The forgotten ones

Don Coen captures the life of farm laborers with ‘The Migrant Series’

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'Pablo'
Don Coen

Don Coen’s family had a farm just outside of Lamar, Colorado, southeast of Colorado Springs, about half an hour’s drive from the border of Kansas, out there where the sky stretches on forever in every direction. Every morning once they were old enough, Coen and his brother got up and ground grain to feed the family’s 500 head of cattle, then they milked seven heifers before heading off to school. 

The boys’ parents bought their one-bedroom house during the Depression, before Don was born. There was no running water or electricity, and the boys slept on the screened-in front porch, nestled snugly in a feather tick, the family cat curled around their feet for extra warmth.

“I think I had about as wonderful a childhood as anybody could have,” Coen says today from his home off Jay Road, a sun-filled gallery of art Coen has made or collected from friends over his 83 years on Earth. 

“I didn’t know we were poor and nobody ever said we were poor,” he says of his childhood. “I never thought anything about it. I just thought that’s the way life is.” 

Hard work wasn’t just a part of life for Coen, it was the meaning of life. Everyone around him worked hard for everything they had, not least of all the migrant workers who came seasonally to pick crops on his family’s farm. 

Coen’s respect for life on the farm has carried through his nearly seven-decade career as an artist, most recently in The Migrant Series, a collection of 15 larger-than-life airbrush portraits of traveling Latino farmworkers, now showing at Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art (BMoCA), guest curated by Ann Daley. Over the course of nearly a decade, Coen traveled around Colorado and across the country — Florida, Texas, Washington, California, all by car — to photograph migrants at work in onion and strawberry fields, in orange groves and apple orchards. He visited many of them several times, and got to know members of their families, sometimes purely by coincidence during other trips to photograph migrants at work. He’s kept in touch with several of the people he photographed, and took road trips across hundreds of miles to hand deliver prints of his photos.

‘Miguel,’ art by Don Coen

Coen’s art — from the abstract, non-objective works that typified his early career to the large-scale Western landscape pieces that have come to define the later chapters of his catalog — explores the people, places and things we take for granted, whether that’s an abstract representation of a rainbow or a larger-than-life portrait of the people who pick the food we buy at the grocery store.

His art is large and all-consuming, like the Western skies he knows so well, with an expert treatment of light that draws the viewer ever closer, as though they could reach into the painting and touch the sleeve of its subject. 

His work, particularly The Migrant Series, reminds us of that befuddling truth: The more important something is — the more fundamental it is to everyday life — the more easily it’s ignored. 

•  •  •  •

Coen started drawing when he was 4 or 5, doodling on the family’s white enamel kitchen table.

“The table was real smooth, so I could draw with a pencil and then I could bend the lines with my fingers,” Coen says, sitting at his kitchen table today. 

He’s already given a tour of his house, a work of art in its own right that, by design, evokes the simultaneous sense of being inside a museum, a church and a farmhouse. All three environments shaped Coen’s personality. 

He gave an architect a 15-point list of parameters for the house. It was to be, first and foremost, sun- and star-filled, an “intimate surprise” where the walls acted as sculpture and “nature as canvases.” A devout disciple of the gospel of hard work, Coen says he cut every stick of wood for this house, working side-by-side with a carpenter to build it. Just inside the front door, fat koi fish swim slowly in a man-made pond, a symbol of strength of purpose and perseverance in Japanese culture. 

“I [drew on the kitchen table at my parent’s house] all the time and when I think back about it — I think it’s so amazing — not once did my mother say, ‘Donald, don’t draw on the table.’ Not once.” 

If his mother’s permissive style encouraged the young Donald’s artistic talent, his father was the whetstone that sharpened it to a fine point. 

“He could draw really well,” Coen says of his father, the man he calls his “first critic.” 

“One time, I think I was around 10 or 11, I had drawn this picture of Roy Rogers and when dad came in at noon [from working on the farm], I said, ‘Dad, I drew this picture of Roy Rogers.’ And he says, ‘Yeah, that’s not too bad.’” 

Coen pauses to mull on what he’s just said.

“My dad was tough with the compliments,” he offers. “He had me do that five times before he OK’ed it.”

His father’s kind but demanding assessments taught Coen to understand and employ constructive criticism. It served him well through art school; first at Lamar Junior College (now Lamar Community College), then at the University of Denver, where he earned his bachelor’s in advertising design, and finally at the University of Northern Colorado (UNC), where he received a master’s of fine art. 

He remembers a summer taking ceramics with Herb Schumacher, the man who started the ceramics program at UNC and became an authority on glaze formulation and kiln construction and firing.

“I had made a whole bunch of pots and I came in [to class] one day to foot them and I couldn’t find any of them,” Coen says. “Finally, I looked over in the [waste] bucket and there they were. And I said, ‘Mr. Schumacher, somebody threw away my pots.’ He said, ‘Oh yeah, I did. The next ones will be better.’ And that’s all he said.”

Criticism has always helped Coen jettison himself forward artistically. When a teacher in college suggested that his affinity for Charlie Russell’s paintings of Western life was dating Coen’s own work (or, as Coen puts it, “Hey, it’s not 1890.”), Coen realized he could find innovative ways to depict Western life as he knew it, in his own style. 

In the late ’60s, when Coen was the head of the art department at Boulder High School, his artistic style took an even harder turn after a colleague suggested he find the nearest theater immediately to see 2001: A Space Odyssey. Heavy on symbolism and light on dialog, the movie showed Coen a new way to view the world. 

“Well, I went to see it not having any idea that it would affect me,” Coen says. “I came out, I went home and I did my first abstract religious symbolism, and I painted that way for the next 12 years.” 

He shows me a huge, darkly painted canvas, a band of faintly prismatic color the only relief from the depths of the intense darkness. It symbolizes the rainbow, Coen tells me, God’s promise of peace to Noah after the flood. 

“I’ve always been religious from the standpoint of believing in God and feeling so grateful for God giving me the gift to do art,” Coen says. “And not only just a gift to do art, but the drive to do it, which is maybe even more important than the gift.” 

•  •  •  •

‘Aurelia,’ art by Don Coen

Coen’s rural roots were never far from his mind. His abstract paintings often symbolized the farm lands of Lamar and the realities of rural life. 

But he made a full return to non-objective landscape painting in the ’80s during a goose-hunting trip with his friend Larry in Neenoshe Reservoir. The sky was a stunning azure, a painting so good only God could have made it. It left the two men speechless, staring out across the plains to the point where the land met the sky. 

“Finally Larry turned to me and he said, ‘You know, Don, you love this area down here — you should paint Lamar.’”

The result was The Lamar Series, a collection of 15 large-scale, airbrush paintings that combined Coen’s love of abstract expression with his love of Western life, and paved the way for the work he would create for The Migrant Series nearly 20 years later. 

Using layer upon layer of airbrushed paint — up to 60 layers, he says — Coen slowly builds up colors on canvases as large as 7 by 10 feet. He cut a trough in the floor of the studio in his home that allows him to lower the paintings so he doesn’t have to stand on a ladder, ingenuity built up after years of building his own toys as a child in his family’s one-bedroom house. 

From a distance, Coen’s paintings are hyper-realistic, but they shift into softer and softer focus as you approach, creating a sense of abstraction. They offer a glimpse into the sun-scorched reality of farm life; the hot sun, the backbreaking labor. It still takes hard work to get food on the table. 

A few days after we met at his home, Coen guides me through The Migrant Series at BMoCA. There’s Francisco, a migrant worker in Manzanola, Colorado, with his young son in his lap. In Manzanola, farm laborers like Francisco have had to fight the ever-rising cost of living at apartment complexes that provide housing solely for migrant workers. A 2016 article from the La Junta Tribune-Democrat details issues like a lack of adequate staffing at one such apartment complex, leaving residents without an emergency contact when appliances broke or the heat went out, as well as without a Spanish-speaking liaison. Some migrants reported having to spend several nights in their cars because inadequate staffing meant paperwork couldn’t be filed. 

‘Liliana,’ art by Don Coen

Coen shows me the painting of Rosa and Cristobel, a husband and wife who have been going to Watsonville, California, for the last 17 years to pick strawberries. And Angel, who picks onions in Ventura, California in the scorching heat. 

Coen often sheds tears as he speaks about the migrant workers who allowed him to share their experience with the world. 

“I’m not sure why I get so emotional about this,” he tells me as we stare at his portrait of a man named Pablo in an apple orchard in Washington state. 

Coen and I both know why he gets emotional. We live in a fast-paced world, obsessed with the melodrama of political theater, where human beings are used as pawns in a never-ending game. Coen cries because these people help feed us everyday, year after year. He cries because they are integral parts of American society. 

He cries because he is human — and because they are human.    

ON THE BILL: Don Coen — ‘The Migrant Series.’ Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art, 1750 13th St., Boulder. Through May 27.