Ian Cook has been teaching visual arts at Red Deer Polytechnic for 50 years — and he’s heading back to the classroom this fall, ready to greet the next generation of students.
“I’ve always thought of this as not a job, because I really enjoy what I do. Teaching is very fulfilling,” said Cook, who plans to continue leading drawing and sculpture classes for at least one more year.
Watching his students progress from beginners to more seasoned artists never gets old, said Cook, who also feels “very lucky to work and teach with some of the best instructors and colleagues in one of the strongest art programs in Western Canada.”
The Calgary native earned degrees in art and education from the University of Calgary, and then completed a Master of Visual Art in Sculpture at the University of Alberta.
In the spring of 1972. “I had two job opportunities” Cook recalled. After weighing his options, he decided to work at (what was then) Red Deer College over becoming a visual art consultant for the Government of Alberta.
“Fortunately, I made the right choice.”
Cook took on the full-time role as RDC’s art history and Visual Fundamentals instructor when there wasn’t an art program at the school — but that soon changed. With the approval of administration, Cook wrote a proposal for a new two-year Visual Art Program at Red Deer College, outlining its philosophy, structure, courses, staffing, space and equipment needs, and operational budget.
“With a strong studio focus, (the program) was designed to be intensive and unique in Alberta,” he recalled.
Since Alberta’s deputy minister of Advanced Education was RDC’s interim president at the time, the new visual arts program was quickly approved for the fall of 1973.
And Cook became the Art Program Chair for more than 22 years.
Among his many accomplishments is helping start a permanent art collection at the institution in 1974. With more than 1,000 artworks, RDP’s collection is now the second largest in Alberta, after the University of Lethbridge. In 1987, Cook helped it gain National Cultural Properties status from the Government of Canada.
He also helped expand art programming throughout the year with the Series Summer Arts School, where he often teaches.
Over five decades, Cook has witnessed a lot of growth. “When I came to Red Deer College, there were approximately 50 instructors and 25 other employees…. I knew everybody by name.” In the most recent academic year, there were 1,045 employees at Red Deer Polytechnic.
Art students have also expanded their focus to adapt more computer-assisted methods of creation. Cook noted there’s great interest these days in 3-D printers and digital art mediums.
But he believes in first gaining a strong foundation in traditional drawing and painting skills.
Over the years, many of his students went on to expand their education through RDP’s university degree transfer program. Alumni ended up working in diverse fields, including architecture, film design, in museums and as art teachers. Some opened commercial galleries.
Among his former pupils who reached great heights are Carl Sisson, a background animator for films such as Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings, Royden Mills, a University of Alberta art professor and prized sculptor, George Littlechild, a renowned Indigenous artist now based in Vancouver, as well as Craig Kolstad, an award-winning architect who’s designed skyscrapers in Dubai and many other countries.
Through the years, Cook has kept up his artistry by maintaining his own studio practise, outside of school hours. His sculptures can be found in many government and private collections throughout Canada.