By Jed Keith
“I try to keep it happy,” artist and Somerset native Marko Coomer says of his approach. “There’s always a wink in my work. I am inspired by anything that’s going to bring a smile to someone’s face.”
Spend just a few minutes with Coomer and it’s more than evident he’s passionate about both reaching people with his artwork and viewing the work as an end in and of itself. It’s no secret the past several months have given many people across the Commonwealth and around the globe a hefty load to bear as well as physical and mental fatigue. And yet Coomer’s selection as featured artist for the 28th Master Musicians Festival July 16-17 feels right somehow, bringing over-pouring talent, positivity, and passion to an event that signals a much-needed renewal for all of us.
Coomer’s passion for his art stretches back decades to as early as he could hold pencil to paper.
“I’ve been doing art for years, since I was quite young,” he explained. “I could do portraits of people as far back as first or second grade. And I’d always painted in high school. I’ve always done art in some form or fashion.”
That innate compulsion to create took many shapes over the years, including in his collegiate pursuits. “I left Somerset when I graduated college to school at Belmont University in Nashville, where I studied music business,” — studies that eventually led him down several art and art-adjacent paths along the way, he said.
In the 1990s, Coomer worked in recording studios with producers and record companies, eventually securing a publishing deal with EMI Publishing in London that led him to leave Nashville and move to England. That musical influence has undoubtedly made an imprint on his art.
“I started out as a musician, so I think my celebrity portraits of musicians stems from that place,” he said.
For anyone who strolled down East Mt. Vernon Street in downtown Somerset last fall and winter, you could see the fruits of that influence cutting vibrant colors and sparkle through the windows of Wandering Elm Photography, where his portraits of Dolly Parton and Prince and David Bowie and so many more were on display. But the road to becoming a full-time artist was a slow one — and that was by design.
“After doing music and that field being so commercialized and so entrenched in the business side of things, I was careful not to do that with my art. I wanted to enjoy the journey,” Coomer said. But even when building his career and crafting his art at a deliberate pace, he’s surprised how quickly his art was noticed and in demand.
“I’ve had art shows in Brooklyn [where he now calls home] and in New Jersey,” he said, “and I’ve sold many commissions from Sweden to Finland, from France to Spain, from England to South Africa, and all over the United States. I’ve been amazed how fast it took off, especially since I was making an effort to take it slow.”
However, even though art has been Coomer’s full-time job for the past two years, he’s careful not to allow it to feel that way.
“I put so much joy in my art that I’m really conscious and sensitive about it feeling like a job,” he said. “I can’t do art in a bad mood.”
That’s quite clear when looking at his work, as every piece has an effervescence about it that draws the eyes in, and the eyes of his native Somerset are no exception.
“Somerset has treated me and responded to my work so well,” stretching back to 2019, when he did an art show with Lacy Hilliard and Wandering Elm, Coomer said. He is heartened by the turnout, as well as the interest in his art.
“I spend about three to four months a year in Somerset and I view it as a creative lab where I can try new things [with my art],” he said. “I have such a good base of people there. It’s where my creativity was bred.”
It’s that affection for Somerset and its people that inspired him when asked to do artwork for this year’s Master Musicians Festival.
“I was honored to do the piece,” Coomer said. “I’m all about promoting the arts in Somerset.”
The piece, titled “Festival Feels,” pays tribute to the patrons of MMF and how they’ve worked to bring normalcy back to their lives.
“After the pandemic, I felt like I wanted to make it all about the people who go to MMF,” Coomer said. “So I pulled inspiration from a bunch of different pictures people have sent me from MMF. The painting is a composite of 10 pictures where I pulled people and things through the years when people have gone to the festival.”
“Festival Feels,” which Coomer created with acrylic on canvas, not only acknowledges MMF, which had to be cancelled in 2020 due to the pandemic, but also life’s renewal on a larger scale as we are in the thick of a new year. His piece will be auctioned on stage July 16 and 17 at the 28thevent, with proceeds dedicated to continuing the 501(c)3, volunteer-driven organization.
“The piece is a celebration of people being able to commiserate,” Coomer said, “a celebration of people being together on blankets and under pine tree and being out together again.”
It’s that spirit that moved the festival board to choose Coomer as this year’s featured artist, MMF President Tiffany Finley said.
“Marko’s brief return to Somerset made a significant impact on our local art scene,” Finley said. “It was hard not to walk past his bright and colorful art in the window of Wandering Elm Photography and not feel joy and pride to live here. While we are sad that has gone back to New York, we know that he has captured the magic of his hometown festival with his painting that will forever be part of MMF history.”
Coomer celebrates the patrons of MMF beyond the festival as well. “I love what’s happening with art in Somerset: it’s so pro-art, pro-music, pro-theater. The things they’re doing are great. It’s everything to me. Every time I visit, it fuels my inspiration.”
Music and acrylic and renewal.
“I try to keep it happy.”