Atlantic Beach artist’s whimsical critters bring joy | Local Florida AP News
ATLANTIC BEACH, Fla. (AP) – Scotie’s cousin relaxes in the garage/workshop of his Atlantic Beach home surrounded by some of his creations. His whimsical works are often installed randomly and anonymously on beaches for the public to enjoy.
In early 2020, the nation was tense, divided and slowly learning of a virus in different parts of the world, a mysterious thing that seemed to be creeping ever closer. It was tense.
Artist Scotie Cousin stood in line at a Publix in Jacksonville and could see everything around him. People were sullen, stooped, guarded. They were just horrible to each other.
They were in pain, he knew it, and that made Cousin – who was in pain most of his life – so sad.
Driving home, he looked at the palm trees in the median of Atlantic Boulevard. He smiled. He knew exactly what he had to do.
At home, he left the groceries in the car and rushed to his garage, where he cut a piece of recycled plastic into the shape of an imaginative gecko. He painted the animal green and black, with purple flowers for its hair.
Two hours later, as the groceries in the car spoiled, he was back at the palm trees, now wearing an orange shirt and white helmet, carrying a ladder and looking all official. He made his way into the median, climbed a tree, and tied the gecko to the trunk with wire.
It was rush hour and the cars were crawling. Cousin walked back across the street and just sat and watched people react. He was rewarded: he saw grumpy motorists burst into smiles, saw children roll down windows and point excitedly.
There he stayed for a while. His groceries could wait a little longer.
This was his first creature – that’s what he calls her – and it did exactly what he wanted. It made people smile and laugh.
Since then, many creatures have been added: whimsical, smiling birds, dragons, owls, aliens, cats, crabs and more that Cousin has placed in trees and fields, in schools and hospitals, at intersections and along busy roadsides.
He puts some critters there because people asked for them. He lists others anonymously because people need them – even if they don’t realize it until they see them.
Cousin has made all kinds of art in a variety of mediums, and some of it adorns his Atlantic Beach home. But there’s something about these bright, cheerful creatures…
He constantly hears from them via email and on his Instagram and Facebook, messages of support and thanks.
People are lining up to buy their own critters online at cousinartcritters.com, in person and at the Atlantic Beach Arts Market on Mayport Road.
He and a business partner are preparing to mass-produce them in order to sell them cheaper and more widely.
“Here’s the magic part,” Cousin said. “It draws people in and they make their own story about it.”
He says it again: People need something like this in their lives. Not necessarily one of his critters, but what they represent: happiness, oddity. What he calls “that wonder we had as children.”
At one point he went back to Atlantic Boulevard near where he had placed the original animal in the tree and dropped another lizard there. He was lying on the grass smiling and a speech bubble came out of his mouth with a message in block letters that we could all use.
“YOU WILL BE WELL.”
Cousin, who will turn 59 at the end of July, grew up in Cypress, Texas, west of Houston, on a small farm with two brothers, eight horses, 200 chickens, two pigs and a goat.
He was Scott then; He later took on Scotie (pronounced Scottie), part of a new identity that felt more like himself.
As Scott, he played football, running back and linebacker (“I was a very mean linebacker”) at Cypress schools. He played drums in the school band and his parents encouraged his musical talent which expanded to include saxophone, bass and guitar.
But he was lonely, friendless, aware that he was different from others in Cypress, which was real country back then: cowboy hats, rodeos, country music.
“I didn’t know what I was,” he said, “but I knew I wasn’t.”
On a hot summer’s day in 1974, however, he got some clues to his identity as he walked alone down Cypress Creek, past its high banks of wet red clay.
An idea began to form and he set to work on the clay, shaping it into abstract shapes like tubes or dreadlocks and connecting them together until the whole stretched 20 feet. He stayed there for hours, blushing from the heat. At sunset he just sat back contentedly and admired it.
He’s not sure what motivated him to do it, he said. “It just hit me organically, almost like it was from another world.”
Looking back, he notes that this was his first art installation. He never told anyone about it, he never showed it to anyone. But he knew this was his way forward.
Cousin went to McNeese State University in Louisiana on a drums scholarship, played in the marching band and developed as an artist in his own right. He got his first paid gig illustrating the school yearbook. He later lived in Atlanta with his own mosaic tile business, making art by day and playing clubs in a band called Groove Snafu.
There he met his future wife, Laura, who, after some ups and downs, invited him to Chicago, where she had moved. He followed, and several unofficial art installations followed: giant chalk murals on the sidewalk outside her apartment, a leafless tree blooming with dozens of red clown noses he found in the trash.
He and Laura got married 17 years ago. But life was often hard.
Since Cousin was 18, an autoimmune disease has ravaged his body, affecting his cartilage, skin and teeth. He has had more than 30 surgeries, he said, and has become addicted to the prescribed opioids.
However, he continued to make art, even if — after undergoing back fusion surgery — he had to lie on the concrete to paint his huge murals on the sidewalk.
The drugs were killing him, he knew, but nothing seemed to work until the couple moved to Jacksonville in 2013 so he could complete a chronic pain program at the Mayo Clinic. It worked, he said, and he was able to get off the drugs. Withdrawal from opiates was brutal, but stretching, exercise, meditation, and mental changes in how he thinks about his pain have helped him.
This lifelong ordeal is terrible. But he thinks he wouldn’t be the same if he didn’t go through it. It made him feel how precious every day is.
His philosophy is simple: “Every day is an endless opportunity, I get up and say ‘Thank you Lord’.”
In conversation, Cousin, who often wears a straight-brimmed baseball cap and sunglasses, is gregarious, outspoken, self-deprecating, and endlessly enthusiastic.
He is obsessed with his adopted home of Atlantic Beach, where many of his animal creations can be found. He rides around on a beach cruiser bike equipped with a small motor and some sort of plywood fender. And he sings in the choir at St. John the Baptist Catholic on Mayport Road, where he finds spiritual nourishment and fellowship.
“My religion is what I do in the community to make it better,” he said. “If you want to call it something, it does something for the community I want to live in. That is my religion.”
Brandy DiVita was with her daughter Morgan, taking her to another hospital appointment, when she saw this stranger in the front yard of her Neptune Beach home. But then a big smile spread across Morgan’s face as he saw the colorful critters he was setting out on the lawn.
It was Scotie’s cousin who had asked around: Is there anyone who is suffering that I might be able to help?
That led him to Morgan, who was 11 on February 9, 2021 when she was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. “Lifespan after diagnosis is six to nine months,” her mother said, “and she’s battled it for eight months.”
Morgan was 12 when she died on September 20th.
(DiVita is organizing a 5K on September 17th to raise funds for families in a similar situation. Go to runsignup.com and search “MorganStrong”.)
DiVita said Cousin has been a steady friend to her and their only child all along. He brought Morgan more pets, talked and joked with her, wrote her a song, and attended her funeral. He donated artworks to a fundraiser and persuaded other artists to do the same.
“He went from a stranger to a really good friend. He was with us, me and Morgan throughout our fight,” DiVita said. “Even after her death, he’s still here.”
Out of gratitude, she bought him an engraved brick that sits on the sidewalk in front of Poe’s Tavern in Atlantic Beach. It reads, “Scotie Cousin Local Hero.”
That’s him, said DiVita. “We need about a thousand more Scotie Cousins in this world.”
Cousin is always on. He is always thinking, creating, improving. His wife explained how his mind works.
“He’s like a mad scientist,” Laura said. “If he has an idea that he needs to finish, the house could burn, my hair could burn…”
“Food in the car,” Scotie chuckled.
“Bombs could explode in the backyard. And I would say, ‘Darling, help!’”
But when he’s working on something, she knows his reaction.
“He would say, ‘Wait a second.’ That’s how he is.”
Is it tiring?
“Yes.” She sighs mock. “Lovingly.”
He’s always trying to make something nicer, always trying to make someone happier, she said. He always has to reinvent everything.
Think of the time at Trader Joe’s in Chicago when he heard the cash register ringing, item after item, with that insistent beep-beep-beep. He went into management. “How about instead of that beep, give each of them a different bird sound?” he asked her. “You only hear the birds chirping.”
At first they looked at him in amazement, then they nodded in agreement: That could be nice. As far as he knows, there are no birds singing there.
Cousin sees art everywhere. There’s so much of it: in the branches of a tree, in recycled plastic, in a pile of stuff that someone threw away.
He can already see the finished work of art. It’s only up to him to make it happen.
“As much time as God gives me on this earth, I’m going to fucking squeeze every bit out of this lemon,” he said. “There just isn’t enough time. I feel like I’m running out of time.”
Cousin stops to clarify that he’s not trying to be morbid, not trying to be dramatic.
“I’m not running out of time because I’m dying or anything,” he explained. “All I know is that there isn’t enough time in one life to do what I want to do.”