Mr. Cowley’s paintings are provocative because they are completely free of clichés

— Photo from Ed Cowley

Brothers Paul and Ed Cowley pose, when children, with one of their father’s paintings.

— Photo from Ed Cowley

The Voorheesville train station, like the one in Altamont, inspired Ed Cowley’s art. He helped to save the one in Altamont.

To the Editor:

For the past three years, I have been sorting and organizing my Dad’s papers. As the process continues, I finally found the time to read the incredibly fine print of a review set aside that had been “shrunk” from the full-size page of a newspaper. The Knickerbocker News article was a review by Ted Strongin of a review by my father, Ed Cowley, head of the State College Art Department, of his own one-man art show at the 327 Gallery across from the park on lower State Street in Albany.

My father, at that time, was also the Feature Arts Editor of the Capital District Guider, “The Magazine for People on the Go.” Dad had the authority, perhaps better described as a lack of authority over him, to write as he pleased and with the certain confidence an artist brings to being a Feature Art Editor.

Without a doubt, Ed thought reviewing his own art show would be accurate, insightful, time-efficient, and ensure at least somebody would write about it. I’m sure he enjoyed the freedom the Guider magazine gave him and the few extra dollars it put in his pocket.

Theodore Strongin and his family lived in Altamont on Park Street next to Creekside, the house with the giant willow tree, recently pruned. I went to school with his son Daniel and was always attracted to his older sister, Debbie, who was a dazzler.

Danny was of slight build, so we nicknamed him “Weak out.” His father was a talented arts writer for the Knickerbocker News — enough so he was hired by The New York Times and the Strongins moved to New York City. I remember visiting them once in New York during my senior year at Guilderland High School, 1967-68, and that’s about all until I recently discovered the article.

“Artist Reviews His Own Show” was the headline on Ted’s piece. After show and venue details, Ted revealed: Mr. Cowley also has a review of his one-man show written by himself, it appears in a little “give away” magazine.

“An interesting and authoritative phenomenon when an artist reviews his own show,” writes Strongin.  That leaves me with nothing to do but review the review: “Mr. Cowley starts clear and strong: ‘I have had an extended opportunity to preview the current exhibit of paintings at the 327 gallery.’  He’d better have.

“He continues: ‘In ways this was a unique kind of experience and I must confess some surprise with what I saw.’ I, too, was surprised, but that’s not surprising. It was my first Cowley one-man show. It was not Mr. Cowley’s first one-man show. Why was Mr. Cowley surprised? He doesn’t say.

“He then informs us that, ‘….almost all of the 21 pictures were done in the last three months.’ He should know.

“‘Every painting but one deals with landscape as subject and theme,’ Mr. Cowley writes. Correct.

“‘The exception is a rather stark portrait of an oleander plant raised in Voorheesville by Aaron Crounse.’  (Thank you, Mr. Cowley. This is the kind of local color that someone very close to the artist can provide. I didn’t know it was an oleander from Voorheesville or raised by Mr. Crounse. But I don’t agree that it’s stark. It’s plain not stark. It’s a favorite of mine.)  

“In his review, Mr. Cowley takes time out to reflect ‘on the nature of abstraction.’ He has some helpful and interesting comments. I take him to mean he considers his paintings abstract — as well as contemporary, romantic, cubistic and impressionistic.”

The article continues on with the back and forth until the conclusion:

“‘At this time I find the show at once provocative and soothing and I’m sure I shall be back to see it again,’” Mr. Cowley writes. Complete agreement. I also am sure I shall be back to see it again.”

With the review of the artist’s review complete, Ted Strongin continues on finally with his own analysis of the show and the artist.

“Mr. Cowley’s paintings are provocative because they are completely free of clichés. They have a touch of fantasy and a touch of wit. His most literal landscapes are his most abstract. They are real and unreal in feeling and very, very pleasing. They have a quality of sane and imaginative simplicity. Their technical manner is clean and forceful.

“Of all the fine painters in the world, very few have a style as completely distinct and off the beaten paths — ancient as well as modern paths — as Mr. Cowley’s.”  

This is probably the most thoughtful, accurate analysis and description of my father’s art ever written.    Mr. Strongin continues:

“As for me, the most provocative and soothing works of all were: ‘Barns, Route 146,’ ‘Landscape Theme,’ ‘Forest Theme,’ ‘House and Shadow,’ ‘Winter Shadow,’ ‘City Trees,’ ‘Tree,’ ‘Altamont House,’ and of course, Mr. Crounse’s oleander.”

The art show at the 327 Gallery was titled: “Reflections of an artist’s reflections.”  Accompanying Ted Strongin’s article was a picture of an oil painting of the Voorheesville Train Station and Crossing.

Recently, I found a similar view on a Voorheesville Centennial (1899-1999) postcard, including not only the station but a train passing as well. The caption reads: New York Central freight passes the joint NYC-Delaware & Hudson station at Voorheesville in the early 1960s. In a moment the westbound train will “bang” across the D&H’s line from Albany to Binghamton, New York. Photo credit: Jim Shaughnessy.”

The card was sent to my folks by Dennis Sullivan, confirming a July 30 dinner date at the Home Front Café in Altamont at 5 or so. Dennis is a talented writer — a cheerful, engaging fellow and always a champion of his village, historically, except one day a year, at the annual match, where the Altamont Horseshoe League dominates a usually severely overmatched Voorheesville team.

Try as I might after looking through a hundred or so Guider magazines and correspondence, I never did find the original review of the one-man show at the 327 gallery in the 1960s. It appears to be the only review my father did not save from the “give away” magazine.

“The Passing Trains”

However, I did find many interesting articles including explanations on why he was so interested in Altamont, village architecture, painting some houses white, his explanation for doing the Hillside show, and a fond farewell piece on his friend Ted Strongin concluding, “All the best of luck, Ted.” And my favorite: “Art in Review: The Passing Trains”:

“The D&H Railroad has depressed me by the recent release of plans to discontinue service on the run from Binghamton to Albany. It is not because of inconvenience that I am sad. My reasons are varied and mainly aesthetic.

“In recent years I have somehow developed a fondness for painting train stations. This does not mean any train station as I have learned to control my passion, at least to where the concentration is only on the Altamont or Voorheesville specimens. Strangely enough, I have not as yet painted an actual train, so maybe I won’t miss them so much — so long as it is understood that the general facilities will in no way be disturbed.

“It must be the environment of the train that intrigues me — the provocative image of the extended white/black caution arms equipped with blinking eyes to assert their presence. Then, too, here is a military memory to the precision clanging and the assortment of bristling shapes that abound.

“In the air above, a web of wires flows in most directions from where the road and station meet. The tall crosses of poles bear the charge of their weight by tilting at many angles.

“In the heart of this setting rests a station of surprising form and proportion. The architectural parts are wonderfully plastic and invite painters’ alterations. Most themes that attract painters have this same sense of looseness and excitement about them. (One of the reasons why one never sees modern cars or houses in a painting.)

“Trains have some fine human associations — the engineer’s friendly and reliable waving for little children is one of the richest. A train platform releases spontaneous expressions with a variety of greetings and farewells.

“The pocket watch of the conductor and his seriousness of time has an element of fantasy very much its own. We lose a share of the fun of life when we retire the trains. To look to the victorious trucks, buses, and superhighways for inspiration is bloodless and prosaic. At this sad point, I even begin to feel a touch of nostalgia for the ‘no spitting’ signs.”

Nearly all the Guider articles were text only. It was rare, but now and then a picture accompanied the story. And so it was as “The Passing Trains” included a picture of “Voorheesville Station,” an abstract oil painting by Edward Cowley, completed in the fall of 1956 after returning from a year of study in Ireland.

Being only 6 years old, I had no recollection of the painting nor did I ever know of it until at least 50 years later after my research began. I learned the painting was first presented at Colgate University in a one-man show in November 1956 followed by a similar exhibit at the Albany Institute of History and Art in December of that year. It was an excellent choice to include with the aforementioned Guider article.

For some time now, I have used eBay for various searches to find chess sets; Albany Glass Works bottles; Charles Burchfield items; and, of course, to look for works of my Dad. Never did I expect to find a “Cowley” painting.

As luck would have it, one day “Voorheesville Station, 1956” appeared. Complete surprise!

I had never seen this painting before or knew it existed or anything else other than I hoped it would soon be mine. Listed on eBay by a Buffalo gallery owner, he was kind enough to deliver it after the auction while on his way to New York City.

I was certainly glad he and his girlfriend stopped by. I gave them a tour of the house, the studio, and the stained-glass room. Then with more than enough new gas money, off they went leaving “Voorheesville Station” behind.

Voorheesville’s loss  

It was sad day for the village when its Voorheesville Station was demolished. Gone forever!

The spirit of Voorheesville’s old train station does live on though through both “Voorheesville Station” and “Voorheesville Crossing” paintings and in the park gazebo quite faithful in line and detail to the original. It does not seem fair the village has lost both its train station and its namesake restaurant.

Where is Voorheesville without Smitty’s? Maybe Smith’s Tavern can still be saved as the building has not yet been demolished.

There is a certain finality demolition brings. Until then, there is still hope. The opportunity is there. Only a modest miracle is needed for another “Smith” in the restaurant business to step up. Proximity and experience a big plus!

At the very least, the village park could be improved by somehow removing the silly white chain fence from around the boulder. It’s distracting, of dubious purpose, and would be so easy to do. No miracle needed. Even painted black would be better.

Both “Voorheesville Station, 1956” and “Voorheesville Crossing, 1962” are on display at Dr. Mark Lentini’s office in the commercial building next to Hewitt’s Garden Center on Route 20 in Guilderland.

The light and space there is ideal for an informal gallery. A few other pieces are on display as well.  Office hours are Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday from 7:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. If you care to stop by, please call first before at 518-456-2014 to give the office a heads-up.

For those interested, other Cowley art is on display at nearby First National Bank of Scotia on Route 155 just down the road, during banker’s hours. The lobby is open. Both “galleries” offer free admission.

Ed Cowley


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