One may wonder about its interpretation, but all art is subject to interpretation beyond first glance. That happens to be the thematic quote of Forest Hills’ own Jim Cowen, a highly skillful artist who exemplifies “beauty is in the detail,” and coined Kings From Queens, a rare collection of pen and ink art depicting royalty’s relationship to nature.
Cowen’s Kings From Queens collection consists of 12 works named by the royalty he illustrates. Jim Cowen is a man of technique and vision who lets his hand take the lead.
“At the outset, I was taken by the costumes worn in ancient paintings of the great celebrity kings throughout history,” he recently said in an interview. “I work off the costume and the pose, and minimize the details of their faces, since I am much more devoted towards developing the picture.”
Cowen’s career has taken him down many paths. He is the acting and vocal coach of Theatre Next Door, and an illustrator of records, posters, and books. He worked at record labels including Columbia, Verve, and Mercury, as well as MGM Records, where he served as A&R Director and created the Music Factory National Weekly Radio Show.
At that time, he was assigned with approving album covers, and worked with Andy Warhol on the legendary “banana” cover for the Velvet Underground & Nico album. Cowen was also the publisher of Music Gig, and was the Bureau Chief of Performance Magazine.
In 1969, Cowen first held a Rapidograph pen, which was a gift while on a three-week tour with MGM Records singer and guitarist Richie Havens, who was also a very talented graphic artist. While in London, Cowen gazed at a picturesque scene of Poplar trees from his hotel window, and captured the view through pen and ink.
He has been fascinated by illustrating trees and landscapes heavily-laden with tiny detail ever since.
“The finery in my work is beautiful patterns in the costumes and largely foliage-based designs,” he said. “I was inspired by portrait paintings in sightseeing books I picked up at London palaces, and allowed the kings and queens’ costumes to suggest an outdoor setting. This concept has proven to be a very workable and fruitful guide, where my ideas flow easily.”
Although unified thematically, each work in Kings From Queens is independently unique, with distinctive elements to be discovered upon closer examination. Two of Cowen’s highlight works, which capture a three dimensionality and a dual definition of depth, are “Henry VIII” and “Queen Elizabeth.”
“Henry VIII” took approximately three weeks to come to fruition.
“Henry VIII is such a strong figure, that he can stand up to an almost overbearing, powerful, wild, and busy background,” Cowen explained.
“Queen Elizabeth” is Cowen’s flagship work, since it marked the first in his collection. He completed it in a month and a half.
“Foliage branches are weaving in a Jean Cocteau manner throughout her garment and pearls,” Cowen said. “The sizes of the pearls extending down the costume are a way of exaggerating the enormous wealth of kings and queens.”
With intricate branches over Queen Elizabeth are weird trees in the receding backdrop, which are a figment of his imagination.
In a proud tone, Cowen calls himself a Queens boy from Sunnyside, where he spent 22 years and then married his high school sweetheart. They lived in a Manhattan brownstone on East 57th Street, and paid a $130 monthly rent for their three-room apartment across from where Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe lived.
This was close to work, as well as art museums such as MOMA, which the artistic couple often visited. Since the 1970s, they have resided in Forest Hills.
To achieve the integrity and detail in Cowen’s art requires patience and dedication. He explained it as a long but very rewarding process. He uses a magnifying glass, and might illustrate as small as three or four square inches in an evening.
When working in pen and ink, in order to accomplish shaded areas, most artists use a stippling effect known as cross-hatching, where minute straight lines are drawn to fill in spaces. Cowen’s method differs by the inclusion of tiny circles in varied sizes, rendered through the use of a .006 nib Rapidograph pen, which is the finest manufactured.
Cowen plans to further develop his collection, and is currently working on a quite humorous Kings From Queens piece featuring a boy king. He is presently in discussion with a few key Manhattan art galleries and an art book publisher.
To date, Cowen has had about 15 of his celebrity portrait works published in fine art books, such as The Best of Colored Pencil (Volumes I & II), which features seven of his works. He had the privilege of illustrating artists such as B.B. King, Howard Stern, Comedian Victor Borge, and many others.
Tomorrow’s artists should “look at the aesthetics within themselves first.”
“I do art that wants to be looked at,” he said. “For art to be a fulfilling experience, you want to enjoy the adventure and satisfy yourself first. Art is not in the thinking or talking, but art is in the doing.”