Artist Henry Koehler Paints What He Loves

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With a careful ease, Henry Koehler flipped through a stack of oil paintings resting against the wall of his Southampton studio, classical music playing softly in the background.

He read each of the titles aloud: “Lust.” “Passion.” “Lovers’ Quarrel.” “Coupling.” “Seduction.” “Brief Encounter.” “Menagea Trois.”

The 86-year-old artist chuckled to himself. “I’ve had a good time making some of these,” he said. “They get a little erotic.”

Which is completely unexpected, considering his models are all artichokes.

In July, Ann Madonia Antiques in Southampton will exhibit 25 of Mr. Koehler’s artichoke paintings—the fourth show of its kind since the artist began drawing the edible thistle buds more than 40 years ago. Recently, he decided to “crank it up again,” he said.

“I just like to eat them,” he said. “And I started to collect them. And out of that grew painting them. It’s not really what I’m known for; I’m a sporting

artist. So this became a family joke. I can show you my guest room, which is entirely artichokes.”

That is not an exaggeration. Old engravings from botany books and the artist’s own artichoke drawings cover the walls. A corner desk holds ceramic and metal artichokes, as well as an artichoke candle and notepad.

A display case is filled with an assortment of artichokes, including salt-and-pepper shakers, a spray-painted thistle and even scrimshaw. Two artichoke-speckled neckties hang over the closet doorknob, which Mr. Koehler said he rarely wears. They’re a tad too garish for his taste.

“Well, when people come in, they usually say, ‘What the hell?’” he said. “It’s a funny thing to collect, but no one else does. In one of the magazine articles about all of this, it said I probably have the biggest collection of artichokes in the world, which doesn’t mean much because it’s probably the only one!”

He tapped the metal artichoke doorstop with his foot as he exited the room. “One of the advantages of being a painter, if luck goes right, you can paint what you like, what you love to do anyway,” he said. “I had two major sports—sailing and fox hunting. It was the world I knew and I loved to paint.”

Out of fox hunting came paintings of polo and horse racing, many of which hang in the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, New York. And sailing led the Kentucky native to an encounter with the most captivating family in presidential history: the Kennedys.

It wasn’t long after graduating from Yale University in 1950 that Mr. Koehler’s illustrations began appearing in The New Yorker, Town & Country magazine and, most famously, Sports Illustrated. One such cover painted during a sailing regatta along the California coast caught the attention of First Lady Jackie Kennedy.

She called the publication and asked to buy the painting.

“Jesus,” Mr. Koehler said. But the magazine executives said, “No, Mrs. Kennedy, we never sell anything. We’d like to give it to you,” to which she replied, “Well, in my position, I can’t take it.”

They struck a deal, which involved a donation to a sporting charity, and the matter came to rest. Until Mr. Koehler got another call.

His assignment was to travel to Hyannis Port, Massachusetts—home of the Kennedy Compound—to photograph and sketch the family sailboat, Victura. When he returned home to Manhattan, he would produce three paintings—one of each Kennedy couple operating the 26-foot-long vessel.

“I made sketches and one of the Kennedy sisters came to see them,” Mr. Koehler recalled. “Usually when I’m painting, I have the radio on with classical music, but for this visit I didn’t. The sister okayed the sketches and left the studio.”

Her brother, President John F. Kennedy, was assassinated just minutes later.

“She found out on the street,” Mr. Koehler said. “I thought, ‘Oh, if I’d just had the radio on.’ I was so sad because everyone recognized the whole family and what a way to find out your brother had just been killed.”

Assuming the commission was scrapped, the artist filed the paintings away. Two or three weeks later, he got another call, this time from Sports Illustrated.

“‘Mr. Koehler, how are the paintings coming?’” the editor on the line asked.

“‘Oh, just fine!’” he said, and added, “I got them done in time for Christmas.”

The artist sighed and smiled. “What a lesson about paintings having a life of their own.”

Not to mention guiding him through his most important life choices. As a young boy growing up in Louisville, Kentucky, Mr. Koehler would draw scenes of cowboys and Native Americans on the cardboard inserts from his father’s laundry, he said. After his service with the Coast Guard at the end of World War II, he deviated from his hometown’s Princeton University contingent and studied at Yale, where he padded his liberal education with art classes to secure his spot on the dean’s list every semester for four years, he said.

“I didn’t want to go to art school. I thought, ‘I’ll always draw, but I want to learn how to read and write a little bit,’” he said. “So when I was about to flunk chemistry—which, luckily, I never did—I’d take another art course. I always got A-pluses.”

After college, Mr. Koehler and his three roommates packed up their books and clothes—“and probably our beer cans, in those days,” he said—and moved to New York. He hit the East End summer scene as an eligible bachelor, he said, and it was there he met his future wife, Audrey.

It was the early 1960s, and he drew her the night they met at a costume party in Southampton.

“I did a lot of portraits, especially pretty girls,” he smiled mischievously. “In those days, I was not as inhibited as I am now, so I would take a sketchbook and draw people for fun. And I didn’t even know her when I made that drawing.”

They were married in 1964 and Mr. Koehler raised her two sons, Alexander Mason and Anthony Mason, as his own, he said. The latter, who works as the CBS News senior business and economics correspondent, recently reunited his stepfather with the original JFK and Jackie Kennedy sailing painting aboard the Victura, set against a yellow background.

“I did recognize it,” Mr. Koehler said of the painting. “It even looked like them.”

The artist and his wife, an interior designer who co-founded Parrish Presents, the annual holiday bazaar that benefits the Parrish Art Museum, were married 44 years until her death in 2008. The costume party drawing hangs, framed, in Mr. Koehler’s den.
“The last picture in the bottom row is the drawing I drew of her the night we met,” he said fondly. “We lived here together for almost 20 years.”

One summer, Mr. Koehler attempted to grow four artichoke plants in his garden there. Three produced nothing, he said, and the fourth produced too many artichokes—none of which were edible.

“The ones we get in this country are from Castroville, California, which is about halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco,” he said. “I remember, one of my trips to California, I was driving from San Diego, north, to San Francisco. In the middle of the night, the headlights just caught these fields of artichokes. Heaven. Yes, heaven. But it was late at night, and there was no need to stop.”

He laughed. “When they come into the market again, you must get one,” he said. “Call me and I’ll tell you what to do. I’ll even have one with you. Two with you.”

An exhibition featuring oil paintings of artichokes by Henry Koehler will open on July 5 from 6 to 8 p.m. at Ann Madonia Antiques in Southampton. The show will remain on view through July 19. For more information, call 283-1878 or visit annmadoniaantiques.1stdibs.com.

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