Lee Brown Coye was born July 24, 1907 in Syracuse, New York. His father was William S. Coye, born 1879 in New York. His mother was Ida May Brown, born 1888 in New York. His parents married in 1906. He was their first born of two children. His younger sister Helen was born in 1908. They lived on Sabine Street.
His father worked at the Smith & Brothers Typewriter Company in Syracuse. His father's cousin was the company founder, Lyman C. Smith, an industrialist who also founded the Smith & Wesson Firearms Company.
In 1908 the family moved to North Street in Tully, NY, which was eighteen miles south of Syracuse. They lived at this home with his maternal grandmother, May Brown, age 50, his maternal great grandfather, Shubael W. Brown, age 80, and his maternal Great Grand Aunt, Jane Cadwell, age 100. After spending his formative years with such venerable ancestors he developed a lifelong fascination with old folk tales.
He grew interested in drawing as a teenager and studied instructional art books from his school library.
He attended Groton High School, where he met Ruth Carmody on a blind date. He was described as a medium height skinny bespectacled redhead. He graduated high school in June of 1926, and then informally monitored art classes at Syracuse University. According to the artist, "I had no formal art training, but I got to know one of the art professors at Syracuse University. I used to go up there to see him in the fall of 1926. Those people in that art department worked hard, and they accepted the hardships as a privilege and an instigation to learn to do something with the talent they had."
In 1927 he moved to Greenwich Village in New York City to look for work as an illustrator and cartoonist.
In 1928 he married Ruth Carmody. She was born April 22, 1909 in Pennsylvania, but grew up in Waverly, NY. They moved to Leonia, New Jersey, where a progressive art community surrounded a school that had been founded by Harvey Dunn in 1915. Dunn had been a pupil of Howard Pyle and his approach to art emphasized the importance of capturing a faithful expressionist interpretation of an inspired passion. Dunn once said, "Do whatever it takes to capture the essential spirit, even if it means you miss a few of the minor details." Illustrators such as Dean Cornwell, John Clymer and Harold Von Schmidt were frequent visitors to Leonia. Coye studied woodblock design with Howard McCormick, who also introduced him to the technique of scratch-board drawing, which became his major medium.
By 1930 the Great Depression had devastated the advertising and publishing industries. With no prospects for income Lee and Ruth moved back home to live with his parents and sister, who had become a public school teacher. They lived at 380 East Courtland Street in Groton, NY.
He opened a sign shop in Cortland, NY, which was ten miles closer to Syracuse, but he barely earned enough income to survive. He painted signs, illustrated flyers and advertisements in trade publications for local dairy products and the Syracuse radio station WSYR.
In September 1930 they moved to 417 South Crouse Avenue in Syracuse, NY. He found work at the Syracuse Museum of Fine Arts Adult Evening Arts and Crafts Classes. He was hired as an art instructor of the Adult Sketch Class - Costume and Life Model, which he taught on Tuesday evenings from 7:30 to 9:30 PM.
On February 11, 1932 his son, Robert William Coye, was born.
In 1934 he answered a newspaper advertisement for an open competition of the WPA, Federal Public Works for Artists Program, to create a mural of historic scenes for Central High School in Cazenovia, NY. He won the commission and went on to paint several murals in the region, such as the State College buildings in Morrisville and Oswego, Bristol Laboratories, Le Moyne College, the tap room at the New Worden Hotel in Saratoga, and Howard Johnson restaurant in DeWitt, NY. Many of these "murals" were actually painted with oils on canvas in a temporary art studio in the basement of the Syracuse Museum.
In 1935 his drawings were included in a group exhibition at The Ten Dollar Gallery in NYC, which received notice in The New York Times.
In 1936 he began to take night classes in etching taught by Professor Hibbard Kline at the Syracuse Printmakers Guild.
According to the artist, "In the late 1930s I began to get into medical illustrating. In recognition of which I won a year's scholarship to the State University medical school, where I watched surgery and studied anatomy." He illustrated two medical textbooks and illustrated several medical journals.
In 1937 the Syracuse Museum of Fine Arts presented a retrospective exhibition of Rockwell Kent, who attended the reception and gave a lecture in the Lincoln auditorium at Central High School. Lee Brown Coye met the artist, whose impressive ideas and style of work was influential.
In 1939, through the influence of the Director of the Syracuse Fine Arts Museum, Anna Olmstead, his work was included in the annual group show at the Whitney Museum of American Art in NYC. This encouraging development was then exceeded when his entry was purchased by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. His work was again accepted for exhibition in the Whitney's 1940 Annual.
On February 6, 1940 he was appointed Art Director of the Syracuse Symphony Orchestra. This period in his life was the high point of cultural recognition for his regional art.
On December 8, 1941 he joined the newly opened William Spitz Advertising Agency of Syracuse, NY. The Coye family moved to 305 Academy Place in Syracuse.
During the 1940s he began to illustrate a series of books by Farrar & Rhinehart, which were tales of horror and ghost stories. Through these contacts in publishing he was soon illustrating stories and painting covers for pulp magazines, such as Short Stories and Weird Tales. His illustrations later appeared in Fantastic Stories of Imagination, Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and Amazing Stories.
All American artists of his generation were faced with the harsh reality of a society that was torn apart by class conflict. According to Coye's pragmatic attitude, "I'd rather have my stuff in pulp magazines where people can see it than in a museum where they don't."
On March 3, 1944 he reported to his local draft board, where he was recorded to be five-ten and weigh 136 pounds. He was classified 4-F and rejected as physically unfit for military service.
During WWII he worked as a welder at a defense plant assembling half-ton GI trucks, where he developed an interest in metal sculpture and jewelry design.
In 1944 he painted four historic murals in the Rudolph Jewelry Store of Utica.
In 1946 his work was shown at the galleries at Colgate University, which held three exhibitions of his work over the next seven years.
In 1950 his wife began to work as a medical secretary in Syracuse, where she remained employed for thirty-five years.
His pulp illustrations continued to appear in Weird Tales until 1952.
In 1959 he moved to 316 Madison Lane in Hamilton, NY, where he was employed by a company to make reproductions of antique sculptures. This work inspired him to explore wood sculpture. He opened an art studio on the second floor of a bakery.
In 1962 according to The Syracuse Post-Standard, "Many Syracusans will remember Lee Coye's wood sculpture and impeccable models of canal boats, locomotives, as well as an intricately-detailed recreation of a colonial coffee house, rather like a three dimensional version of one of his romantic-realist paintings of old local dwellings that imply a colorful history." He was also said to be employed by the art department at Colgate University.
In 1962, after a ten year hiatus from illustrating publications, his work appeared in several horror and fantasy books produced by Arkham House.
On April 7, 1968 a retrospective exhibition opened at the Dana Arts Center of Colgate University.
In 1975 and 1976 he won the World Fantasy Award for Best Artist.
In 1979 he suffered a stroke, which left him partially paralyzed.
Lee Brown Coye died at the age of seventy-four on September 5, 1981.
© David Saunders 2009