If you ask artist “Big Bubba” Cook why he drives monster coal trucks for Elk Valley mines, he may tell you it has to do with breaking the rules. In his inimitable style, Fernie’s very own Troy Cook defies visual and musical conventions. Walk about a bit, talk to people, and you will soon discover that our town is both Cook’s stage and his gallery.
His natural drawing talents were nurtured in a family of artists, Cook recalls, “When I was nine I told my friends that I was going to be an artist,” then went on to amuse himself in high school with sculptures disguised as metal shop assignments. He fondly remembers his Western Civilization teacher, a friend to this day. “He provided the only art training that I ever had. There weren’t a lot of places in school for artsy type folk.”
A two-year journalism stint at Lethbridge Community College combined with footloose travels left Cook with friends in all camps, with the deeply-held conviction that you learn more by doing, and with the realization that Fernie is a pretty good town after all. So he returned to Fernie convinced that “you already have everything that you need inside you.”
Big Bubba’s old Victoria Avenue studio, for 10 years the epicentre of eclectic and feverish activity, spawned a phantasmagoria of sun, music, and dance-crazed beings. Look around town and you will find many of Cook’s works: The large mural next to Rip’n Richard’s river terrace interposes abduction iconography between people dancing crazily by a river, while alien spaceships observe from above; the large work in the Grand Central Hotel bar features a wildly gyrating musician sharing the stage with dancers, a rooster, coyotes, ghosts, and fish; three large panels outside Jamochas speak boldly of coffee, music, food, and conversation; while many others are housed in private and public spaces.
When asked whether he grows attached to his paintings, Cook doesn’t hesitate to reply: “You’ve got to let people you know have it and see it or it is not worth doing at all.” Nonetheless, partner Debra Brygadyr keeps a few personal favourites around the house. With over a thousand originals sold, or gifted “to homes with a soul,” Big Bubba’s work has made it all the way to South Africa; another painting is known to hang next to a Norval Morrisseau.
As in Morrisseau’s case, very little of Cook’s work is intentional. Speaking of a startling cubist figure I call ‘the blue lady’, he describes how he “started with the face, made it bigger looking, and then the backdrop came afterwards, it just fell out that’s how they all come about.” This involuntary process, baffling to the non-artist, leaves you free to imagine just what it is that is really going on here by the Elk River. According to Big Bubba, for the most part, he likes to just let people have their own idea of what they’re seeing.
This alchemy of acrylic and canvass lead Cook to a new medium. Borrowing from folk art technique, Cook scroll-saws various interlocking wooden shapes, without the benefit of a drawn template, “because the saw is like a pencil in itself,” he explains. Next, the pieces are sanded – his favourite part as he gets to further transform them – then painted, and finally glued together onto a backing plate. This montage yields wonderfully luminous scenes combining wild revelry with origin myths.
Multifaceted, Cook is also an accomplished musician. Big Bubba Cook learned the ropes by gigging with others, at festivals, coffee houses, and pubs. This lead to a multi-year stint as the Music Director for “The Gathering at Island Lake,” a wilderness multi-cultural festival started because, he allows, “I wanted to change the town and it’s idea of music.” He also directs the events programme at Fernie’s own live venue, The Arts Station, the hub of Fernie’s arts community in historic downtown. Cook is currently working with his own trio; he has also opened for such musical luminaries as Ken Hamm, Lester Quitzau, Keith Greeninger, and The Rheostatics.
How does Big Bubba get a room’s attention? “Well, I just go out there and I’m like ‘Yeah, so how’s it going there, how’s supper? My supper was good.’ And then I tell a couple of jokes and tell some stories and try to be humorous and entertaining, and that’s your job when you’re in front of people… you have to be able to do that, it is one of those things. Opening for Lester Quitzau in front of hundreds is a huge challenge. You’ve got this loud room of people that are drunk and you’ve got to take it over and help them to listen. By the end of it they were quiet and everything. I got a standing ovation, so that’s the sort of instant gratification that you get as an artist.”
I had to ask about the Big Bubba persona, Cook’s music moniker. As Cook explains it, “It started as a joke amongst people that know me, since I can dwell with them or I can dwell with the artsy type people?I’ve got an understanding of both worlds because I was brought up here. That Big Bubba thing, it’s like if you gave the redneck all the rap tools, what would he make? That’s kind of how I morph it together.”
Big Bubba Cook has just released “The Vampire Tree,” an eclectic 26-song compilation he describes as “suffused with little bits that you don’t really see on the surface.” The result is an intricate portrait of Kootenay hillbilly lore, the story of strange children, born under a Morissey moon, who come into Fernie to perform at the circus by the river.
This summer, stay and play with us under the full moon, by the river…
Cook’s music, like his art, defies categorization. True to form, it too breaks the rules. For a further look at Cook’s work, check out bigbubbacook.com.