Night Moves: artist finds his muse when everyone else has gone home
It’s a great backdrop: the Empress Hotel, the provincial legislature, and bright flowers spelling “Welcome to Victoria” against a green grass slope. Spring, summer and fall, Victoria’s Inner Harbour causeway is a bustling home to visual and performing artists who cater to tourists from around the world.
But wintertime is different. As temperatures drop and the rain begins, the cold, wet causeway empties. The artists, buskers and jugglers stop coming until only a couple diehards remain: a wood carver with a heavy blanket on his lap, an occasional lone guitarist with his case open. But every late afternoon, as dusk descends and the temperature drops, they pack up and retreat home.
And that’s when Ian Cooper is just getting started.
For 21 years, Cooper and his exquisitely detailed, cosmic and metaphysical renderings have occupied 30 square feet on the lower causeway. For the past four years, he’s worked at night.
“I get here after dinner time, usually stay until midnight, but sometimes later, sometimes much later. My art resonates with people at night.”
Cooper’s commute is a 15-minute push of his cart from his James Bay apartment. His cart is a mechanical marvel that he built himself to display all his prints for sale. It’s self-contained with umbrellas that make sure the rain doesn’t stop him, and a pair of car batteries that power lights: bright ones that illuminate his art, and a tower of red ones that flash to attract attention from the street above. He burns incense, too.
“Well, it sets the mood, helps create my space here — and I’ve had people track me down from half a block away because they were drawn to the incense.”
Creating his space is important because Cooper isn’t here just to sell his art, but to make it; the nighttime causeway is his studio, perched on a chair at the light table he designed and built. He gets more work done when few people stroll by, but welcomes interruptions, and not just for the sales.
“I think it’s interesting, what people see in my art, the things they tell me — and especially for the piece I’m currently working on at the time.”
He shows me where comments and observations by passersby found their way into several of his drawings. There are only 19 prints for sale, representing Cooper’s body of work dating back to 1981. He explains that each piece can take more than half a year. Walking by his stand since late September, I’ve watched him make progress on the same drawing in that time and have come to appreciate the glacial pace of his work.
Cooper creates most of each original drawing by applying thousands and thousands of black ink dots on the white page. By varying the density of the dots, he varies the apparent degree of solidity of the thing he’s drawing or the density of a shadow it casts. As a budding young artist, Cooper met a scientist who showed him stippling, the technique botanists, entomologists and others use to create extremely detailed, accurate depictions of plants and animals. It was a perfect medium for expressing his creative visions with a delicate precision that he’d been unable to achieve with just pencil and paper.
Ian works through a magnifying glass attached to an arm on his light table. The technical pens he uses are expensive, delicate and feature the finest points in the world: thirteen-hundredths of a millimeter. This is half the thickness of the thinnest insulin needle used by diabetics. He must keep their stainless steel tips moist to prevent any ink from drying and clogging. The detail they allow Cooper to achieve is mind blowing. At 18×24 inches, his prints are 75 per cent larger than his originals and highlight the high-resolution in which he works.
After months and months of focused effort, what emerges are fantasticly surreal drawings, most with a cosmic theme woven in, but juxtaposed with the here-and-now, be it the inside of an old cabin, a gum ball machine, people, or a truck barreling down a highway. Cooper is inspired by the environment, relationships, space, and wildlife.
“Wait, there she is.” Cooper points down to the dark water at a gleaming white swan that appears to be looking for him. “I’m going to include her in my current piece.”
He is never alone on the causeway.
Cooper’s art can be found on his website: transientvisions.com. But better yet, take a late-night stroll along the lower causeway to see it in person, and say hello. M