And Then I Read: ARTS UNKNOWN, The Life & Art of Lee Brown Coye

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There are three artists whose interior black and white illustrations are considered the best in the horror and fantasy pulp magazines of the last century like WEIRD TALES and UNKNOWN. Two of them: Virgil Finlay and Hannes Bok have had collections of their art published. This is the first such book about the third, Lee Brown Coye, and it’s the first biography of the artist as well. Luis Ortiz, who did a fine job on a similar book about science fiction artist Ed Emshwiller for the same publisher, reviewed here, does equally well with this one.

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I first encountered the art of Coye in this book published in 1944, which I found in a local library in my teens (though minus this nice dust jacket). The stories were scary, and the pictures were creepy, gross, and yet fascinating. I really liked the distorted anatomy and deft scratchboard technique, and the nightmarish yet slightly humorous quality of the work in general.

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I also found and enjoyed his work in the few issues of WEIRD TALES I came across in used bookstores. He did a series of those “Weirdisms” full-pagers as well as story illustrations and a few painted covers. Coye turned up again in the 1970s in a semi-pro horror zine called WHISPERS, still doing the same kind of work, though nearing the end of his career at that point. And he did work for the publisher Arkham House, whose books I enjoyed looking at in bookstores, but usually couldn’t afford. That was all I knew about him until I read this book.

Turns out Coye had a long and varied life in art with lots of ups and downs, mostly downs. It was a struggle, but he managed to just support himself and his wife with his talent, always on the edge of things, living in upstate New York, a shy man who often had to be prodded by friends to get him to even look for paying art jobs. A true outsider in many ways, he had some early success in fine art, even selling a picture to the Metropolitan Museum in New York, and exhibiting at the Whitney. Then the depression of the 30s hit, and he got some WPA mural work. He moved close to New York for a while, trying to break into the art world there, but never quite succeeding, though he did a fair amount of commercial work for magazines and book covers. Later he retreated to his home territory upstate, working in advertising, doing some teaching, building models and dioramas for museums, making jewelry, and generally trying anything that would pay a little.

Coye’s art is sometimes hard to like: his anatomy is usually purposely distorted. At times he seems to celebrate ugliness. He never shied away from a horror story’s gross details. On the other hand, his sense of layout and design is often terrific. He was even a fine title designer. Drawing things of beauty was not something he could or wanted to do well, and that kept him out of many opportunities, as did his own self-doubt and shyness. Many clients took advantage of his talent, not paying him what the work was worth, and he accepted that without argument. Somehow, though, looking through this book, I find the work triumphs over all the adversity, and is still appealing to me. His story was, as well.

Recommended.

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