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John Cobb's Visions at First Presbyterian

by Jerome Weeks 4 Apr 2012 9:25 AM

This Easter season, First Presbyterian in downtown Dallas has had a little wooden chapel in its lobby — like a toolshed or a tabernacle. Or an art installation. It features twenty paintings by Austin artist John Cobb.


John Cobb explains his painting techniques to an audience at First Presbyterian

For this season of Lent, First Presbyterian Church in downtown Dallas has had a handmade little wooden chapel in its lobby. KERA’s Jerome Weeks explains that the chapel is part meditation room, part art-installation.

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The simple pine slats make the chapel seem out of place in the bright, brand-new Welcome Center of First Presbyterian Church (details here). It would look for all the world like a backyard, tool shed if it weren’t draped in gauzy fabric

But lining the inside are 20 paintings by Austin artist John Cobb, paintings loosely inspired by the New Testament. Cobb uses old-fashioned techniques, including gold leaf and egg tempera. His works resemble early-Renaissance portraits but ones filled with day-to-day people Cobb knows: a loudmouthed Gulf Coast surfer, a young Hispanic girl with a speech impediment. They may wear jeans and shorts, but in Cobb’s hands, they glow like saints.

The Reverend Wendy Fenn, associate pastor of First Presbyterian, says she has seen visitors drawn to the chapel to sit inside and ponder Cobb’s people. She recalls the first time she saw the paintings when they were on display last year at Park Cities Presbyterian.

Fenn: “To me, that art is luminous, gorgeous. I guess part of that is the gold leaf, but it’s not just that. It’s the faces and his use of the contemporary in expressing what’s timeless.”

Cobb’s paintings have been transfixing viewers from Houston to California. His chapel can be dismantled and trucked away. But as temporary as the structure is, Cobb’s been working on these paintings since the 1980s. After studying art at the Rhode Island School of Design and giving up to wander around Europe, he returned to Texas, somewhat at a loss.

Cobb: “I realized I was having a lot of difficulties, and I needed to do something foundational. So I decided to go to St. Edward’s University. And I met these Holy Cross brothers there, they were just the perfect example to me, very astute and respectful. And so that’s how I got started on this.”

Cobb learned egg tempera. Egg tempera was a favorite medium for artists until the Renaissance when oil painting changed European art. The best-known modern painter to work in egg tempera was Andrew Wyeth, and Cobb’s paintings have a similar, heightened clarity. But egg tempera’s not often used today because it’s a messy, painstaking process. It requires mixing pigments with egg yolk, putting on layers of paint, each layer followed by buffing with cheesecloth. There’s also glazing and sealing — yet the results are so delicate that egg tempera is painted on canvases. Wooden boards have to be used, otherwise, the paint is liable to crack. When it’s applied thickly, as Cobb does, it still can get “checking” — fine cracks.

After all that, Cobb applies the delicate sheets of gold leaf, a tricky process in that the little sheets are so whispy, just the artist’s breathing can cause them to fly actoss the room. No wonder that a single, large-scale painting can take Cobb four years to finish.

With his long white hair and beard, Cobb himself looks like a character from the Bible. And in his friendly answers to questions, the 57-year-old artist will wander through personal connections, artistic choices and spiritual symbols in an effort to explain his inspirations. One painting called Baptism by Fire features a young girl on a dark, rocky hillside. Cobb says he gave up trying to paint fire believably. So he simply gave the girl a bright red dress and left her alone in those woods with a piece of Easter pinata.

A number of his paintings have the same puzzling, haunting quality — of a story left unexplained. Some works are clearly inspired by the Gospels but only in the most elliptical fashion. Mary (the Mother of Jesus) as a Child, Her Grandfather Joaquim Guiding (above) clearly recalls the Flight into Egypt, when Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus fled the infanticide ordered by Herod. But the painting doesn’t make sense because, in this case, Mary is a near-infant, and there’s no Jesus.  But in characteristic fashion, Cobb kindly explains that it’s actually the young Mary’s premonition of the Flight into Egypt. The image was inspired by Cobb’s memory of families in Mexico giving pony rides to their little ones around Easter. 

Cobb: “As I started this project, I would literally take something from the Bible and do a picture of it. And then it just grew, it expanded. Whatever it was about that person spoke to me. It was something that was palpable.”

Which is why several of his works are simply portraits – of a female janitor Cobb once worked with (Mrs. Rose, left). Or his brother-in-law who has spinal meningitis. Yet these ordinary subjects are so present, they seem filled with meaning, as if they’re about to speak. Or have already spoken.

Wendy Fenn: “They’re icons, an icon in the sense of looking through the painting and seeing more, of seeing the mystery.

“And to me, that’s the mystery of God.”

The image outfront: Baptism by Water.