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Tuesday, July 29th, 2008
John P. "Jack" Cowan, 1920-2008

Texas Coast Served as Canvas and Inspiration for Jack Cowan
THE DALLAS MORNING NEWS, Ray Sasser - 09:40 PM CDT on Saturday, July 5, 2008

John P. "Jack" Cowan died June 27 in a hospital near his home in Bristol, Tenn. He was 87. If there was any justice about these things, Cowan would have died of a massive heart attack while standing in knee-deep water near Rockport, Texas, his plug-casting rod bent into an arc by the power of a copper-colored redfish.

The early morning sky would have formed a palette of puffy clouds and threatening thunderheads, stray rays of sunlight penetrating the clouds to fix a spotlight on the diminutive figure of the man who cast a long shadow in Texas sporting art and coastal conservation.

The waters of the shallow flats where Cowan waded would have been crystal clear over a firm bottom of turtle grass, the surface broken irregularly by the subtle tails of redfish feeding, heads down as they rooted for crabs. Tailing reds were a repetitive theme in Cowan's work, and he deserves credit for preserving those fine game fish for the current generation.

He likewise deserves credit for creating a genre of sporting art that subsequent generations of artists strove to emulate. Several came close, but nobody has yet equaled Cowan's ability to recreate the thrills that he found in the duck blinds, the back bays and the brush of the Texas coast.

Cowan, a Tennessee native, wound up in Texas during World War II. He worked as an illustrator for an Air Force publication in Houston, became infatuated with the local fishing and hunting scene and returned to Houston in 1949. He worked as a commercial illustrator until the 1960s when his true talent was discovered by Houston art dealer Meredith Long.

Long hooked Cowan up with the who's who of the Houston sporting scene, and the artist painted these people doing the things they loved. His most common subjects were waterfowl hunting, quail hunting, dove hunting and saltwater fishing.

He had an incredible knack for painting recognizable people into his scenes, but everything about the art was true to form.

"If a person is really into the nuances of hunting and fishing, the subtle gestures that Jack captured in his paintings were just flawless," said Dallas art publisher M.F. "Bubba" Wood. "Nobody has even remotely approached the authenticity depicted in Jack's work. It's really special stuff."

In Houston and later in Rockport, Cowan fell in love with coastal fishing, but the trout and redfish were in trouble. By the 1970s, their numbers had declined drastically as the fish were victimized by gill nets strung through the bays.

Cowan was fishing on San Jose Island in 1976 with Fort Worth billionaire Perry R. Bass. Cowan remembered standing there in a light rain when Bass suddenly turned to him.

"We've got to do something about these redfish," Bass said.

Years later, Cowan recalls how encouraged he felt that a man of Bass' stature was concerned about redfish. Bass had heard about a group of similar-minded sportsmen organizing in Houston. He and Cowan attended the second meeting of what would become the Gulf Coast Conservation Association.

A long and bitter fight ensued to protect redfish and speckled trout from commercial fishing. Cowan's son-in-law, Joe Allen, was the Texas legislator who introduced the Red Drum Conservation Act and nursed it through the legislative process.

GCCA later evolved into the Coastal Conservation Association with chapters along the east and west coasts, as well as the Gulf of Mexico. The GCCA conservation stamp and print was created in 1983 and Cowan painted the first one. He contributed unselfishly to every conservation fundraiser. His art has raised over $2 million for Texas conservation.

In June, Cowan received a lifetime achievement award from the Recreational Fishing Alliance. In October, he will be inducted into the Texas Conservation Hall of Fame. For those familiar with his work, a classic coastal dawn will forever be known as a Jack Cowan sunrise.

THE DALLAS MORNING NEWS, Ray Sasser - 09:40 PM CDT on Saturday, July 5, 2008