Art can impact a person in ways that sometimes cannot be explained.
The same can be said about artists, willing to spill themselves onto a canvas, into a song, or onto a stage, to reveal their secrets and bare their souls. They generously share their talents — sometimes at their own expense — so others might find joy or a deeper meaning in life.
I began thinking about these things a while back after learning an artist I crossed paths with a few years back had come to the end of his journey on this earth. Cotti, born in 1935 as Marcos Cotti Lorango Jr., was an unassuming character and internationally renowned artist who made Muskogee his home during the final years of his life.
Cotti joined his sister, Sylvia Swan, and her husband here because he saw an opportunity to share his talents with veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder. The artist, who described himself as being “privileged back in the 1950s to be trained by fine oil painters of that time,” shared with them what he had learned and donated some of his work to raise money for veterans organizations and other charities.
But Cotti was a man of the world before he decided to make his home in Muskogee. He began exhibiting his work at an early age in east Los Angeles and catapulted his professional career as a teen when he impressed the famed vaudeville performer Josephine Baker with his drawings of her and her wardrobe.
Baker commissioned Cotti to capture her stage performances on canvas. Baker “was so impressed with his designs that she asked our mom if she could take him to Paris.”
Cotti didn’t get to make that trip, but word about his work spread through Los Angeles to Hollywood and soon he found himself studying at the prestigious Chouinard Art Institute, highly regarded at the time as a “hotbed of experimental art.” He later studied at the Frank Wiggins Institute, known for its apparel arts program, and fine art oil painting under the mentorship of Dino Sider.
The talented choreographer, set and costume designer, and ballet dancer’s art career was interrupted briefly when the Army summoned him in 1958 to serve a stint in Korea. Discharged in 1960, Cotti continued his pursuit of the arts, studying under a veritable list of Who’s Who in the classical arts.
Cotti finally made that trip to Europe in the early 1970s, when Orson Welles commissioned him to paint his portrait. The famed filmmaker, who was in Paris at the time, was recruited by the shah of Iran to help bring the 20th century to his country.
“The money was endless,” and Cotti said he had “carte blanche,” but he returned in the 1980s to attend to a family emergency in California, where he continued his artistic endeavors. He was invited by an MGM film historian Jim Jeneji to paint a portrait of Marlene Dietrich from his personal collection of photographs. Dietrich saw Cotti’s work and commissioned another.
While Cotti’s passion for art survived, his lifestyle began to take its toll. The artist told me he “had a good time ruining my health ..., Mother Nature can be pretty cruel,” so he “had to cut out all of the fun things — except for my art.”
Some of that art will be shared publicly long into the future — a mural he painted of Mount Ranier while stationed at Fort Lewis, Washington, remains, and there is a piece he did of Baker at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery.
And, of course, there is much more that will be shared by those who remember him: family members who survived him, and the art collectors, historians, art dealers and movie makers who have called me since I wrote my first article about this artist.
Cotti died last year but donated his body for medical research before being cremated. Family and friends will gather to remember him today in California.
D.E. Smoot covers city/county government for the Phoenix.