What started out as a hobby in high school and a passion for preserving wildlife morphed into an award-winning calling for sculptor Brent Cooke.
The Langford resident, who received a Canadian Wildlife Federation award in Ottawa recently, began carving driftwood in his teens, making many of his own tools. “The biggest problem with that is the pieces are one-offs and you’re never really able to recover the cost and the time for selling one piece at a time in that medium,” he says.
That changed in 1999 when a friend suggested he look into bronze casting.
“I was instantly intrigued. Carving is art by subtraction – you start with a lump and end up with a smaller product,” says Cooke, who developed a keen interest in preserving wildlife along the way. “Working with clay is an additive process that provides a lot more leeway.”
That process enabled him to work with thin materials that would allow for doing a sculpture of two birds in flight, for example, something he could never achieve working with wood.
Cooke starts the process for completing a bronze sculpture by creating his vision for a piece using clay. A rubber mould of the clay creation is then filled with wax and coated with a porridge-like substance that is heated and burned out, until it becomes a hard mould into which the bronze is poured.
“It’s a very expensive process,” Cooke says, adding with a laugh, “that’s why I still have my day job.”
He has worked as a museum consultant since 2006, when he retired after 33 years as director of exhibits and public programs at the Royal B.C. Museum.
One of his recent consulting gigs involved designing and building a Harley-Davidson Museum on the Mainland for the legendary Trev Deeley dealership, which explains the two Harleys in the garage Cooke and his wife, Elaine, love to ride regularly.
Cooke’s love for sculpting wildlife led to his involvement with Artists for Conservation (AFC) about six years ago. The organization brings together artists in various mediums who create pieces depicting wildlife seldom viewed by the masses, such as lions on the Serengeti. About 500 artists from 27 countries participate with the organization, which holds an annual show and festival in Vancouver that includes educational art and nature programs for youth.
Exhibits from the show travel to international art galleries where the pieces are sold to raise money for conservation.
“One aspect (of Artist for Conservation) that hooked me right away is all artists contribute to a conservation-based charity of their choice, and the money raised goes directly to that organization,” says Cooke, who supports the Raptor Recovery Centre in Duncan. “Many of them are tiny little places doing great work. The fact that the money helps organizations large and small is really neat.”
Cooke was “shocked and pleased” when notified earlier this summer that he had won the 2015 Canadian Wildlife Federation Robert Bateman award, given to groups or individuals who bring awareness to conservation through artistic works. He submitted for the award last year and didn’t make the cut, but the committee decided to take another look this year and the artist couldn’t be happier.
“You don’t get into conservation for recognition, but it’s really nice when it happens,” says Cooke. “It’s special as a sculptor, considering 80 per cent of the submissions are paintings.”
A Medal of Excellence and Best in Show winner at the Vancouver AFC gala in 2013, he was recently named the group’s Festival Artist Patron, following in Bateman’s shoes. Cooke has created a life-sized bronze great blue heron to be auctioned off for the cause and displayed at the AFC gala in September.
Cooke’s work is on display in galleries in Sidney, Calgary and Tulsa. For a look at some of his designs, check out castartstudio.com. More information on Artists for Conservation is a few clicks away at artistsforconservation.com.