Ode to the Outdoors: Meet the Greenway Artist

Saturated and surreal, Autumn Cobeland’s brush gives Raleigh greenways a painterly touch 

by Jessie Ammons Rumbley
photography by S.P. Murray

“I just like painting. That’s what it comes down to,” says Autumn Cobeland, perched in her light-filled studio at Artspace in downtown Raleigh on a recent Saturday morning. She’s surrounded by her vivid renderings of scenes along the Capital Area Greenway System: the scarlet bridge at Kiwanis Park; sepia trees near Lassiter Mill Park; a saffron sky behind Thomas Sayre’s Gyre inside the park at the North Carolina Museum of Art Museum. There are other works, of course, but this series is Cobeland’s signature work, and the way she honors her hometown, too. “What I do is celebrate the greenways. I think they’re beautiful.” The greenway series has also become the way she gives back. Cobeland began making these about 10 years ago, and from the beginning started donating 20 percent of those sales to the City of Raleigh Parks and Recreation Greenway System and Triangle Greenways Council. “At this point, I’ve donated over $12,000,” she says. “It feels good. And what fun! I love doing what I’m doing.”

Finding her style
Cobeland has always “done art,” she says. When she was three, she doodled a business logo for her mother—and it became the actual logo. “That kind of set the tone,” Cobeland says, laughing. Her sixth-grade art teacher at Ligon Middle School encouraged her to seriously study the practice, and from then on, she did. In college, she spent six months in Tuscany, where she received “a really good art education” and spent time hiking among landscapes like Cinque Terre. During that time, she says, Cobeland realized that “there is a lot of meaning, to me, in celebrating being out in nature.” Now, decades later, celebrating “being outside and enjoying it” remains the primary motivation for her work. 

She also draws inspiration from the styling seen in vintage European posters, especially those by artist Henri Toulouse-Lautrec. Cobeland says a career turning point happened when she visited the exhibition of Toulouse-Lautrec posters at the North Carolina Museum of Art in 2001. “I had been painting, painting, painting right along, and then that show inspired me in so many ways.” Namely: creating simplified images that intentionally read as “flattened out.” Many of her favorite posters were lithograph prints, and in search of a similar effect, Cobeland discovered gouache paint. The wash-style paint is comparable to watercolor—Cobeland considers her pieces watercolors—but with richer pigment and texture. Using a combination of gouache and watercolor, Cobeland painted mainly bold, poster-style pet portraits in her early years before another turning point in her career happened. “My husband and I got peer-pressured, in a good way, to do a triathlon.” To train for sprint-distance races, they took to the greenway system. Exploring the trails amazed them. “Both of us are born-and-bred Raleigh people and we didn’t know what we had. We got out there on our bikes and thought, ‘We can just keep going and we don’t have to cross a road? Are you kidding me?’” Cobeland immediately focused on creating scenes from park trails. Vivid and graphic, the greenway series works are recognizable for both their subject and their style, which combines her poster-inspired watercolor painting with a Japanese woodblock printing aesthetic. The originals are mostly 32 inches by 40 inches, and there are prints as small as 8 inches by 10 inches.  

In pursuit of happiness
Today, by way of her art, Cobeland has become a friendly and fervent greenway advocate. When visitors enter her studio, Cobeland often asks if they’re familiar with the greenway system.
When the answer is no, Cobeland lights up. “We’re really fortunate to have over 120 miles of greenway just in Raleigh,” she tells them. This encounter is well-practiced, but the enthusiasm genuine. “And now we’ve connected with trail systems in neighboring cities, too.”

When the answer is yes, Cobeland lights up just the same. That’s the chance to pull out a large framed map of the greenway trails to compare notes, since even those familiar with the greenway often don’t realize how vast it is. “Whether they are familiar with the greenways or not, people tend to be blown away,” Cobeland says. “That is a lot of park that is ours to explore.”
Much of Cobeland’s other work is related to the outdoors, as well. She paints florals, landscapes, still lifes—and the pet posters she first hung her hat on, too. She has several Raleigh murals under her belt, including one at Cameron Village Public Library. Her latest project is another mural in the Wendell Falls development 15 miles east of Raleigh, a bold tessellation of bike icons painted on the side of a shopping center building, with actual bikes affixed to the wall. 

And she’ll keep painting Raleigh’s greenways, as the trails continue to expand and connect. “The best compliment I’ve ever gotten was from a student at N.C. State,” Cobeland says. “She bought a small print for her dorm. When she bought it, she said ‘This is going to help me remember how happy I am outside.’ That’s it: We’re all happier when we’re outside. It changes everyone’s mood. When you run into people on the greenway, they’re out there exploring it—they’re happy.”  

Learn more on autumncobelandpaintings.com or @greenwayartist on Instagram & Twitter.