On The Shore On The shore — 17 May 2015
Artists for Conservation Exhibit through June 19 showcases nature’s ageless beauty

By Felicia S. Levine

You’re never too old to follow your heart – or your art. In the process, you could help change the world.

Just ask wilderness artist Murray Phillips, 70, an accomplished anthropologist and college professor who at nearly 50 traded in his textbooks for paintbrushes. Or bronze sculptor Brent Cooke, 68, who at 59 left a distinguished museum position and turned his calling into a career.

Both chased their dreams later in life and are bringing Mother Nature’s beauty to the forefront, preserving it for future generations.

Their work can be seen during “Artists for Conservation’s Green, White & Blue Festival Exhibit presented by BBX Capital Foundation,” which features a special touring collection of 45 artists from the Artists for Conservation Foundation (AFC) exhibit. Based in Vancouver, Canada, AFC includes the world’s leading artists who support the environment.

Each artist dedicates his or her work to a conservation cause, donating 40 percent of sales proceeds to that cause, and to AFC’s youth art and environmental education program.

Combining arts and science makes perfect sense, says AFC President Jeffrey Whiting, who in 1997 founded the organization.

“Science is not necessarily able to connect with the general public, but the arts can,” says Whiting, an artist and biologist.

Cooke, a marine biologist, left his position after 33 years as director of exhibitions for the Royal BC Museum in Victoria, Canada. He’s known for his detailed bronze works depicting birds and marine life.

“I never knew I was good at it,” says Cooke, who as a teenager began carving Polynesian masks from driftwood. He continued the hobby after high school, working nights as a bartender and carving in the afternoons.

“I would look forward to carving,” he says. “It was my escape.”

Cooke enrolled in an art class and later learned to make decoy ducks. Then someone bought one of his pieces.

“I’d never considered selling anything before because I never thought I was good enough,” he recalls. “It felt darn good.”

When a friend suggested they open a foundry so they could cast their work, they built one in Cooke’s backyard in 1998.

“There was metal melting, flames burning – it was dangerous as hell and the neighbors were terrified,” he recalls with a chuckle. “We realized we couldn’t do it there. But it was a learning tool.”

The friends eventually hooked up with an art-casting foundry in Oregon, and now Cooke has 18 sculptures in five galleries in the United States and Canada.

“That little bit of fear that says, ‘I am not good enough to even try’ is wrong,” Cooke says. “You should try. You never know on any given day what will change you for life.”

Phillips, a wilderness artist and environmental advocate, agrees. Leaving his position as a college professor and anthropologist paid off, though it was daunting.

“I was raised to think I couldn’t make a living as an artist, that it wasn’t a noble enough calling,” says Phillips, who started painting at 21.

It was much later, after his father passed away, that he began soul searching.

“The question became, ‘Can I be a better man as an artist’? I decided to leave work and bought a little gallery.”

Phillips travels the world advocating for and capturing on canvas the untamed wild he cherishes. He paints on location, from the mountains of Canada to the terrains of Ireland.

“I go places where I don’t see anyone the whole time,” he says. “It’s wonderful.”

The “Artists for Conservation’s Green, White & Blue Festival Exhibit presented by BBX Capital Foundation” takes place at Nova Southeastern University’s Alvin Sherman Library Gallery in Fort Lauderdale-Davie, now through June 19.

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