For Jim Koehn, the vast and seemingly endless Texas highways and roadways offer more than a means from point A to B. The artist, drawn to locations with historical and sentimental value, has captured countless Texas restaurants, movie theaters, and live music venues through watercolor and acrylic paintings. Specifically, his more recent collection of 5×7 watercolor paintings of legendary and lesser-known Texas landmarks not only depict retro realism through the incredible architectural detail but also resurrect a sense of nostalgia for places here and gone, especially in Houston.
“I wanted to capture as many as I could – realizing many are now gone, many are still here, some may be gone soon,” Koehn said. The artist is a permanent traveler on the highway to creation. “And I find the greatest inspiration in all of this – not only in art – but in life.”
His art highlights some of the most iconic places throughout Texas. From the vintage, A-frame Whataburger location in Mesquite, Texas, to Minute Maid Park, to the beloved AstroWorld, Koehn’s watercolor paintings depict a Houston and Texas locals and tourists know and love. The artist said his ‘Streets of Houston’ collection was inspired by four decades of immersion in the city, his adopted hometown.
“I’ve spent the last 40 years here, and I know the city pretty well,” Koehn said. “And [I] loved the thought of turning my favorite spots into paintings.”
Koehn is an honorary Houstonian. After a postgraduate road trip with a friend from high school, the nineteen-year-old left his home state of Michigan for the Lone Star State. The artist said the two set their sights on Galveston Island with no concrete plans. Koehn’s friend left after two weeks in Houston, and what began as a summertime whim culminated into a lifetime of creating in the metropolitan city for Koehn.
“…I found myself living in the big city at the age of nineteen,” he said. “And I loved it.”
It was 1981, and Koehn said he was inspired. By that next year, the aspiring artist was already displaying paintings at the Westheimer Art Festival. His prolific creative juices fueled enough paintings for seven additional festivals from 1982 to 1985. Eventually, his travels led him down a road to working for Houston Public Media, where Koehn built and designed sets for PBS. The artist said it was a nice creative outlet, as he stayed equally engulfed in his painting for a variety of weekend festivals and art shows.
His seventeen-year career with the television outlet came to an end in 1999. At the turn of the millennium, Koehn sought a new challenge: starting an event company. “I called it ‘Behind the Scenes – Event Services,” Koehn said. “I rented an 8,000-square-foot warehouse space near Bellaire with a five-year lease and jumped in.”
The event services company provided television stations and production companies across Houston with custom-built sets, large backdrops, props, and other specialized services. Because his new, demanding company required a generous amount of time and energy, Koehn’s art took a backseat. The artist devoted his time to the demand of running his company for fifteen years.
But by 2015, Koehn said he became burned out. “I was looking to make some big changes in my life.” After selling his company, Koehn retreated back to the craft he nurtured his entire life: painting.
“I started painting again immediately and was turning out a lot of work of various sorts the first year,” the artist said. “But [I] hadn’t really found the groove I was looking for.
Back in 1987, Koehn had taken a keen interest in portraying older movie theaters as his subject, photographing several different locations. Over the years, the artist had amassed a collection of 150 old theaters from across the country. Koehn said he turned his photographs into drawings and acrylic paintings, organizing primarily independent shows at nontraditional spaces like these old theaters.
“One of my best shows was held at the River Oaks Theater in Houston around 1994,” Koehn said. “We had a packed opening night for that one.”
Koehn’s history with capturing theaters, and the memories drawn and doodled in his sketchbooks compiled from years’ worth of road trips were the inspiration for the watercolor paintings that relaunched his career as a self-employed artist. “I’ve always had a lot of fun keeping sketchbooks during our various road trips over the years and wanted to find a way to capture some of that fun in my new paintings,” he said.
Koehn slowly covered every corner of Texas, from the Starlight Theater in Terlingua to the lush acres of the Texas Hill Country, and the legendary music scene at Gruene Hall. When he focused on Houston, the artist said he was hooked.
“It’s been a lot of fun re-visiting certain places, taking new photographs, looking at my old photos, and capturing a bit of Houston history in my art along the way,” Koehn said. “Houston has changed a lot since 1981.” With so many locations to choose from, the artist has a simple method for his creative madness.
“Once I decide on a place I want to paint, I make sure I’ve taken a few good reference photos, and then I sketch out a composition in pencil.” Due to his longtime fascination with architecture and design, Koehn primarily portrays large structures. “I like the details, workmanship, and history of older buildings,” he said. The artist balances these elements while maintaining the simplicity of a building’s surroundings and adding a nostalgic touch. This method ties into the pathos of his art.
“I like that when someone looks at these new paintings, they can remember it however they want to – with their experience,” Koehn said. “Like you’re just walking up to it at that moment. It’s your own story or memory with no distractions or preconceptions.”
Now, with over 150 new watercolor paintings spanning a mixture of Texas hotspots, Koehn said the possibilities are endless. And the artist is not slowing down on the road to creating art.
“But when I need some added inspiration, nothing works for me like getting in the car and driving somewhere.”