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John Elwood Cook combines his visual art with music as a tribute to history and life along the St. Lawrence River. Photo: Todd Moe
John Elwood Cook combines his visual art with music as a tribute to history and life along the St. Lawrence River. Photo: Todd Moe

Thousand Islands artist John Elwood Cook documents river life

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Thousand Islands artist and musician John Elwood Cook's passion is using art and music to document life along his favorite place -- the St. Lawrence River. He grew up on Wellesley Island and can trace his local family history back to the Revolutionary War era. Cook's visual art has been exhibited in galleries and museums across the country. He's found a niche in combining his visual art with music. He collects vintage Gibson guitars and enjoys writing music about local history, people and places along the river.

His work is on display this summer as part of the annual Members' Juried Art Exhibit at the Frederic Remington Art Museum in Ogdensburg. It's sometimes a mix of watercolor, collage and even vintage fishing tackle.

On a recent brilliant spring day, he invited Todd Moe to visit his Wellesley Island home, with its amazing view of the river, to talk about his art, music and family history.

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Todd Moe
Morning Host and Producer

We've been mentioned in the history books…I can verify all of this that's in the history books. Unfortunately for the Cook family, the excerpt that's in the textbook…said that, "the Cook family, an extremely rough bunch…given to illegal nets, fishing out of season, and other infamous practices." So, I particularly like the, "other infamous practices." Now, I don't know if much of this is true, my father would never admit to it. He was a very private person. But I do know that the family, in various formats, back through the generations, have lived one way or another, off the river. They were guides.

I have, through my artwork, tried to document, not only in my family and the visions my family had, and the thoughts that my family had. But I've also tried to document local history, and essentially, passing generations.

My father, you can see over here in the picture, holding the fish, was a pretty matter-of-fact type guy. He was a tough guy…I was up here alone a lot in the summer, there was virtually nobody around, none of these cottages, and there were no kids around, my father was a travelling man, so he would come in on weekends. But during the course of the week, I had my boat, and I had really nothing to do. I was about 10 or 11 years old.

So I actually got interested in drawing, I actually had some ability for it. And that's how I got started, I started doing that. Well, I told my father [I wanted to be an artist], and he's one of those guys who was pretty heavy duty river man, no nonsense kind of guy, and I said, "Pop, I think I want to be an artist." There was a real long pause, and he said, "There's no percentage in being a screwball." I said "yeah, I know…" And of course, that's absolutely true, but I had absolutely no control over it. It was what I always wanted to do.

I started playing music at around the same time, I picked up the guitar. I'd never taken any lessons. In fact, I'm not a very good guitar player. But, I'm good enough to write the songs and get the basic ideas across. And hopefully, other people have picked them up and can do a better job on them than I can do. I don't pretend to be a singer, and I don't perform. I can do it well enough to get the point across.

So yes, the art I did up here in the summertime, just basically doing music by myself at the beginning. That's because, there were virtually nobody here, there were no other kids. The only other people were my next door neighbors. They were in the Blue Oyster Cult, I don't know if you know what that is—it was an old rock band. But, they're the ones that are doing some of my songs now…

They have a group called Blue Coop…the first song that they put out was a song of mine. It was called "You like Vampires." It was their first single, and it actually was fairly successful. It made it into consideration for Grammy. What that means is it made it to the first round of the Grammys. They were very pleased with it, as was I, because it was my first time ever doing something like that.

In any event, all of this more or less evolved from the river, I used to do all kinds of paintings of the river. And then I got interested in more collage and assemblage kinds of things…I do a lot of collage, assemblage and shape canvas. And I do a number of watercolors. Mostly nontraditional watercolors.

John Elwood Cook's "Spring time Comes to the River".
John Elwood Cook's "Spring time Comes to the River".
One of Cook's pieces, called "Spring time comes to the river," hangs on his wall. He says the piece has music that goes with it.

JC: That particular painting is a depiction of islands. And people would probably ask, the islands are kind of lined up, one on top of the other. Well, I consider the islands to be shapes and symbols. My father always said you've got to learn the shapes of the islands. That was especially true if you were running around at night and you wanted to know where you were going. You better damn well know the shapes of the islands and you'd better know where the shoals are.

So islands are always a symbol and a metaphor to me. They're representative of the area, and they each have their own inherent beauty. So, I took each one and lined them up in a sequence. It might not be obvious, but the piece at the bottom is a stylization of a yellow perch. So, the yellow perch to me is another symbol of spring. As far as I'm concerned, the yellow perch is an absolutely beautiful fish. And probably the best tasting fish. So if you ever have a fish fry, and you have a selection of bass, pike… well, the fork always goes to the yellow perch first. It's the best tasting, and it's the one everybody's been waiting for all winter.

So the piece is entitled "Springtime Comes to the River" in the North Country song series. And the islands being represented by being lined up and the stylization of the yellow perch, this relates to the song where I describe the North Country experience in music. You know, a very simple song. It's about springtime coming to the river. I wrote it right out here on the porch. I was looking out, and Venus was just up out over there, it was in the spring. And you could hear the frogs and everything in the background. That was essentially the idea.

To hear John Elwood Cook singing, click "Listen."

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