Leona Cochrane


Written by Jody Farrell

Leona Cochrane with flowers, photo by Chad Yelenic

Leona Cochrane with flowers, photo by Chad Yelenic

If you did not attend Leona Cochrane’s exhibition in 2012 of city landmarks, Remembering Buildings and Places, at Grande Prairie’s Centre for Creative Arts—and are equally unfamiliar with its model drawing program—you may not know the work of this longtime local artist. She goes about her art quietly, does not have a twitter or web page, but has been very much a part of the area’s creative community. Cochrane’s large-scale paintings adorn both private and corporate walls. Her dreamlike cityscapes are immediately recognizable to those who have watched her work evolve over the past two decades.

It was late 1995 when some very colourful flower sculptures popped up around Grande Prairie. The first of these big works stood outside a smallish house in the city’s old Swanavon neighbourhood: This particular flower’s six great pumpkin-orange petals were the size of large, flattened zucchinis. Its reddish-brown stamens poking upward, resembled fat cigars rising from a large, bulbous purple centre. The stem and knotted roots were equally impressive. Some serious creative thought had gone into producing this hefty, freestanding work. I loved it and immediately sought out its creator.

The artist was Leona Cochrane, then a 25-year-old Grande Prairie woman a recent graduate of University of Lethbridge’s Bachelor of Fine Arts program. She was both terribly shy and incredibly knowledgeable about art. When prodded for information about herself, she tended to skirt the issue, and talk about the work others. In the next year, I took her painting course, and watched as she turned out large canvasses of moody, slightly haunted, landscapes. In a model drawing group, her softly rounded, illusory renditions reminded me of National Film Board animation figures, such as those in the award-winning The Man Who Planted Trees (Frederick Back).

Sleeping Dog by Leona Cochrane

Sleeping Dog by Leona Cochrane

Cochrane was battling symptoms of Multiple Sclerosis, (MS), beginning in 1993–94, the first being numbness in her right arm and leg. This disorder progressed slowly but is, as yet, irreversible. Other health challenges emerged.

“In the fall/winter of 1995, I was having optic neuritis, where I was experiencing flecks of light coming into my right eye,” Cochrane explains today. She has suffered optic neurosis three times since that time, including one bout in 2006 where she was blind for a week.

Cochrane allows that upon entering University of Lethbridge, sculpture was not her area of strength, but that professors there had little interest in traditional art.

“The university considered itself to be post-modern. They compelled us to combine mediums and do challenging things —do the unexpected. I was more a two-dimensional artist, but if you were doing something traditional, like painting, you were ignored.”

“So I began trying to adapt my work into something that got people’s attention. It took real effort to produce something interesting that would engage people. I’m not very good at refining things so I just tried to build something.”

The art students would often visit a place they called “the boneyard,” a kind of dumping ground where they’d pick through discarded re-bar and cinder blocks to find free, reusable materials for their work. There, she found the beginnings of what would become her flower sculptures. Cochrane now sees her flowers as coming from another “more textile” era, where things were built from cheap, accessible odds and ends.

“I also like when there’s something off about it,” Cochrane says of her work. “A kind of awkwardness, but that can be funny, like a Monty Python skit.”

Her flowers definitely have that warts-and-all look about them. You can see where bailer wire has been sandwiched between the flower’s big petal shapes, themselves cut out of cotton fabric swatches, and the whole thing painted over with a thick acrylic matte medium.

In spite of additional illnesses and recuperation, Cochrane completed a Diploma in Graphic Arts from Grant MacEwan College in 1998. The program was her effort to be practical about future job potential, but mental exhaustion and consequent struggles keeping up with the latest in computer technology lessened the likeliness of finding work in the field. Still, she feels that education helped her understand the process by which artists simplify what they see.

Seated by Leona Cochrane

Seated by Leona Cochrane

When asked why Cochrane returned to painting when her sculpture had found an audience, she stated that physical discomfort forced her to work within her limitations.

“Practicality has been a major issue for me,” she replies. “If I could have made it to the next level I may have made them out of painted aluminum. But I was physically not well, so I had to adjust.”

Accommodating her growing physical limitations also led to her giving up large canvas-style painting and eventually, her chalk drawings of nudes. Her 2012 exhibition marked the end of her bigger works.

These days, Cochrane is honing her photographic and drawing skills to explore animation, and is finding it an exciting venture. Her beautiful, detailed photo of a dragonfly leads to her slightly less complex watercolour of its wings, which Cochrane further replicates and distorts to create a very short animation. “It takes time,” she confides, showing the initial second-long video result.

She is grateful for her new job on an acreage, dog-sitting two friendly Rottweilers for an employer who frequently travels for work. Cochrane finds life there less stressful; more amenable to her health and art which though smaller in scale and in physical effort, is growing to be more carefully composed and detail-oriented. She is also developing closer ties with other longtime colleagues, whose advice and friendship she values.

“Jim [Jim Stokes, local artist and mentor] has been a good influence,” Cochrane adds. “He helps me become aware of when it’s working.

“The dogs have really helped me too. Out at the acreage, I’m walking around with them following me, and the wind blowing in the grass, and thinking, this is so nice.”

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