C. Denys Cook sits in his room at the Victorian at McKenzie seniors home, surrounded, almost hemmed in, by a lifetime of art.
Framed watercolors, acrylics and mesmerizing scraperboard pieces leave not an inch of bare wall, and dozens more lie stacked on the floor.
Binders thick like old phone books hold immaculate drawings of owls and bears and bison and deer and cougars, each page bearing three or four images. Others hold dead-ringer hand-drawings of famous faces, hundreds of them – John Wayne, Mozart, Hemmingway, General Patton, Ghandi.
Of this seemingly endless oeuvre, Cook needs to select a few prize pieces for his first art show in decades.
The 93-year-old native of Wales was once a going concern in Canada’s wildlife art scene in the 1970s and ’80s, a painter whose work adorned walls of a prime minister and a governor general, government offices and corporate headquarters.
The Victorian seniors residence in Saanich encouraged Cook to host a recent Saturday art show in its lobby, not exactly a high-profile gala of the past, but it gave his fellow residents a taste of his work. Cook used it as a fundraiser for the Cerebral Palsy Association of B.C. in honour of his great-grandson. He ended up selling $300 worth.
“I’ve got all this work sitting here in my room,” he shrugs, talking a few days before the show. “I don’t really expect to sell anything.”
In his apartment, Cook pulls out his artist kit in a compact Tupperware container: a portable watercolour paint set and an array of dental tools – fine point scrapers normally used to chip tartar off teeth.
He points to the jet black on white images of a doe and a buck – the medium of British scraperboard, where India ink is painted over porcelain clay. The granular detail of thousands of hairs float off the surface.
“With scraperboard you draw every hair and feather. It’s all very simple strokes to create a 3-D object on a flat surface,” he says. “It’s so different. They don’t teach this in university. Very few people know about it.”
Continuously for 38 years, Cook poured over his easel or sketchbooks, reflecting the pastoral scenes and wildlife of Canada. He estimates he’s created some 1,400 paintings and sold between 300 and 400. The rest are in storage.
“Ever since my wife died I’ve produced work, until a few months ago when my eyesight really failed,” he says, referring to his first wife Barbara, who passed away in 1976. “Every painting has a story. I like wildlife and life itself – all aspects of birds, nature scenery, flowers.”
Self taught, he dove into producing art as a profession in 1974 after an influential career within the Alberta government, where he introduced fundamental reforms to its civil service and highway commercial vehicles inspection. A forced retirement from government inadvertently launched his art career.
“I asked my wife to give me six months to give it a go as an artist, and haven’t stopped since.”
It didn’t take Cook long to break into the national art scene.
He and Barbara helped found the Canadian National Craft Council, and the Alberta Arts and Crafts Society. In 1976, his art was selected for a tour of work by 29 wildlife artists – which included Robert Bateman – in provincial museums across Canada. Through the mid-1970s and ’80s he sold scores of paintings and held three international solo art shows in 1980. Air Canada’s En Route magazine even profiled him in 1975.
Art can be seen as Cook’s third or fourth career, depending on how you define five years of hard labour in a German prisoner of war camp. Cook joined the Welsh Guards at age 17, a unit which was sent to northern France in May 1939 to rescue Holland’s Queen Wilhelmina.
“The Germans were waiting for us when we landed. There was street fighting for three days,” he recalls with clarity, as if it were yesterday. “We were shelled and bombed – it was hell for three days.”
During his time in POW camps, he met Barbara through letters and goodwill packages sent to prisoners. “The girl who sent me shorthand books I married when I got back to England,” he says.
After the war he found work as a police constable in Hertfordshire. He became a police college staff instructor, a job he did for the RCMP after immigrating to Alberta with his wife and three kids in 1957.
He moved to Victoria in 1980, still grieving over the loss of Barbara.
“All my life I’ve driven to be different than most, to be noticed. I was good at what I did and I decided to do the same with artwork,” he says.
“I’ve had a happy and successful life, except for the death of my first wife.” His eyes water when he talks about her. “‘Life is a mystery to be lived, not a problem to be solved.’ That’s her saying and its true.”
At his Victorian art show, Cook’s daughter Denise Pollock keeps him company, and recalls that her father doodling and painting was a constant backdrop to her childhood.
“I like his early (water colour) work. I see the evolution as his eyesight changed. His later work was more intense with colour,” she says.
Barbara, her mother, was the driving force behind her parents deep involvement in Alberta’s art scene, Pollock says.
“He came here without knowing anyone in or getting involved with an arts council,” she says. “He was so well known in Alberta but it doesn’t follow you. He is unknown here.”
She’s not sure what she’s going to do with his 900 paintings held in storage – boxes and boxes of unframed art.
His legacy nags at Cook too. He’s offered his life’s work to the Welsh national art gallery and the Alberta Arts Council, but hasn’t heard a response.
“I’m disappointed that there is so much art and so few know about it,” Cook says. “When I’m gone what will happen to it? I have no idea.”
To see samples of Cook’s art see denbarart.com.