In the fall of 1945, Richard Coons helped his grandfather deliver a load of concrete blocks to an artist who was building his studio and gallery where the North Fork of Bishop Creek crosses Sierra Highway. The artist, Robert Clunie, came to America from Scotland, married Myrtle Ireland in Santa Paula and by 1928 was painting the Sierra Nevada. He fell in love with the big majestic quality of the Eastern Sierra Nevada and its high peaks. When he engaged Richard in conversation, he realized he read in the paper about the young man’s notable track accomplishments at the local high school. With the help of a rancher’s son and friend, Stan Matlick, Richard put together the school’s first high hurdle track and races.
At that time, there was nothing that compared with Robert Clunie’s large colorful paintings of the High Sierra and the deepest valley, as described by writer and former resident, Mary Austin. Sierra photographers—Ansel Adams, Cedric Wright and Edward Weston—were still shooting black and white, decades before color film and large format color printing was available. Seeing Robert Clunie’s magnificent paintings of the Sierra and meeting the man, inspired dreams of being able to paint like that, to live a life of an artist, like Clunie, camped out at 10,000-feet, month to month, beneath summer thunderstorm, morning sunrise and early evening’s alpenglow. Thirty years later, at the age of 47, after raising three daughters with his first wife, Marilyn, and building a local business, Richard taught himself how to paint.
Richard Coons and Robert Clunie remained close friends until Clunie’s death in 1984. Coons purchased Clunie’s studio from Clunie’s son and opened Coons Gallery. In 1999, Richard wrote and published the definitive volume on his mentor’s life: Robert Clunie Plein-Air Painter of the Sierra. It took Richard seven years to write the book, to research and collect photographs of Clunie’s paintings. In 2002, he and Wynne Benti were married.
A painting member of the California Art Club, Richard Coons won many awards, placed in the National Parks Art For the Parks Top 100 competition. He continuously participated in many exhibitions including the National Parks Art For the Parks, The Yosemite Renaissance Exhibition, many California Art Club Gold Medal Exhibitions, Pasadena Museum of California Art, as well as a joint exhibition with Robert Clunie at the Ventura County Historical Museum.
Richard Coons estimated that he painted over 3000 oils in a twenty-four year span.