LAKELAND — When Stephen Koury began college as a freshman, his focus, in addition to education, was playing his best for the baseball team.
And in 1984, after graduating from the University of Wyoming with a master’s degree in counseling psychology for athletes, Koury found himself a baseball coach at the University of Wyoming. After moving to Lakeland in late 1984, he became an assistant coach for the Florida Southern College baseball team. A year later, he helped guide the Moccasins to the NCAA Division II national championship.
But underneath his athletic skills on the diamond, where he played catcher, Koury had a penchant and talent for wildlife and nature art.
Now retired from coaching, Koury spends his time giving out pointers on painting and sharing his talents and skills with the Lakeland and Polk County community.
During the Fine Art at the Magnolia 2018 show Saturday and Sunday, Koury’s approximately 30 detailed nature works were among the hundreds of fine art pieces shown. Sunday morning in the Magnolia Building, he had a steady stream of visitors to his booth.
There, Koury, 60, showed his works to guests — hyper-realistic paintings featuring swamp landscapes, birds, lions, buffalos, seascapes and other natural settings, foliage and fauna. The Holbrook, Arizona, native said his father, Dan, was an art teacher and head of the art department at Holbrook High School, so he grew up around art.
Although he excelled at baseball as a catcher, Koury said the environment in which he spent his youth was conducive to developing an eye for art.
“I hung around my dad in the art department. When you do that, you draw, you sketch and my dad saw something in me; he knew I could do (art),” he said.
Although Koury had the skills as a catcher to get a baseball scholarship to the University of Wyoming, he often found himself dabbling in the arts more than drilling on the diamond.
“If I got a care package at school, it was paints and brushes, not cookies and toiletries. Often in class, I wasn’t listening, I was drawing,” he said.
Koury, one of Dan and Judy Koury’s seven children, said he began Little League baseball at 8 years old, playing throughout his youth. But his love of art and baseball drove him to pursue both in and after college, even though he failed a high school art class.
After the Mocs’ national championship, Koury — who lives in Lakeland with his wife, Necia and daughter Sage, 15 — said he felt he reached his sports pinnacle and it was time to move on. In 1989, he opened an Allstate insurance agency in Lakeland but even then, the art bug was constantly biting.
“I’d paint in the back room. As long as I made my numbers, (the Allstate corporate office) didn’t care if I did art, went to shows and sold artwork on the side,” he said. “By Friday afternoon, I’d load up my car and head to a show.”
At shows, Koury generally brings between 25 to 30 pieces for sale, ranging in size from five by seven inches to 4 by 6 feet and range in price from $350 up to $30,000.
To create his works, Koury said he has traveled internationally to personally seek his subjects, painting nature in South Africa in 2003 and the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico; Guatemala, and other areas of Central America in 2004.
Koury said he uses acrylic gouache, an opaque, matte acrylic paint made in Australia. He said it can offer his paintings a watercolor or acrylic look.
“I have to see it in the wild to paint it,” he said.
In the west end of the Magnolia Building, Arts at the Magnolia curator and Lakeland artist Betsy Bohrer said Koury was one of 17 Florida artists to show in the second year of the event. She said the majority of this year’s artists were from Central Florida with others coming from Weeki Wachee, St. Augustine, Inverness, Melbourne Beach and Leesburg.
Media this year included fabric, mixed-medium etchings, clay sculpture, jewelry, aerial and digital photography and basketry. The show was endorsed by the Polk Museum of Art at Florida Southern College.
Bohrer called Koury’s art “masterful” and intricate in their details.
“His influences are far-reaching due to his lessons and instruction from his home studio,” she said. “He’s been part of the community and arts community for a long time.”
Those acknowledgements also have caught the eyes of celebrities and some of Koury’s works are in the collections of the late Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, professional golfer Andy Bean and actor Clint Eastwood.
In 2002, Koury published a book “Painting Natures Little Creatures” and he later led painting workshops in the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx, New York. He continues to teach art to up to 10 students at a time at his south Lakeland studio.
Taking a break between chatting with visitors, Koury said although he sometime pondered what might have been had he stuck with baseball, he knows a life of art was the right decision.
“There has never been a doubt in my mind that I’m supposed to paint for a living. I would have loved to have been a pro ball player, but even then, I would have kept painting,” he said.
Fine Art at the Magnolia partnered with the Polk Education Foundation to provide a Visual Fine Arts Scholarship. The 2018 recipient was Victor Persichetti of Auburndale High School.