By Julie Slack • METROLAND WEST MEDIA GROUP
Growing up, Leigh Cockburn liked pies better than cakes for the simple reason they came in a larger cardboard box.
His father ran a bakery on Barton Street in Hamilton and he’d bring home a treat for the family on Friday nights. But it wasn’t the pie inside the box that got Cockburn excited. For him, it was the box itself – the perfect cardboard canvas for another work of art.
Today, the former Waterdown artist’s choice canvas is hardboard, or acrylic on watercolour paper. The fine art he has produced over the years reveals an extraordinary talent that Cockburn, 70, has mastered over a lifetime creating artwork that’s been sold around the world.
Cockburn’s collection is on display in a one-man show at Milton Centre For the Arts’ Holcim Gallery until Nov. 24. Some 65 works of art featuring local landscapes, birds, woodland animals and more are part of ‘Through These Eyes’ – all from Cockburn’s lengthy career.
Most of his subjects are right out of rural Burlington, where he lives on Cedar Springs Rd. – scenes and wildlife many are familiar with – Mount Nemo, barns and fields along Britannia Road, Crawford Lake, winter snow scenes and the wide variety of colourful birds that dot feeders and trees in Halton.
Many of his subjects are simple things that people often take for granted – everyday objects Cockburn, who also called Waterdown home for 10 years, brings to life with the touch of a stroke: Milkweed, day lilies, a fallen pine tree, a rural fence post, even a rusted, abandoned tractor in a field.
It’s his ability to spot the little things in the world around him that he so carefully captures in this exhibition, his 10th solo show in a career that saw him educate and enlighten thousands of high school art students, as a teacher at Westmount Secondary School in Hamilton.
“Some of my most proud work is my influence on students,” said Cockburn, who’s been married for 44 years, and has two grown children. “It’s an incredibly rewarding career.”
Along with the cardboard pie boxes that captivated him as a child, art utensils were a welcome gift for Cockburn growing up.
But perhaps most influential on his life was having renowned wildlife artist Robert Bateman teach him for two years at Nelson High School. His influence is obvious in Cockburn’s canvases that hang at the Holcim Gallery.
“Because of where I live, there’s a lot of birds in my work, but I think I’m a better landscape artist,” he said, noting the nuthatches, red-tailed hawk and warblers that he worked into his detailed landscapes. “Sometimes you just get an idea, or you see something that turns you on.”
He said he’s a believer in what he calls the “Nike School of Art – just do it.”
He’s also happy that he was able to capture many things that have disappeared from landscapes across southern Ontario, as progress wipes them out.
“A lot of barns and old houses I’ve painted are gone,” said Cockburn, who operates his own gallery in Burlington called Just A Wee Gallery. “I guess that’s progress…I don’t necessarily agree with it, but that’s what happens.”
Cockburn said his art career got its start at Burlington’s Alice Peck Gallery in 1970 – the same gallery Bateman got his career started in 1967. It’s there he says, he found “a real guardian angel who mentored me a lot.”
He had four subsequent shows there over the years before it eventually closed.
Over the years, he’s experimented with many mediums, but most often uses acrylic on watercolour paper. He also produces graphite and pastel works, in addition to sepia, which he says is a medium that dates back to the Renaissance. He said he gets bored with regular sizes and shapes, and that led him to work in a circular format for some of his pieces.
This year, he says he’s been doing a lot of different things now that he’s 70 and “an old man.” It’s one of the reasons he decided to do a retrospective on his career.
Through These Eyes took Cockburn many months to plan since he tried to locate as many works of art from his early career as possible. The past president of the Fine Arts Society of Milton says he can see how his work has grown and changed over the years.
As for the future, he plans to continue painting the world around him, and hopes that families will be inspired to do the same after they see his show.
“I encourage people to bring their kids and their grandkids,” he said, about the exhibition. “If I could encourage even one to become an artist, that would be great.”