Visually Speaking: Will Cooper

Anna Horsnell

Simplicity speaks clearly. So it is with Will Cooper’s wooden mosaics. Their whimsical innocence unpretentiously portrays the very heart of Maritime life and our primal connection to the sea. From lighthouses and fishing boats to eagles and landmarks like Cape Blomidon, this is art that touches gently and with joy.

Born in England, Will Cooper lived and worked around the world before putting down roots in Nova Scotia. About ten years ago, his wife bought him a scroll saw. He’d always loved to draw and quite literally the pieces came together. As he recalls, “I wanted to make something to donate to Hope for Wildlife for their gift shop, so I came up with the idea of a painted wooden fox. People loved the fox so much that I made a seal, and then an owl, and then a scene of the Valley.” He hasn’t looked back, and what began as a hobby has now become a full-time art career offering originals, prints, and cards.

Every medium has its own challenges and working with wood is no less unique. Cooper’s technique involves cutting out his designs from sheets of birch plywood, then carefully sanding, painting, varnishing, and gluing the pieces back together. “The cutting and sanding are noisy and dusty and working with wood means my artwork takes a long time to make. I work very hard to minimize the dust with dust extractors, a Shop Vac plugged into my tools, and for extra safety, I often wear a full-face respirator. To deal with noise, I use noise-cancelling headphones while I operate my saw and sander. One challenge with painting on wood is preventing tannins from bleeding through, which I accomplish by using Baltic birch plywood (which has almost no knots) and also applying multiple coats of a specialized wood sealer. Another challenge is gluing. Each piece needs to have just enough glue and be clamped with just enough force to hold it in place without squeezing excess glue between the pieces and onto the face of the painting. This is the only nerve-wracking part of my process.”

Cooper’s art is characterized by strong colours and sweeping lines that instill a sense of movement. “Design is my favourite part of the process. Often while I’m out for a walk I’ll see something or imagine something I want to make into a piece of art. I probably do a dozen sketches for every one that makes the cut. Once I have a sketch I’m excited about, I walk away and come back to it later with fresh eyes. This is essential. I used to rush to the next stage but then I would often end up with something that I wasn’t fully happy with. Now I sit with my designs and let them evolve over several days. Once I have a sketch I like, I scan and colour it in Photoshop. Once I know the colours I project and trace the sketch onto a sheet of sealed plywood, and then I get cutting. My second favourite part of the process is painting, where I get to take off the headphones and see the magic of colour bring my work to life.”

What’s next? “This year will be very different since I will have my gallery open. Instead of going out to art fairs and markets like I did pre-Covid, people will be able to come and see my work here, which I’m really excited about. I’m currently working on a piece that will be travelling to Paris and beyond, and I’m planning on creating a virtual tour of my gallery. Before Covid I was in talks with Lee Valley about travelling across Canada to lead workshops at their stores, and I’m hopeful that will still happen once things get back to normal. This year I’d also like to get my cards and prints into more shops and I’ve always wanted to do a large public piece of art.” Clearly the future looks bright.

The newly-opened Will Cooper Art Gallery is located at 2132 Saxon Street, Lower Canard. Hours of operation are 10am to 4pm Tuesday to Friday, 1pm to 4pm on Saturday and Sunday, or by appointment. For more details, visit willcooperart.com or on Facebook and Instagram @willcooperart.