Artist of the Month – James W. Cook, Ephemeral Sculptor

by Sandra Marshall

James W Cook was born in Sudbury and grew up in Kirkland Lake. Always a natural in the visual arts, he always excelled in all art classes at school. Anything to do with visual arts, it seemed that he ‘’knew it from somewhere’’ and launched right in enthusiastically.

In 2012, Cook lost his last day job and has been a full time artist ever since. Operating out of Sudbury, he sculpted his first pieces in ice during the winter of 2015. In the spring of 2016, he moved to Ottawa, a strategic move placing him close to Winterlude for carving ice and Merveilles de Sable for sand, and for engaging the city’s vibrant arts scene.

Snow had been his main medium for exploring sculpture. Sand was always fun for him too. Cook expanded and refined these as more ephemeral additions to the other mediums he uses. He surprised himself in the enjoyment he found carving with limestone and soapstone and he wants to explore these more.

His imagination is limitless: If it leaves a mark on canvas or any surface, he will explore it. If given the opportunity he will turn shapeless objects into a desired shape using whatever tool is available. James has published cartoons, courtroom sketches and oil paintings. He has won 1st place in two snow sculpting contests, 1st place in one pumpkin contest, and a People’s Choice award  for ice.

Cook depicts his visual arts venues like a musician describing his next gig. As the visual music fades in one area, he begins another. As a touring ephemerals sculptor, James ranged further and further afield until a variety of Canadian venues and one in Europe had been visited: The Smiltis Skulpturu Park sand gig in Jelgava, Latvia.

The Smiltis Skulpturu gig was the only one to seem to come out of the pandemic so unabashedly. It was the surprise of 2022 with just 2 months between receiving the invite by email, the acceptance of his entry, and completing the project for an otherwise barren 2022 season.

He normally has these events booked 3 or more months ahead of time and has multiple stops booked. Cook hopes to sculpt in Latvia again in 2023 with an artist’s residency there, or find other European sand gigs in close proximity on the calendar to the Smiltis Skulpturu event.

James Cook’s art is spontaneous and even he can’t fully predict what his own entry will be. It could follow a theme chosen by the event that he is sculpting for, or a controversial media subject. Or he might develop a theme inspired by a happenstance word or action of someone else. Or the theme could be based on his own experiences.

His process begins with a question: Can it be made with the type of material proposed? For a sand sculpture, the three dimensional design must stay “inside a pyramid” for obvious reasons.

When using stone Cook wants to make small sizes,  unless he has good lifting devices for moving the weightier pieces.

Snow varies wildly in texture and feel with temperature and humidity and the structure and the artist must comply with those conditions of wetness or coldness.

Ice is absolutely seductive, but it is easily fractured. The number one critical objective is not to bump it while at work. A small break on an ice project might be fixable, but he’s seen disaster and complete projects crumble within the last minutes before the competition end bell. James is stoical – It happens, a part of learning what the medium can and can’t do.

Ephemeral sculpting is an outdoors occupation. Winter brings cold and blizzards, and Yellowknife is definitely best taken on with a down-fill parka. In Jelgava, November weather prevailed with high winds and heavy rain. James’ sand project there failed, but for him the experience was priceless. It made him determined to tame that moody Baltic sand. Summer sand sculpting calls for a wide-brim hat, UV protection, and sometimes, a good rain coat.

James lives  with Asperger’s syndrome and is ADHD-Inattentive, and these symptoms were not revealed and treated until this advanced stage in his life. He lived a mostly marginalized life over the years, his working and professional life had looked like some kind of Wile E. Coyote with a checkered employment history and an art career that faltered more than flourished. Cook closed his door on all conventional means after losing his last job, and dove full time into the visual arts,  knowing the sacrifices and what he was going to have to do. As he explained ‘’I am good in the visual arts, and I know it. Nobody can take that away from me’’.

Looking forward he states ‘’I’ve had one offshore gig now, and there will be more. I have a diploma in graphic design, and I’m looking at another in animation, a venture that will add digital and cinematography to his repertoire of mediums. Now that I’m into my 60’s, visual arts will be my hustle until they find me horizontal with a chisel in my hand.”

For those who would consider sculpture, Cook advises that you need the drive.  To alter the shape of something by whittling, chiselling, or moulding is usually instinctual and spontaneous. ‘’Follow your heart. Educational options vary from day courses in wood and stone carving, and blacksmithing to a college diploma in a creative field. It is your personal choice. How much attention do you wish to pay to the trade and how far do you want to go.  It’s like that AC/DC song, “It’s a long way to the top…’’

James does not have any pieces in galleries at this time as he operates mainly as a roaming artist (no permanent studio) and mostly works exterior venues in winter and summer. He does hope to explore stone sculpting further and build an inventory.

Facebook Page:(11) James W Cook | Facebook

About mariasaracino

Figurative Artist
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