On New Year’s Eve 20 years ago, Tom Cowsert got together with some friends in Charlotte, North Carolina.
The closer the clock moved toward midnight, the less interesting the conversation became for him.
“They talked about the pain and agony of childbirth, stock market investments and grass seed varieties for their lawns,” he said. “I love my friends. They are nice people, but I knew there had to be something else.”
By the time the next New Year’s Eve rolled around, he was determined not to spend it analyzing the Dow Jones average and centipede seed.
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Auld lang syne.
Tom grew up in Macon, graduated from Central High School in 1980, went to Presbyterian College and received his master’s degree in international business from the University of South Carolina. He had a job in commercial real estate loans with Bank of America in downtown Charlotte.
“I was looking to go on an adventure by myself,” he said. “I walked out of my bank building and saw a travel agency was offering special flights to Barcelona. I took that as a sign.”
He booked a vacation to Spain, ushered in the new year six hours ahead of his friends in Charlotte, and he came back recharged with the ambience of a European lifestyle.
Then it was back to reality.
“A few months later, I was sitting in my gray suit in my gray office in my gray life and realized it wasn’t all that satisfying to me,” Tom said.
He decided to take a year off and return to the land of bullfights and afternoon siestas.
“It was kind of crazy,” he said. “I didn’t speak Spanish, and I didn’t know anybody in Spain.”
That one-year sabbatical has turned into an 18-year extended stay.
He has a studio and apartment in downtown Madrid. He has become fluent in Spanish, paints for a living and has been inspired by a country that has produced so many great artists -- from Pablo Picasso to Salvador Dali.
He has become quite a flamenco dancer, too. He has made friends with an array of bullfighters, politicians and television personalities.
“It just felt right when I got here,” he said. “The culture, the climate and food are wonderful, but more than anything else it’s the rhythm of life. People take time to sit down in a cafe with friends.”
He may never want to come home.
Actually, he is home. He came back to visit his mother, Virginia Cowsert, a longtime preschool teacher in Macon.
On Friday night, he will have a few friends over for a Spanish dinner with gazpacho and paella. The sangria will flow. On Tuesday, he will celebrate his 53rd birthday before returning to Spain.
He brought a bit of Macon back to Macon. From Madrid, with love.
One of his most recent paintings, “Monuments of Macon,” is a collection of 17 landmarks in the city, which he completed in September.
Represented on the canvas are the Hay House, the Sidney Lanier Cottage, City Auditorium, Terminal Station, Fort Hawkins, the Cannonball House, Macon-Bibb County Government Center, the Woodruff House, the gazebo at Central City Park and other historic structures. It includes local churches and colleges, cherry trees and pine trees.
He brought the original with him and hopes to make a limited number of prints available at local gift shops.
“There is a balance of education, art, music, religion and government,” he said. “It has a little of everything. It is representative of home for me. I had never done anything related to Macon. There is so much history and heritage here. You appreciate it more after you go somewhere else.”
He has become a professional painter of some renown in Spain. He has had several exhibits in galleries.
His work has been featured in a book about villages around Madrid. And he recently was commissioned to a painting for King Felipe and Queen Letizia of Spain.
The Duchess of Alba, the richest woman in Spain and one of its most eccentric figures, owned two of his paintings. She died two weeks ago at age 88. (Her full name was Maria del Rosario Cayetana Fitz-James Stuart, and she held more titles than any other aristocrat.)
In a few weeks, Tom will be ringing in Nochevieja, the Spanish New Year. There is a tradition in Spain to wear new, red underwear on New Year’s Eve for good luck and to eat 12 grapes at midnight, one for each chime of the clock.
That gray life in a gray suit in a gray office is a distant memory.
The artist has discovered every color on his palette.