Nestled in the Hudson Yards pasture, a herd of 22 fiberglass cows grazing the mall and surrounds are enrapturing passers-by. Inside the mall last week, a father hoisted a young boy onto the red saddle of a cow under the guise of a merry-go-round horse designed by Neil Patrick Harris, the mother snapping photos as the boy yelled “Giddy-up!” In another corner, a cow in psychedelic colors by Erin Halper flanked the Louis Vuitton store, serving as a selfie prop for two bubbly twenty-something women. “This is such a beautiful variety of art. No two cows are the same,” one of them said.
Ron Fox, Senior Vice-President of CowParade, says this idea of local artists adorning the cows with their own interpretation of what is now and relevant has always been their goal. “I’ve been with the company since 1999, and the general meaning is always about public art created by a city’s own artists, that capture what’s happening in society at that moment — like pop culture or current affairs.”
Fox and Jerome Elbaum, the founder of CowParade, were working together in 1998 when they were enthralled by an exhibition of painted cows in Switzerland. And thus, the reason for cows — so emblematic of Switzerland and its blissful bucolic life — which Fox says he also identified with, having grown up on a dairy farm. Elbaum secured the rights to bring the event to the United States, and in the summer of 1999, 300 art-bedecked cows descended upon Chicago.
In 2000, the event came to New York City. Though the exhibition of 500 cows was a tourism hit, it was also fraught with what Fox deems “being given too much love,” from vandalism to attempts at cow-napping the art pieces. He says this year no such “college hi-jinks” could take place, as the 78 cows in eight locations across all five boroughs are now bolted down on elevated, heavy bases, and placed in highly visible areas. The cows will stay put until September 30 when the exhibition ends.
Brooklyn-based artists and co-collaborators Terri Chiao and Adam Frezza (known professionally as Chiaozza) both saw the cow art exhibition in 2000. Chiao, then a senior in high school, was enamored seeing public art on the streets, “where it’s the same form painted in so many different ways by so many people.“ So when they were asked by independent art curator Renee Riccardo to contribute to the exhibition, it was a cathartic experience. “In some ways it felt like giving back or communicating with a past self,” says Chiao.
And so Cowzza was born — when you peer at it from the front, the cow appears to be walking through a field of endless, multicolored ribbons, rippling and wrapping around its every muscle and curve. Frezza says as sculpture artists who gravitate towards a sense of imagined potential, they first covered the cow with paper pulp for texture, and then painted on the rainbow of ribbons that they felt embodied “a celebration of joy and diversity” and emphasized the movement aspect of the animal.
Fox thinks artwork like Cowzza that accentuate the unique “shape, curves and angles of the cow body” are mind-blowingly good. He cites Frida Kowlo by Victor “Marka27” Quiñonez as the personification of this aesthetic, with both sides featuring Frida Kahlo’s face stretched across the body. “Each side of that cow is its own independent, incredible work of art,” says Fox.
Another example of this is Cowtesra by Adama Coulibaly, with white dots and colorful lines that appear to punctuate and follow every sinew of the cow. “I actually visited the painting studio when he was creating it,” recalls Fox. “He just sort of walked around the cow and began to put the white dots on.” Coulibaly later told Fox how the dots are symbolic of his journey from the Ivory Coast to where he is now.
Using Art to Spread Joy
Unlike Chiaozza, Albany native collage artist Chris Sainato had never heard of the cow parade before, but was extremely honored when touchless travel company Clear reached out to him to create their branded cow. The night sky-blue, astrologically-inclined cow, aptly named Cowstellations, features constellation icons in the foreground that represent Clear’s future expansion plans. On the background is a collage of carefully chosen newspaper clippings from The New York Times that represent the past 100 years.
“The images represent where New York has been, there are Yankees clippings and nods to Broadway,” says Sainato. “I have going down the neck of the cow the front page of The New York Times from when the U.S. hit 100,000 deaths from COVID.” On the forehead reads a headline from the same issue: “No one knows what’s going to happen,” which Sainato says is a reminder of how the past year has put humanity’s sheer audacity into check.
Using art to spread joy as the city recovers from the severity of the pandemic inspired this year’s beneficiary of the Cow Parade, God’s Love We Deliver — a nonprofit that cooks and delivers tailored, nutritious meals to people with serious illnesses in all five boroughs. “They are an ideal partner because they do every day what we try to express in the event, which is bringing love and goodness to the public,” says Fox. “They were very conscientious [and persistent] about putting the display on in all five boroughs.”
All of the cows on display now are up for auction online until October 7, the proceeds of which go to God’s Love We Deliver. “Twelve of those cows will go to a live auction which is [this] week,” notes Fox, adding that in past years celebrities like Ringo Starr and Oprah Winfrey have splurged. Next year, the cows go to Mexico and Taipei — to, as Sainato puts it: “Celebrate life.”