Remembering Ran: The Art of Friendship
by David Ray Skinner
Ran Coney was one of the most creative people I ever knew, and one of the most genuine and incredible friends I ever had. I met him in one of my first classes on my first day at Carson-Newman. We were both Freshman art majors, so we had many of the same classes.
I was used to being “best in class,” so I quickly saw that Ran was the one to beat. We quickly began a friendly competition, however, Ran was always one step ahead of me. No matter how accomplished I became at drawing, watercolors, oils, ceramics or sculpture, Ran was always a little bit (if not a whole lot) better. It was frustrating, but it pushed me to be a better artist. There were a couple of dozen art majors that started out with us in the Fall of 1970, but Ran and I were the only two art majors that graduated with our class four years later. Even with just one artist to beat, he was still better than me!
What’s more, like me, he was also a multi-instrument musician and songwriter, so we had more than art in common. He pledged Philos the first semester of our Freshman year and I pledged the second semester…again, he was always one step ahead. That first semester, when he was busy pledging, I was putting a band together, “Contents Under Pressure ” with fellow Philos, Dan Schlafer, Filmore Strunk, and Paul Dunlap. However, when Paul transferred to MTSU after our sophomore year, that following semester, I started a new band, “Ed Friendex,” with the two remaining members of Contents, along with Ran (on vocals and guitar), Ken Tippins (on trumpet), Joe Holbert, and my Freshman roommate at the time, “Crazy Randy,” on drums. It was a great band with a great sound, but I have no recordings to prove that, and when Randy transferred the next semester, we retired “Ed Friendex.”
After college, I stayed in touch with Ran. He was always true to his “Fine Arts” education, unlike me…I strayed into the fields of journalism and graphic design. Ran and his wife, Ruth (whom he married after his junior year at CN) eventually settled in Atlanta, and I ended up in New York City. In fact, as Art Director of Doubleday’s Literary Guild, I was able to commission Ran to do some illustrations for us to use in the magazine. Doubleday would not allow its art directors to use their own illustrations…again, Ran was one step ahead of me. He even came up to NYC to visit me and talk to several agents about representing him and his work. We had a great visit and an interesting encounter at an Italian restaurant.
Ran knew I was getting restless in New York, so he started encouraging me to move to his adopted city of Atlanta. I flew down several times and stayed with him and Ruth, and I was sold on the city. I left NYC in 1984 and started a print and design agency with two partners. Again, we were able to use some of Ran’s creations. One of our major clients was delighted to discover that he could create ceramic tree ornaments for them to give to their clients as Christmas presents. The theme was “The 12 Days of Christmas,” and Ran designed twelve ornaments to be given out for twelve years, starting with the first one, “a partridge in a pear tree”…
Around this time, Ran’s artistic career began to take off. He was commissioned to create a major ceramic sculpture for the MARTA (Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority) Inman Park/Reynoldstown Station. Ran sculpted, glazed and fired the individual pieces in his Marietta studio and installed them at the station. During the installation, a man fell off the platform as a train was pulling in, and without hesitation, Ran jumped onto the tracks (in spite of the live “third rail”) and helped pull the man to safety. That was so typical of Ran. I didn’t hear that story from Ran, but rather from his life-long friend, Robert. It was not like Ran to brag about himself.
In the late ’80s, Ran was in my wedding party, and he was instrumental (no pun intended) in helping me get acclimated to digital music and production. He had a digital sampler and was creating his own digital voices for recording. Ran and Ruth’s Marietta home had long been a gathering place for CN alumni and former Philos for food, fun, friendship and music, and usually at the end of a typical night, everyone would gather around Ran’s “customized” upright piano (Ran had carved images out of the piano’s wood) for a round of “Will The Circle Be Unbroken.” For one of the events, I wrote a song about our days at Carson-Newman called “Renaissance Cafe,” and I brought it over to Ran’s so he could “create” a digital voice for the recording. I played a standard (digital) grand piano part; Ran played his “custom blended” instrument that he had created (part hammered dulcimer, part orchestra, part harpsichord, all-Ran) At the end of the night, I was able to get a recording of everyone who was there singing around the piano and I spliced the two together. Here’s the link to hear the result: “Renaissance Cafe.”
Ran was still creating amazing art when he passed away from leukemia in the Spring of 1997. Our Philo brother, Filmore Strunk handled his service, and former Philo Joe Holbert, Joe’s wife, Karen, my sister, Jann, and I sang “The Other Side,” a Appalachian-style song I had written (while jogging in New York), as per Ruth’s request.
I think of Ran often these days, and I can only wonder what he would have accomplished had he survived leukemia. He was an incredible artist, musician, and Philo, and one of the best people and kindest friends I ever knew. He will always be missed.