John Urbain (1920- 2009) was born in Brussels, Belgium. He moved with his parents to Detroit in 1922. Drafted into the U.S. Army in 1941, Urbain was an infantry corporal whose skill as an illustrator led him to create army training graphics and murals. Wounded during the war, he later depicted the pathos of war in his own artwork.
Urbain studied art at Black Mountain College in North Carolina on the GI Bill. His most influential teacher was artist Josef Albers, who opened his eyes to new approaches to design, color and materials. He also learned about collage that became the dominant means from which Urbain would create art.
In a 2004 "Block Island Times" interview, Urbain was asked how he was able to make the viewer see ordinary objects in a new way, a scrap of lace as a cloud, a piece of battered metal washed up on the beach as a human figure, for example. He laughed and revealed his secret. "They kind of happen," he confessed. "I often don’t realize what’s there until after it’s assembled."
While at Black Mountain, he met his future wife, fellow artist Elaine Schmidt. After their marriage in 1946, the couple moved to Paris and studied art at the Academie de la Grande Chaumiere and the Academie Julien.
The Urbains returned to the U.S. in 1953 where they raised their two children, Catherine and Michael. John became art director at Phillip Morris Company. John continued at Phillip Morris Company until his retirement when he and Elaine moved to a summer home in Block Island, Rhode Island. They divorced soon afterwards. For the remainder of his life, John divided his time between the summer home in Block Island and a residence in Ardsley, New York. Urbain’s work is in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the National Gallery of Art, the Detroit Institute of Art, the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, North Carolina Museum of Art and the Asheville Art Museum.