Ted CoConis, a prominent American illustrator and painter who was the creator of well-known movie posters, book covers, and magazine and story illustrations, for which he was inducted into the Society of Illustrators’ Hall of Fame, died of natural causes at his home and studio in Cedar Key, Florida. He was 95. Among his many iconic movie posters are those for Dorian Gray (1970) and Fiddler on the Roof (1971). His earlier work with Jim Henson and the Muppet Show (1974), led to Mr. CoConis being asked to illustrate the movie poster for Labyrinth (1986). In 1980, he began working independently as a fine artist to gain greater control over his creative work, and he began his extensive series of Women in Paris and Exotic Ladies of Rue St. Denis, which continued through his final years.
Born in 1927 in Chicago, Illinois, to Lillian & Peter CoConis (Polish & Greek immigrants respectively), Mr. CoConis was the youngest of three children. His mother recognized and encouraged his artistic abilities early on, and he subsequently received a scholarship to the Art Institute of Chicago while still in grade school. This presaged a long career as an illustrator and fine artist.
By altering his baptismal record, Mr. CoConis was able to join the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1942 at the age of 15; he received an honorary discharge two years later after his father revealed his true age. He then furthered his art education through a few classes at Chicago’s American Academy of Art College and, after a brief stint with the U.S. Merchant Marine, accepted a civilian position as an illustrator with the Fifth Army in Chicago. A move to San Francisco in 1950 continued this service as an illustrator with the Sixth Army while he began to accept freelance work for Lucky Stores, Disneyland, and Sunset Magazine, among others. This was followed by a transfer to New York City in 1958 and employment with Al Chaite and his noted commercial art studio. There he built upon his reputation as a creative designer and draftsman through the artwork he created for record album covers, story illustrations, and book jackets, as well as for advertising campaigns such as Pan Am and Dr. Pepper.
By 1961, Mr. CoConis was in a position to work independently out of his own studio in Weston, Connecticut, and his reputation expanded to embrace a broader range of clients and commissions including: ABC television, AOPA Pilot Magazine, Avon Books, Ballantine Books, Chevrolet, Chrysler, Cosmopolitan Magazine, Dodge, Exxon, Fawcett Publishing, Ford Mercury, Funk & Wagnall, Girl Scouts of America, IBM, Lockheed Martin, The Mexican National Tourist Council, Playboy Magazine, Popular Library, Princess Hotels, RCA Records, Reader’s Digest, TV Guide, Tri-Star Pictures, The United States Air Force, The United States Army, United Artist, and Warner Brothers, among others.
In addition to his well-known movie posters, other significant illustrations include the book-cover art for such classics as Ada by Vladimir Nabokov, A Walk on the Wild Side by Nelson Algren, The Princess Bride by William Goldman and The Devil Tree by Jerzy Kosinski; story illustrations for the 1971 Newbery-award-winning The Summer of the Swans by Betsy Cromer Byars and The Golden God by Doris Gates; and record album covers for Odyssey, Weldon Irvine, and Eugene Ormandy and The Philadelphia Orchestra. A painting he created for the U.S. Air Force hangs in the Pentagon as part of its permanent collection.
Mr. CoConis began his transition to being a fine artist in 1980. From that time, he and Kristen, his spouse and creative partner, spent several months each year traveling around Greece and France before settling in Paris to sketch en plein airfor his series of Women in Paris and Exotic Ladies of Rue St. Denis. Returning with the sketches and finished drawings to his studio in Cutler, Maine, or Cedar Key, Florida, he meticulously brought the figures to life on canvas through thin glazes of oil paint in the tradition of the Old Masters. These portraits represent women the artist perceived as being self-possessed, solitary women from all walks of life—courtesans, poets, professors, circus performers, shopkeepers, and so forth—women who seemed content in their solitude, fulfilled by their own companionship. The characters are rendered in elaborate detail in their real-world settings, such as flower shops, brothels, cafés, gardens, or museums. To quote the noted writer, Silke Tudor, “The power of Women in Paris, as the evolving series of CoConis’s work has come to be known, is the same one that fueled his first illustrations: Every face, every gesture, every choice in clothing and setting tells a story. And within that story, the dignity, discovery, and depth of the human experience is laid bare.”
In the final years of his life, Mr. CoConis would often be seen in the Louvre drawing a great work of art. Like many artists before him, he studied the work of the master painters in order to see through their eyes and better understand the creative process. In doing so, he further developed his own skills as an artist and was challenged to make each of his own paintings worthy of such study by others. Until the day he died he remained focused on this goal.
Per his wishes, there will be no formal service or memorial. Mr. CoConis believed every day should be a celebration of life, so he did not want any special ceremony to mark his death. He will be remembered for his prodigious talent, creativity, artistic integrity, and passion for art, as well as for his sparkling personality and adventurous spirit. He is survived by Kristen CoConis, his partner, spouse, and muse of 50 years; his daughter Kit Johnson; granddaughters Steffanie (Jon-Erik) Magnus, Heather (Kevin) Mullin, and Devonne (Jason) Kline; and great-grandchildren Oliver Magnus, Sloan Magnus, and Charlie Kline. He is preceded in death by his first wife, Rosemary CoConis, and siblings, Paul and Mamie CoConis.
Written by Lucia Albino Gilbert, Ph.D. & John Carl (Jack) Gilbert, Ph.D.