A generation ago, Coe was one of the preeminent sculptors working in Texas. The landscape of East Texas is dotted with his artful sculpting.
The heroic 1936 Texas Centennial statue of Dick Dowling at Sabine Pass, the cenotaph marking the site of the tragic 1937 New London School explosion, the elegant friezes in Houston’s art deco City Hall, and the sculptural embellishments at the Rice University library, along with a number of bas reliefs on Beaumont buildings, all came from his talented hands.
Matchett Herring Coe’s impeccable credentials as an East Texan began with his birth in Hardin County at present-day Lumberton in 1907. He later became closely identified with Beaumont, where he spent much of his life.
Coe attended old South Park College, which eventually became Lamar University, majoring electrical engineering. Art and sculpture, however, were his first loves, which led him to study at the Cranbrook Art Academy in Detroit, Michigan. Known as the “cradle of American modernism,” Cranbrook introduced Coe to artistic luminaries such as Charles Eames, Eero Saarinen, and world-famous sculptor Carl Milles, who became his mentor.
Coe chiseled and carved his way across East Texas until his passing in 1999, except for the years of his military service during World War Two. That conflict saw him as a Navy Seabee in the South Pacific. Participating in the Battle of Guadalcanal, Coe later sculpted the serene Battalion Memorial that today graces that historic island near the site where he fought.
In 1961, he did the Texas Memorial at Vicksburg, commemorating the role Texans played in that pivotal Civil War battle. One of his most elegant works is the bust Coe lovingly carved of his father over his elder’s grave at the Magnolia Cemetery in Beaumont.
Today, the Clifton Steamboat Museum in Beaumont has collected some of Coe’s smaller works and sculptures, which are contained in a special gallery dedicated to his art. That exhibit also contains photographs documenting his larger, heroic-sized outdoor work. Herring Coe’s artistic spirit endures in stone and bronze all across East Texas.
All Things Historical is a syndicated weekly column in over 70 East Texas newspapers. It is provided as a public service by the East Texas Historical Association. Light T. Cummins is the Texas State Historian and the Bryan Professor of History at Austin College in Sherman.