“Manuel”, 7′ x 10′

When I read what follows to Don the other night at a dinner, he was visibly emotional. That’s a side of him I’ve only seen in connection with his tour de force The Migrant Series, but one that often evokes similar responses from others who view the work in person as well. 

Tomorrow, Don Coen’s exhibit at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center at Colorado College, The Migrant Series, closes. If you haven’t seen it yet, and have the opportunity, don’t miss it. The series consists of fifteen large, photorealistic images culled from thousands of photos Don took in fields across the US, from Texas to Washington state, and from California to Florida, of migratory field workers – some close-cropped, others, head and shoulders, still others, in groups of two or three standing or crouching, working in a field, etc. Nearly all seem aware of the presence of the camera, which makes sense, as Don asked their permission to photograph them.

“Lileanna”, 7′ x 10′

Decades ago, prior to the contemporary images of rural America he is most known for, Don saw the movie 2001, A Space Odyssey in a movie theater. Something about the film affected him deeply, causing him to respond with a series of abstract paintings he calls his “religous symbolist” work. Yet I doubt he would have been as affected by the film had he first watched it on a television set or laptop computer. Some movies were just made for the big screen.

Similarly, something about the scale, the quantity, the effort, and the subject matter involved in The Migrant Series combine to pack a punch you just have to experience in person. Face to face. (In terms of one’s visceral response to scale, Don will often use the following, humorous example. Someone in a VW Beetle cuts off your F-250. You honk and shake your fist at them. They notice, and, at the next red light, the driver gets out of his car – all 6’8″, 275 lbs of him. That, Don will say, is scale.)  
I could talk more about the Migrant Series, but it’s gotten plenty of glowing press both regionally and nationally.

A photo of Don on the wall of his Boulder, CO studio

I wanted to talk a bit about Don himself. I’ve had the pleasure of knowing him for thirty years now, and, having been a full time artist for longer than that, he’s one of my primary influences in that regard. Make that double time; although he’s let up just a bit, at times it has been typical for him to spend 12 to 15 hours a day, 7 days a week in his studio. 

Where does one get such a work ethic, I wonder? “Work?” I can hear Don reply – followed by the familiar laugh. Having grown up working on a farm in the eastern plains town of Lamar, Colorado, Don, now 81 years young, probably finds it absurd to call what he does work, by way of contrast. 

Maybe that is part of Don’s emotional tie to the unsung workers who he spent countless hours immortalizing on canvas. Perhaps he recognizes, in their penetrating, yet gentle gazes, something of the same character, the same tie to the land that helped to make him who he is. 

It’s a spirit not of the hyperbolic or sentimentalized west of Hollywood or Bierstadt, but one formed in and tested by the uncelebrated fields, farms, pastureland, and among the people and animals that inhabit, in the case of Colorado, the flatter nearly half of the state. 

Even the close-up of a rattlesnake isn’t fictionalized; Don had hundreds of up close and personal encounters with them as a boy in a place Don knows well and translates to the canvas one airbrush stroke at a time, treating the subject flatfootedly yet with a sublime majesty, simply calling it The Real West, and he’d know; he’s the Real Deal.
Don Coen and former CSFAC Museum Director Blake Milteer converse in Don’s studio in 2015

On the wall of Don Coen’s studio


Although the Migrant Series has been exhibited in a number of venues, it wasn’t until this week that one of the series’ subjects, Marissa, was finally able to see the work in person. Follow @fineartscenter on Instagram to view the photo of Don, Marissa, and her family that accompanies the following text, courtesy the FAC:
Yesterday we had the honor of meeting Marissa, a migrant farm worker, and her family as they viewed Don Coen’s painting of her for the very first time. Overcome with emotion and appreciation, Marissa expressed how much it means to her to be recognized for her hard work and dedication to providing a better life for her family. Marissa has been a migrant farm worker for over 10 years and still works to this day to put food on your table. Thank you Marissa!