“Our place does not have phone or internet.” Judging by this comment from visual artist Ted Coconis, it’s understandable if you’ve concluded that he has either retreated into Amish country or fallen into one hell of a time warp. From his secluded studio in a beautifully bucolic stretch of Maine, the prolific and influential illustrator laughs incredulously at the idea of being tethered to technology past and present. “We’re solar powered, so there’s no traditional electricity available. No cell reception anywhere near either, so we’re basically incommunicado.” While the thought of being unable to access social networking platforms like Twitter or Facebook for more than an hour would equate to torture for many, this is splendid solitude to 84-year-old Coconis. “I deal with the outside world when I go to town every few days. It’s a bit of a nuisance for others, maybe, but it suits me just fine.”
A former child prodigy with an incomparable commercial art portfolio that spans over three decades, it’s safe to say that Coconis has earned the right to be somewhat insular. From being granted a full scholarship to one of the country’s most prestigious art institutions at the tender age of 12 and finagling his way into the U.S. Air Force at 15 to becoming one of the country’s most sought after illustrators of the 60s and the 70s, the Chi-town native has definitely lived a wondrous life full of mischief and marvel. His signature technique, inspired by the realism and impressionism styles of a bygone era, has graced the pages and covers of top magazines (Playboy, Cosmopolitan), novels (Ada, The Devil Tree), and posters for Academy Award winning films (Man Of LaMancha, Fiddler On A Roof, Hair, Labyrinth). And somewhere in the midst of all this, he managed to draft some of the funkiest, most imaginative album covers or our time. On an easy, breezy afternoon in June, Coconis sits down to discuss his unconventional path to success, the opulent, gold-leafed Jefferson Airplane album art that fell through the cracks, and why Photoshop should be renamed the devil’s workshop.
I was this punk kid from the West Coast to them. It was almost like going into a herd of killer sharks.
– Ted Coconis on his reception from the New York design Industry.
Art Nouveau: Tell me about your inspirations as a young artist.
Ted Coconis: Al Parker and Coby Whitmore. When I was young, they were of the generation before me. They did wonderful illustration for magazines. I looked up to them and emulated their work. Also Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Edgar Degas, and Edouard Vuillard. These were the artists that Parker and Whitmore were emulating. Everybody in the 70s was copying Vuillard. He was a post-impressionist. I was inspired by realism and impressionism as well.
AN: You received a full scholarship to attend the School of the Art Institute of Chicago while you were still in grade school. How did you manage that?
TC: Most artists who have been artists for their entire lives, for some reason or another, have doodled little things in the margins of their books when they were in school. I was a doodler and not a good student. I really was not at all interested in scholastic endeavors. I sort of fell into that ordinary artist category. Along with that, I became the best little artist in my school. Because of that, I got the scholarship. It gave me the impetus to just keep going. My interest in art ruled my world. Even in my old age, that’s the only thing I’m interested in. But I went to the art institute and was involved in the classes and the lectures. I didn’t really follow an academic program. I went to high school for a very short period of time, ditching classes and not being very involved in school. Then I joined the Air Force when I was 15. That was during World War II.
AN: But isn’t the legal age to join up with the armed forces 18?
TC: (laughs) I hoaxed a baptismal certificate because of my age. I went through the training in Texas, but my father finally blew the whistle on me after a couple of years because he was afraid that I would get myself killed. So they gave me an honorable discharge and sent me on my way.
AN: Did you ever finish up at the Art Institute?
TC: No. After I got out of the Air Force, I went to the American Academy of Art on the G.I. Bill.
AN: Did you ever finish up at the American Academy of Art?
TC: (laughs) No.
AN: You started your career as a commercial artist illustrating for big magazines like Good housekeeping, Reader’s Digest, Playboy, and Cosmopolitan. How did you segue into that?
TC: When I was 19, I got a job as an illustrator with the Fifth Army in Chicago illustrating recruiting and publicity materials. Then I was able to transfer to the Sixth Army in San Francisco. It was a fantasy job with a high pay rate. But then I started doing freelance work in San Francisco, so I quit the Sixth Army. Looking back, that was a really courageous thing to do. It was a great job that I could have retired from and been secure. But after San Francisco, I was able to secure a position at a big time studio in New York City called Chaite.
AN: How were you received by the industry in New York as a new young artist?
TC: I was this punk kid from the West Coast to them. It was almost like going into a herd of killer sharks. But that’s where I ultimately started illustrating for the big time magazines and movie posters. This was when started getting experience with the big accounts.
AN: You eventually left Chaite and began working freelance? What prompted your departure from one of the biggest firms in the city?
TC: After a while, I started to dislike the idea of a middleman who could essentially steer you in a direction that you may not necessarily be interested in going in. After doing a number of book covers and other jobs with the studio, art directors and agencies in town started to take a liking to my work. I eventually built up a reputation within the industry. Because of that I was able to leave the studio and become a freelance artist. As a freelancer, you have the liberty of accepting or declining jobs as you see fit. It was a much more satisfying situation. With the album covers I did for RCA, I had complete freedom to do what I wanted. I had done some album covers for Columbia Records for people like Doris Day while I was at Chaite, but the RCA stuff came about after I left the studio.
AN: Let’s talk about the covers. The 1976 cover for Weldon Irvine’s Sinbad album, in specific.
TC: I always loved this cover. RCA typically gave me a test pressing of each album I was to illustrate for along with the lyric sheets. For the Weldon Irvine cover, they sent me photographs of him to reference. At the time, I was also involved in figurative painting. I had a sketch of my wife in the studio lying beside a painting of Cyclops with a bird on his head. Also, the figure on the back cover with the snakes and wings was from another painting I was working on at the time. So those things sort of influenced the direction I went in for the cover. In the end, Weldon died. Even though I didn’t know much about him, I was sad about that.
AN: Were you aware that a mint condition copy of that album can fetch a handsome price, often in excess of $150?
TC: (laughs) You’re kidding? I think albums may have sold for around $5 back then. Amazing.
AN: You captured the sheer essence of inner city life so beautifully on the collage you did for the 1977 Odyssey album cover. What influenced that magnificent illustration?
TC: I was born in Chicago. Originally from the south side. 47th and Greenwood. Obama lived at 50th and Greenwood. I guess in those days of Chicago, it was a tougher kind of place. It was on the connecting fringe of black and white neighborhoods. During my entire time in Chicago, I was always interfacing with black people. It was a great existence. I think my Chicago big city childhood had a lot to do with my direction for this cover. In addition, being in New York at the time also informed the direction I went with.
AN: The album’s lead single “Native New Yorker” went on to be a top 40 hit and has become a quintessential disco era classic. Did that song, in specific, inspire your artistic direction?
TC: I did it when I was living in New York, so I would say yes. At the time, I also had a studio there. So those elements were always around me.
AN: What medium did you use for these covers?
TC: I was working on a Gesso panel with acrylics. I also worked with aniline dyes.
AN: How long was the turnaround for these pieces?
TC: I think they were fairly quick. Usually a couple of weeks. A month at the most. I typically had a few things going at one time. I would have to refuse jobs because the deadline would be impossible to meet. But without a deadline, the quality is so different. You don’t have the pressure of time.
AN: What was your impression of the commercial product once you held a copy of the finished albums in your hands?
TC: Some of them were very disappointing. The Weldon Irvine cover was good. Odyssey was good. With those two in specific, I was impressed. The typeset looked great. Sometimes you get upset because the copy was awful or the reproduction was bad. When I did book covers or magazine illustrations, there were so many times when they would crop it or put the type in the wrong place or there’s bleed. Just awful stuff. And you’d stay up for three or four nights convulsing over it. (laughs) But overall, I’ve been pleased with my career.
AN: There have been rumors of a very ornate Jefferson Airplane album cover commissioned by RCA in the early 70s that never saw the light of day. Fact or fiction?
TC: That painting was done through an ad agency that handled all RCA’s creative output. Ace Lehman, the head art director, gave me complete freedom to take control of the concept. In this case, I wasn’t given any music or input other than a few studio slides of the band and a stack of slides and photos of Grace Slick’s and Paul Kantner’s new baby China. The theme sort of developed backwards from the baby—conception, sex, the original sin—and that in turn led to a veiled reference to Noah’s Ark—a fantasy of brick and sail captained by Napoleon and gang-planked to an equally surreal world of band-headed beasts and reptiles. At the time, I was especially interested in the art and design of the Japanese masters whose work inspired my favorite artists, thus the underlying Japanese motif with its heavily stylized elements and shimmering gold-leaf. RCA loved the artwork and immediately made some pre-production proofs for my approval. It looked great!
AN: And then?
TC: That was the last I saw or heard of the album until years later when I heard the band never did release the record. Something about the band’s having a conflict with RCA, but it may very well have been that the band broke up or maybe that’s when it morphed into Jefferson Starship or maybe they simply released the material through another company.
AN: Did the music of these artists go against or run parallel to your own musical tastes at the time?
TC: It was definitely outside of my tastes.
AN: Did the record company ever facilitate meetings between you and the artists that you designed covers for?
TC: Unfortunately not. I’ve never been involved with meeting any of the artists.
AN: When you were commissioned for an album cover, did the label assume ownership of the copyright or did you retain it?
TC: No, they just had reproduction rights and I own the artwork outright. In fact, I still have the original large format Weldon Irvine artwork that I painted. I don’t know what happened to the original Odyssey painting. Whether I never got it back from RCA or I sold it, I’m not sure. I have a few reproductions that were sent to me as samples. My wife and I rarely took time to follow up on anything other than getting the original art back. Sadly, we were too often lax in that as well. Often the only reason we bothered to do that was because the art was accepted in the Society of Illustrator’s Annual Exhibit. Such was the case with the Jefferson Airplane piece.
AN: What was the typical price range for your covers?
TC: The prices were really quite low in those days. I probably got between $250 and $500. Maybe even $750. It definitely wasn’t in the thousands.
AN: What are your thoughts on commercial artwork in the 21st century?
TC: I don’t really study too much of what’s being done now. The average artwork for illustrative purposes that is done today is pretty bad. A lot of it is reduced to computer art relying heavily on Photoshop. You can do so many fantastic graphic things, but with no real creativity it’s almost as if everybody can do it. It doesn’t have any real feeling or real meaning. To go from the old masters like Michelangelo and The Lourve to what’s being done today is kind of disenchanting. I think creative people can do really great things with computers. But it’s so easy to do passable things even if you’re not that artistically equipped. There are so many passable things that are out there that aren’t too good. The Weldon Irvine cover I did was a large painting. Today, all the artwork for CD covers are so small, they might as well be postage stamps.
AN: With your own career trajectory in mind, what advice would you offer to new illustrators and graphic artists trying to break into the industry today?
TC: I would tell them not be to not be concerned about money. Whenever I give a little talk at colleges, the Q&A portion is usually about how much money I got for my work. If you’re interested in money, you’re really in trouble. You should become a nurse or have some other tangible vocation that will bring you a steadier income. I would also advise them to spend a considerable amount of time drawing, thinking, and believing in art. They should also think about what it means to respect art. In the days of the renaissance period, artists spent their whole lives perfecting their craft. They would go to Florence for five or six years as an apprentice and get better. People don’t do that now.