Intricate Christmas Villages are a family tradition for this bluffton artist.
Story by Carolyn Males + Photography by Jean-Marie Cote
When the world wearies him and he can’t sleep, Richard Coyne pads down the stairs late at night to contemplate Bethlehem. He settles in, cross-legged on the floor, to meditate on the vast panorama spread out before him. His eye travels over the hilly landscape, the rustic buildings, the ruins in the distance, and the small figures leading flocks of sheep and caravans of camels as they enter the small town. Finally his gaze rests on the manger where the Christ child lies as Mary and Joseph look on.
“It takes me away to a spiritual kind of place. A respite,” says Coyne. “I think about the message of peace and it gives me a little solace for where the world is today.”
But Coyne is not time-traveling in the Middle East. At least, not literally. Instead, he is gazing down on the 96-square-foot installation he’s created in his Bluffton living room. He began building this expansive diorama two Christmases ago and he’s added to it over the years but in truth, this spiritual undertaking has been a lifetime in the making.
Coyne, you see, is a born visual storyteller.
His creative spark was ignited by the Christmas villages his grandfather would set up at his Bronx home. “It was magic,” Coyne declares. His younger brother Joe, (who would later become a playwright) was so enchanted by the display that he began making up stories about the townsfolk as 6-year-old Richard, like a stage director, moved the pieces around.
By the time Coyne was 11, he’d built a diorama of the beaches at Normandy on D-Day. To add a realistic touch, he’d inserted plastic hosing beneath the sand and, using a combination of lighter fluid and a cigarette, blew smoke into the landscape of tanks and ruined buildings.
I think about the message of peace and it gives me a little solace for where the world is today.”
Then as a young adult, wanderlust struck. He went roaming, getting firsthand looks at all those faraway places. He worked his way through Europe then Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, ending his nomadic journey with a four-month stay in India. Ironically, he’d never made it to Bethlehem.
When the World Trade Towers fell on 9/11, Coyne, who was living in Manhattan at the time, volunteered on search-and-rescue efforts through the wreckage. It was a noble, patriotic deed in a time of national trauma and sorrow. He would, however, pay a heavy price with health issues that have plagued him in the aftermath. Needing fresh air for his damaged lungs, he moved to the Lowcountry in 2006.
It was a move that would change his life. Today, on some mornings, Coyne wakes up before dawn and packs up his paints and easel to catch sunrises over marshes and waterways. His small gems of Lowcountry landscapes entice viewers to wander into his world, feel the warmth of the sun, watch the light dance on the water and rake across the spartina grasses.
Over the years, he has built large table-top public installations of sheer Americana with model trains coursing through towns and over rivers and hills. And Charles Dickens would feel quite at home in the Victorian English villages the artist has constructed.
The inspiration for his Bethlehem diorama was the annual Neapolitan Baroque crèche at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Awed by its exquisite beauty, Coyne had vowed, “one day I’m going to have one of these in my home.” He began by sculpting the rugged terrain and buildings from foam, plaster, and stone. Then he sourced the materials for the olive trees and palms from craft and home stores. For the figures — the Holy family, shepherds, Magi, camels, sheep, donkeys, chickens, goats, and geese –– he scoured second-hand shops and Christmas markets.
They all became part of a living history. So we see a camel caravan and its driver coming from the east. A flock of sheep moves in from a distant hill. The Magi walk toward the manger. A woman with a pan of dates heads off to the market.
“I design these things as if I’m doing a painting,” Coyne says. “I look at how the eye moves through the panorama; what colors move you around the piece itself; and how one side of the landscape talks to the other.”
Now he hopes to find a museum, church, or other space to share his vision with the public. “When people, and especially children, look at this, I hope it will engender that sense of magic and a creative spark for them.”
And for those of us seeking a calm in a turbulent world, it just may give us, as does Coyne, a welcome inner peace.