Don Cowen worked for only a few years in Australia, beginning as a promising younger artist in Brisbane in the early 1950s, before departing for overseas in 1953 and settling in Tucson, Arizona; however he did leave behind some interesting and unusual work in the form of two palaeoart murals painted (in collaboration with Quentin Hole) at the University of Queensland.
Would you like to add an editable biography for Don Cowen? You can add one here.
Donald Ross, or Don as he was usually known, Cowen was considered to be promising early in his artistic career in Queensland. However, after leaving for overseas at the beginning of 1953, nothing more was heard about him on the local art scene. Nevertheless, he is noteworthy as someone who pursued his art throughout his life, particularly in some interesting collaborations between art and science.
Born in Brisbane in 1920, he received his art training in that city, first from local teacher Melville Haysom, and then at the Central Technical College. Next he served in the Australian Army, joining up in 1942 and being discharged with the rank of lieutenant in 1946. Resuming his artistic career in Brisbane, he became a member of the Younger Artists Group of the Royal Queensland Art Society. He exhibited a watercolour of 'Cape Byron’ at the 'L.J. Harvey Memorial Fund Exhibition’ held at the Finney’s Art Gallery in March 1950, was included in the 'Christmas Exhibition of Paintings’ held at the Marodian Gallery in December of that year, and then had a joint exhibition with his friend Quentin Hole at the same venue in April 1951. In response to the latter, Courier-Mail reviewer, Elizabeth Young, declared: “Don Cowen, broad and emotional in his approach, is, on the whole and unexpectedly, most satisfying in one or two of his watercolours.” (Young, 1951, pg. 2).
Two of his paintings formed part of the 'Exhibition of Queensland Art’ held at the Queensland National Art Gallery in September/October 1951, and again he was a participant in the Marodian Gallery’s 'Christmas Exhibition’ for 1951. A busy year was capped off with the Royal Queensland Art Society’s 63rd Annual Exhibition (November 1951) in which three of his oil paintings were displayed. In February 1953 a 'Farewell Exhibition’ was held for Cowen at the Johnstone Gallery (the successor to the Marodian Gallery, situated in the Brisbane Arcade).
The gap in Cowen’s exhibition profile in 1952 is probably explained by his involvement, in partnership with Quentin Hole, in two major commissions at the University of Queensland at its new site in suburban St Lucia. In 1951, in addition to their other work, the two artists produced a long mural, 15.24 × 0.9 m, situated high up on one wall of the Geology Museum in the recently completed Richards Building. Titled The Age of Reptiles and painted in oil on concrete, it showed the changes in animal and plant life from the Permian to the Cretaceous periods. The impetus for this commission came from Geology Department staff members, who also provided scientific advice and probably suggested artistic models. A number of surviving sketches show that it involved careful planning. The success of this work prompted a second commission in 1952, a mural for the short end wall of the museum depicting the Age of Mammals in Australia, an innovative subject for this date. It was completed in December 1952, shortly before both Cowen and Hole departed for overseas early in 1953.
The 'Farewell Exhibition’ marks the end of Cowen’s artistic career in Australia and his movements in the later 1950s are uncertain. However, it is clear that Cowen had settled in the United States, in Tucson, Arizona, by the early 1960s. A 1998 history of the Unitarian Universalist Church in Tucson notes that church member Cowen was their 'first “Artist of the Month”’ in September 1962 (eds. Call and Mathews, 1998, p. 23). A biographical note used for publicity at the time is quoted, revealing that the artist studied in England as well as Australia (eds. Call and Mathews, 1998, p. 23). It is also stated that: “He has designed settings and costumes for the ballet and legitimate theater, is a mural and portrait painter and watercolorist, abstract and landscape painter in all media. He teaches painting and drawing at his Tucson studio” (eds. Call and Mathews, 1998, p. 23).
From 1965 to 1983, he worked as a scientific illustrator at the Optical Sciences Center of the University of Arizona. Art works with a scientific theme produced during this time include a large painting depicting an early use of solar energy at the Battle of Syracuse when Archimedes supposedly deflected the sun by means of polished shields, thereby setting fire to the enemy fleet. A sculpture which is situated outside the Optical Sciences Center building was made after a large glass disc fractured into several pieces during the process of forming it into a lens. Cowen also painted a large mural with the theme of 'Man and the Universe’ for the Flandrau Science Center at the University of Arizona (Wright, 2010, pers. comm. 2 March and 4 March). The artist died in Tucson on 1 April 1987, aged 66.