Leo Pollock sits between two hand-carved wooden eagles; his bright blue eyes gleam as he talks about his affinity for the birds.
It was nearly 20 years ago when the 54-year-old Mission artist was looking skyward and saw an eagle soaring overhead. He fell in love and dedicated himself to perfecting their likeness.
The self-taught pen and ink artist’s designs and drawings have garnered the attention of the local art community, including Nancy Arcand, executive director of the Mission Arts Council.
When she first saw his work some weeks ago she thought it was phenomenal.
“It works with the feathers and the way his creatures are, they’re stunning, beautiful.”
He recently took his artwork to Claim to Frame on First Avenue, where owner Phil Vince decided to display his drawings of lions in the front window.
Although reluctant to critique any artist’s work, he said it’s clear Leo has a genuine love for art.
“Over the past 22 years of my involvement in the art community, there are few things that are more gratifying than to be witness to an artist evolving over time,” said Vince, who also displayed Leo’s cedar fungal art in his shop 16 years ago.
Leo used to go into the Mission forests and gather fungus as other artists scoop up paper, but gave up the activity after a close encounter with a black bear.
He now lives with his wife, Karen, in the trailer park near Mission Memorial Hospital where she works as a nurse. Inside his humble abode, the wood panel walls are covered with drawings featuring animals with aboriginal symbols and motifs.
One drawing he pulls out shows a gecko, but a magnifying glass reveals an intricate phoenix drawn into patterns on the head.
Other than Leo’s forays to the public library to study artwork, he has zero formal training. His work is the culmination of a meticulous attention to detail and what appears to be an inborn talent.
“There are some out there that are natural, it just comes to them,” said Arcand. “There’s an inner creator working in there somewhere, an inner spirit that has driven them.”
Another creation features his “dream art gallery,” which shows himself suspended by a platform midway up an enormous flat, green wall. He is painting a giant blue-green swordfish while two men from the street gaze up at him in wonder.
The vibrant colours are created from a stash of dozens of pens he keeps hidden in an old Peek Freans cookie container. Like everything about Leo, looks can be deceiving. The old BC Lions ball cap and hoodie, and his features worn by 25 years of construction, belie the creativity that springs from his pen.
Behind the art, however, lies a difficult past, one he’s reluctant to talk about.
After giving up fungal art he became an alcoholic, and that made it impossible to draw the intricate artwork for which he was known. But Leo says Karen helped him quit and and inspired him to draw again.
“I had to find something to depend on, and I found my art.”
Originally from Chatham, Ont., Leo’s father committed suicide when he was only eight years old, and his mother was an alcoholic.
“It wasn’t a very happy place to be so I ran away,” he said.
He was just 15 when he bought a $57 plane ticket to Vancouver, where he lived on streets for the next two years begging for money. To make ends meet, he’d find a place to sketch and sell his drawings to passersby.
Being a street kid was tough, but Leo shrugs it off.
“I never even really thought about it. When I’m doing my art I get completely lost in it.”
His art still provides an escape from the reality of poverty.
After a few years in Vancouver he took a bus east 35 years ago and wound up in Mission.
“Growing up being lonely and having a lonely life, having no father, an alcoholic mother, running away from home, living on the streets… I used art as a way to survive. And it just blossomed.”