Iconic Saint John painter marks milestone at the market

It's a milestone for a Saint John artist known for colouring detailed streetscapes showcasing Saint John's heritage architecture.

After 25 years, 'there are very few dull moments,' says watercolourist Linda M. Cooke

Linda Cooke was dressed in silver Monday to mark 25 years of painting Saint John scenes in the City Market. (Julia Wright / CBC)

Amid the bustle of the morning coffee rush at the City Market, Linda M. Cooke sits quietly dabbing rich green paint on a vintage map of Saint John.

"Every time I watercolour one of these, I discover something new and fresh," she said.

Cooke, 59, has made a career of painting Saint John's iconic views: the King's Square bandstand. The glowing red hexagonal lights of the Three Sisters lamp. The spire of Trinity Church soaring above Germain Street.

Scenes of King's Square in uptown Saint John, Cooke said, are some of her most popular sellers. While Cooke focuses mainly on Saint John, she also does colourized vintage maps of Moncton and Fredericton. (Julia Wright / CBC)

She's also a local icon in her own right.

For 25 years this week — nine hours a day, six days a week — Cooke has taken her seat in the centre aisle of the market in uptown Saint John. With paint brushes tucked in her long, thick hair, bold statement jewelry and handmade scarves and sweaters, she cuts a memorable figure.

"I'm sure some of the people as they enter the building, think, 'Oh, there's that nut,'" she said. "I know I'm in the right place. 

"I have long ago given up caring what people think of me."

Close attention

Like any good small-town shopkeeper, Cooke said, she prides herself on paying "close attention to everything" around her.

"My memory isn't better than anyone else's, but there are two things: I listen, and more often than not, I care," she said.

While here have been many celebrities and politicians that have passed through over the years, she said, of the thousands of people she sees every week, the simplest encounters stand out to her the most: young children embracing one another. Chance meetings between old friends.

Every time Cooke colours a map, she said, she notices something different that she's never seen before. (Julia Wright / CBC)

"I remember one day a little lady dropped her change purse right here, and two young people, people you would never expect, stopped and helped her pick up every cent," she said.

"There are very few dull moments in the nine hours a day, six days a week that I'm here," she said. "The time goes by extremely quickly."

'Wonderful lemonade'

Cooke started selling her paintings 25 years ago, she said, out of necessity.

She was freshly separated from her husband, an illustrator who had done dozens of drawings of uptown Saint John. When he announced to her that he was leaving town, Cooke said, he "very nicely" suggested she keep his illustrations.

"He was the creator of the pen-and-ink drawings of the city," she said. Cooke started painting over her former husband's work in vivid yellows, blues, reds and purples.

Cooke takes pride in remembering milestones like birthdays, wedding anniversaries and which illustrations people have purchased from her over the years. 'I listen, and more often than not, I care,' she said. (Julia Wright / CBC)

The work, she said, made "wonderful lemonade" from the sourness of divorce.

In over two decades, she has only ever missed one day because of illness.

Even when her second husband died, she said. "I came in the next day. It was great therapy to me."

"I have endured because I told people I would be there."

History, location, people

Particularly during peak cruise ship season, she said, it's "difficult to keep up" with the demand for her watercolours.

Her painting have been purchased as wedding gifts, by tourists enamoured with the city, and by displaced Saint Johners looking for a reminder of home.

King's Square, she said, is "by far" her most popular design. 

Cooke's watercolours feature some of Saint John's most recognizable landscapes. 'It’s difficult to pinpoint what makes Saint John so compelling,'she said. 'It’s the history, it’s the beautiful location on the harbour, and absolutely the community and the people that we have here as well.' (Julia Wright / CBC)

"No two will ever be identical. They can't be," she said. "It's wherever the paintbrush lands." Each work takes her up to eight hours to complete.

She never tires of the same subject matter.

"It's difficult to pinpoint what makes Saint John so compelling," she said. "It's the history, it's the beautiful location on the harbour, and absolutely the community and the people that we have here as well."

Quarter-century of colour 

It's hard to believe, Cooke said, that she's been immersed in the ebb and flow of retail life at the City Market for a quarter of a century already.

"I never thought I could be so serious for so long," she said, laughing. "That sort of scares me."

She's weathered many changes in the market, including the departures of long-running, beloved vendors.

On Monday, Cooke - always a natty dresser - wore silver shoes to celebrate her silver anniversary of painting in the Saint John City Market. (Julia Wright / CBC)

"It's like a family," she said. "It's hard to see vendors come in with a dream, and then have to leave due to the economic situation."

As for herself, Cooke said she has no plans to retire.

"Someone asked me that the other day," she said. "My response was, [retire] from what? When you do what you love, every day is a holiday. I count myself as extremely fortunate."

"As soon as my eyes open in the morning, I can hardly wait to get here."

"And at times I'm nervous to pinch myself too hard in fear of waking up from a lovely dream."

After 35 years, Cooke said, she has no plans to retire. (Julia Wright / CBC)



About the Author

Julia Wright

Julia Wright is a reporter based in Saint John. She has been with the CBC since 2016.