Johnnie Cowan – 2014 Wooden Boat Show Artist
by Becky Billingsley
Cowan’s father was a colonel in the U.S. Army, so she traveled in her childhood. Six years of that time was spent in Europe where she visited many museums while living in Orleans, France, which is a river town with a fine arts museum.
Cowan’s grandfather, Frank Creighton Hare, was an artist and college professor, and it seems his talents were passed on to his granddaughter. She says she can’t remember a time when she didn’t paint and draw, but it wasn’t until Cowan attended the University of South Carolina that her talent bloomed.
“I majored in history,” she says, “and I took an art course for fun. The teacher convinced me I should be in art.
Her major was changed to studio art, and art history and architecture classes filled her schedules.
Johnnie Hare married Georgetown attorney Bill Cowan before she graduated from USC, and they moved to Georgetown in 1969 while in their early 20s. Her first job was teaching at Winyah Academy before taking a sabbatical to raise their three sons. When the youngest son was in high school she returned to teaching in Maryville, and for the next 15 years she instructed gifted and talented students in grades 3-5.
Since then she has “retired” and returned to work a few times, including a stint teaching art at the Georgetown Rice Museum and giving private art lessons to children and adults. She also went back to school at Coastal Carolina University and earned a master’s degree.
The Cowans have a couple of small boats and enjoy sharing the area’s waterfront beauty with their four grandchildren. Their home contains a studio for her artistic process, but Johnnie says she usually ends up painting where she’s most comfortable, which is at her kitchen table.
Cowan’s art hangs just inside the front door at the Georgetown Art Gallery. Her impressionistic style executed in watercolors or oils often features flowers, seashells and waterscapes. Intricate architectural aspects in her works include beautiful renderings of wrought iron fencing, or Front Street storefronts depicted with a loving eye for historic elements. Her deft use of colors is a pleasant dominant feature that gives viewers extra-sensory treats.
As an enthusiast supporter of local artists, Cowan founded and was the first president at the Georgetown County Watercolor Society and is a founding member of the Winyah Arts Association. In addition to her work being accepted into many juried exhibits throughout the state, she has earned several awards including Best in Show in both the Winyah Arts Association and the Georgetown Watercolor Society.
More than 20 of her works were destroyed in the 2013 fire that consumed eight Georgetown waterfront businesses. Afterward she painted a watercolor depicting the fire, smoke, fire trucks and firemen, smoldering buildings and a Front Street reflective with water and crisscrossed with fire hoses.
With 67 years’ experience in art, history and Georgetown County waterways, Johnnie Cowan was a natural choice for selection as the 2014 Georgetown Wooden Boat Show poster artist. She considered two ships as the poster’s focus: The Henrietta, which was the largest wooden ship constructed in South Carolina at Bucksville, and the City of Georgetown, which was a four masted bulk cargo schooner launched in 1902. She selected the latter.
“The City of Georgetown was built in Bath, Maine, by the Rogers Shipyard,” Cowan says, “and it was the hundredth vessel that they built. It was the last wooden schooner that they built, and they wanted it to be very special, which it was.”
The schooner’s gross tonnage was 599 tons, she was 168.7 feet long and had a 12.6-foot draft. Fifty people owned it, including nine men and women from Georgetown. The Atlantic Coast Lumber Company leased City of Georgetown to haul lumber from Georgetown to northeastern ports, and Capt. A. J. Slocum commanded her until she sank off the Delaware coast in 1913 after a collision with an ocean liner.
For the ship’s history Cowan relied heavily on prior research by SC Maritime Museum volunteer and author, Robert “Mac” McAlister, who wrote “The Life & Times of Georgetown Sea Captain Abram Jones Slocum 1861-1914,” “Wooden Ships on Winyah Bay,” and “The Lumber Boom of Coastal South Carolina.” She also consulted fellow artist and previous boat show poster artist, Jim Caulk.
Cowan looked at historical maritime paintings, sailed on the bay to study and photograph the views, pored through the Morgan- Trenholm photo collection in the Georgetown County Digital Archives – which features many ships in the Georgetown harbor – and did general research on schooners. She says she was surprised to learn the large schooners had crews of only seven or eight men, and that ships going out of service due to wrecks were the norm rather than the exception for cargo schooners.
When her knowledge of the subject was sufficiently deep Cowan began painting, and she completed two: one of the schooner docked behind the Rice Museum, and the one featured on the Wooden Boat Show poster, depicting the schooner in Winyah Bay with the Georgetown Lighthouse in its background.
The painting, titled “The Maiden Voyage,” captures the ship’s fleet flair as it heads to Georgetown through the bay with its sails unfurled and taut, each mast topped with jaunty pennants. The ship is rendered to scale, with one inch equaling 10 feet.
Cowan’s painstaking work is evident in vibrant and shimmering layers of blues with ripples of green and frothy white. She used handmade Vasari oils, which required several days’ drying time between each layer, but the effort resulted in a stunning and unforgettable image. “I think the love of an actual wooden boat flowed into the painting,” Cowan says.
It’s a breathtaking depiction of Winyah Bay and one of the last wooden vessels created to sail on it.
Posters and T-shirts featuring “The Maiden Voyage” may be purchased at the SC Maritime Museum starting August 28, and at the 25th Annual Wooden Boat Show on Saturday, October 18. Johnnie Hare Cowan will be on hand to sign posters and talk to visitors at the show.
Visit the Georgetown Art Gallery at 705 Front Street to see more art by Johnnie Cowan. The gallery is open Monday – Saturday, 10 a.m. until 5 p.m.
Johnnie Cowan with SC Maritime Museum volunteer and author, Robert “Mac” McAlister. Cowan’s painting titled “The Maiden Voyage,” depicts the four-masted schooner CITY OF GEORGETOWN rendered to scale, with one inch equaling 10 feet.
To see more Johnnie Cowan Art visit: The Georgetown Art Gallery