Wandering artist finds his way to Catholicism

John Cobb carved this image of Jesus on a wooden post and installed it in “The Chapel on the Dunes.” Cobb will show the Jesus sculpture at the art exhibition in October and hopes to leave the piece at the chapel. (Photo by Ricardo Gandara)

By Ricardo Gandara

In John Patrick Cobb’s world — nestled in a three-acre thicket off Old Bastrop Highway and feet from Carson Creek — he is surrounded by the very things that influence his paintings: cows grazing in a field, a makeshift chapel made of mud, a vegetable garden, a chicken coop. In whole, it is the nature of the Texas landscape that he loves.
A few feet from the cabin home he built is his art studio made of a recycled fence. “It’s my space where I make messes,” he says. 
Hardly messes. It’s where perhaps Austin’s best unknown artist creates Renaissance-like work — old style tempera and gold leaf intricate paintings similar to European masters. The unassuming, humble Cobb is that good, say fellow artists and museum curators.
But, a bit of a drawback these days as his art has slowed while he recovers from a recent heart attack. It occurred while he’s also fighting a cancerous tumor in his sinus cavity. 
“I just don’t know what’s next,” he says.
The two chapels
The “next” despite the health episodes will unintentionally cement his legacy: an art exhibition in October near a Port Aransas historic seaside chapel, the site of work done in the 1970s. At Felder Gallery, the 62-year-old Cobb will show 55 preparatory sketches used to create the mural that adorns the interior walls and ceiling of The Chapel on the Dunes, a little white chapel built in the 1930s by Aline Carter as a sanctuary of peace and inspiration for her San Antonio family that vacationed on the island. A free-standing installation exhibit will also show 24 egg tempera and gold leaf panels Cobb has painted since 1981. 
Cobb did fresco-seco (dry) paintings at the chapel for free back in the 1970s when he was a wandering, lost artist. Dubbed “The Two Chapels,” the exhibition runs Oct. 4-29 at Felder Gallery. The chapel itself can be viewed separately. 
Unknown artist
Cobb is an imposing figure — long white beard and pony-tail — who can be taken for some of the Biblical characters that he paints. His voice is soft and kind; his conversation is intellectual and peppered with references to the Bible. He remains in relative obscurity but is highly respected in art circles. 
“He’s lived a quiet life in the art world. He doesn’t seek the limelight. He makes art for his privately held principles. He is so connected to nature,” says Cheryl Vogel, curator and owner of Valley House Gallery in Dallas where Cobb’s work has been shown. 
His current work runs the gamut –– from Texas landscapes to portraits of everyday people — friends and his mother-in-law Guadalupe Serrano, for example. And of course, the religious paintings of Biblical characters and scenes that are brought to the present by using everyday people who cross Cobb’s path. For example, “The Holy Family” painting depicts Mary played by a woman he met at Dolores Parish in Austin. Cobb’s wife, Tina, is to the left of Mary, extending her arms. Tina is symbolically sorrowful because she had just lost her father. In “Baptism by Water,” loudmouthed surfer friend Wes Beck is the figure with a raised hand.
Another called “Ms. Rose” is a striking portrait of a janitor who once worked with Cobb. “She was a tough old bird,” Cobb recalls. Vogel says the work is an example of giving a day-to-day person an elevated status, almost saintly. 
“We’ve all known a Rose, a person of deep personal strength. John created a joyful, deeply spiritual portrait,” Vogel says.
Austin artist and friend Pedro Ortiz says Cobb is a storyteller. “It’s almost musical. He’s learned to apply paint in a beautiful composition that creates melodies,” he says. 
 Art professors also know Cobb. “For over 30 years, John Cobb has held a vision — the creation of a chapel filled with glistening, egg tempera and gold leaf paintings, executed in the methods of the old masters, depicting his rendition of modern day saints in Biblical semblance,” wrote John Handley, a professor at Stephen F. Austin State University School of Art. In October 2014, Cobb’s works graced The Cole Art Center at the school.
The Bible
Cobbs’ work in the Chapel on the Dunes is a collection of stories from the Old and New Testaments. Moses and Abraham can be found on the walls. Look closely and one finds a horse, an eagle and a lamb. The scenes can leave a lot for interpretation but to listen to Cobb walk you through the chapel, you become aware of the rich stories depicted on the walls. (Search YouTube for an oral history on the chapel project).
He literally stumbled upon the little chapel in 1976, upon from returning to Port Aransas from a year-long, less formal education in Europe. The chapel was in disrepair. It was nothing like its heyday when Aline Carter hosted Sunday school for children whom she enticed with ice cream and cake. The chapel encounter coincided with a dark time in Cobb’s life. 
“I was kind of psychotic, unhappy. I was so worthless,” he recalls. 
The chapel then belonged to Frank Carter, Aline’s son. As fate would have it, Cobb needed a purpose so he offered to clean and paint the chapel but Carter couldn’t afford to pay him. They agreed to an informal $1 commission, a sum never paid.
It was the start of a beautiful story that took years to complete. Cobb first blasted the walls inside and slowly began the fresco paintings. He came and went. First, he painted stars on the ceiling and then came the Biblical scenes such as the Blinding of Saul. And from a wooden corner post he found in Luling, he carved an intricate image of Jesus on the cross. Cobb still has the carving and will show it at the exhibition. He hopes to leave it for permanent show.
“The chapel is its rightful place but that is up to the family,” he says.
Long time coming
Everything with Cobb takes time — his education, the chapel project and becoming a Christian. Born in Austin, he grew up in a neighborhood near Shoal Creek. His father, Bill Cobb was the state budget director for Governor John Connally. His mother Cleo was an English teacher. At age 7, they enrolled him in Saturday morning art class at The Texas School of Fine Arts where he studied under Charles Normann. “A great, big fat guy from Norway. I learned everything from him,” Cobb says.
He graduated from Richard King High School in Corpus Christi in 1971. He attended the University of Texas for a year but soon transferred to The Rhode Island School of Design. He didn’t finish but opted for a year-long independent study in Europe. 
“In those years, college was free form. I went for a while, ducked out and traveled. It was cool, man,” he says. (Eventually, he earned an art degree from St. Edward’s University in 1983).
On a Vespa and with $4,000 in his pocket, he traveled Spain, Italy, Morocco and France, spending countless hours in museums studying the work of masters like Spain’s Diego Velazquez. “I stayed in boarding houses for $2 a night ... I studied art. I kept painting, about 80 watercolors. I learned to talk to people, and learned their history. I discovered what food was. I drank with them at night. I traveled in my Vespa among sheepherders and it was there that I found chapels in the countryside. I painted some of them. It was fantastic seeing the world as if it was in 1450. You couldn’t pay enough money for that type of experience,” he says. 
The dream existence ended abruptly in 1976 when he wrecked his Vespa and ran out of money. He returned to the Texas coast, lured by his love of surfing. In Port Aransas, when he saw the white little chapel high on a sand dune, his important work began.
Coming home
Cobb returned to Austin in 1981, and took on odd jobs as a carpenter, plumber and janitor. He kept painting, doing Texas landscapes and portraits. He slowly began doing religious paintings, inspired by his earlier work at the chapel.
Since 1995, he’s been showing his religious paintings, a traveling exhibit dubbed “The Second Chapel,” throughout Texas and California. One of his most noted paintings is called “Eternal Life,” a painting of St. Edward’s University Holy Cross Brother Andrew Angermeier receiving his final communion.
“He was the most holy person I’d ever met,” Cobb says. 
Port Aransas
Austin artist and curator Ginger Geyer encourages people to see Cobb’s work. “His craftsmanship in incredible. While it’s a Renaissance style of the old masters, he’s not copying them because he gives the technique a newness,” she says.
The praise gets lost with Cobb. Instead, he’s consumed with reuniting his work at the Aransas chapel with his current. The sketches of the original chapel will be for sale. With his vision failing him due to cancer surgery, his painting future is unknown. 
“Sometimes I have hope of painting again, but I just don’t know. I’m still alive,” he says.
Cobb’s Christianity is a work in progress. He became Catholic in 2012, through the RCIA program at Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish in Austin. 
“The process is not even through. I think that the suffering has helped me understand what’s required to have the right to be a Christian,” he says.
His wife, Tina, says her husband is deeply devotional. “He knows the Bible. He’s pretty amazing,” she says.
Friends have set up a GoFundMe page to help with his medical expenses at www.gofundme.com (search John Cobb).
“The Two Chapels“ by John Patrick Cobb will be on display Oct. 4-29 at Felder Gallery in Port Aransas. For information, visit www.feldergallery.com.  Tours are available of the Chapel on the Dunes, visit www.portaransasmuseum.org for details.