the tireless and hard-working Coye also was teaching art classes at the Syracuse Museum of Fine Arts that were sponsored both by the museum and the City of Syracuse’s Adult Education Department. The courses were free to take, and Coye, “one of the outstanding artists of Syracuse,” taught oil and watercolor painting and drawing to adult students. Coye had been teaching art courses through this program since 1938.
A prolific artist, utilizing his skills to create medical art, advertising, book & magazine illustrations, outdoor signs, and traditional paintings, as well as to teach other budding artists, Coye positioned himself to earn a good living from the art profession. He stated in the 1948 American Artist article, “[B]y the use of our talents in an unrestricted, creative field, here is an opportunity with unlimited possibilities for those who are inclined to put in the necessary effort to be successful at it.”
By the late 1950s, Coye was selling his artwork on the installment plan. For anyone craving an original Lee Brown Coye painting, and who could not afford to immediately pay the full price of between $50 and $250 (that would equate to $435 to $2,200 today), Coye offered his customers the opportunity to finance their purchases with installment payments. Local citizens had been able to buy products on the installment plan for many years and now they could buy Coye’s art in much the same manner. Coye deplored what he described as the “snob system” of purchasing art. “Too much art is bought by the well-to-do who are pressured into it or led to believe it’s fashionable to own originals,” he said in a 1958 Syracuse Herald Journal article. Coye strongly believed that a creative person had the obligation to make his or her art as widely available as possible. He suggested that his installment plan would break down psychological barriers that kept customers of modest wealth from buying and enjoying his art. Coye was well aware of criticism from other artists who proclaimed him too commercial in his approach to distributing his art, but he felt compelled to create some art (practically anything but portraits) and sell it to the “common folk.”
Coye moved from Syracuse to Hamilton in 1959 when he took a job with Sculptura, Inc., a small company housed in the former Hamilton Railroad Depot on Milford Street in Hamilton. Utilizing a casting process that allowed metal to be cast in thin, light layers, Sculptura reproduced ancient sculptures and bas reliefs originally created in Africa, the Middle East, and Indochina. Sculptura hired Coye to repair casting molds used in the process and also to oversee fabrication of the company’s reproductions. Although Sculptura only lasted for five years, closing in 1964, the company generated molds for over 100 sculptures and bas reliefs, which, in turn, were used to mass produce duplicate sculptures and bas reliefs.
Along with working at Sculptura, Inc., Coye continued creating his other artwork in Hamilton and set up an art studio above a bakery. Among the smells of freshly baked bread and pastries, he recorded life in the village and surrounding area, and became known as the “artist of Hamilton.” Coye lived and created artwork in Hamilton until his death on Sept. 5, 1981. He displayed his work in several area venues: libraries, colleges and universities, and museums.
Anyone familiar with Lee Brown Coye’s artwork realizes that he was a very eclectic artist whose work is hard to categorize. Gordon F. Muck, art critic for the Post-Standard newspaper, described Coye in the 1960s as being “steeped in the history of the region, [with] his paintings show[ing] a love for the poetic qualities of our past heritage,” and displaying “both the stylization of Charles Burchfield and the stark realism of Edward Hopper.”
As an artist, Lee Brown Coye bridged the gap between his artistic flair and aptitude, and the sometimes hard reality that many artists face of successfully making a living as a full-time, professional artist. He certainly should be viewed as an encouraging antecedent to all aspiring professional artists of current and future generations. His artistic legacy lives on in the collections of the Everson Museum of Art, SUNY Morrisville, SUNY Oswego, Colgate University, Syracuse University, and the Onondaga Historical Association. He is a testament to artistic ability, love of community, and business acumen, all characteristics that served him well and now benefit the Central New York region. ν
Thomas Hunter is curator of museum collections at the Onondaga Historical Association (OHA) (www.cnyhistory.org), located at 321 Montgomery St. in Syracuse.