There is a small studio in east London where a 26-year-old artist spends whole days, even weeks, depicting historic buildings, streets and celebrities. Anyone passing by will hear a background ticking. And he will soon realize that it is not the sound of a clock. It’s the sound of someone using a typewriter.
James Cook, a graduate in architecture and originally from Braintree, a small town in the county of Essex, draws using a romantic but most unusual tool: he combines punctuation, letters and numbers to depict Hollywood stars or the London Eye Ferris wheel. «Probably – he jokes – I draw people better with a typewriter than I can do freehand with a pen or pencil».
He made himself known by drawing on the streets of the metropolis, astonishing the public with his uniqueness, and now he has made that passion a full-time job. His followers on social networks grow day by day, fascinated by his talent, and all his fans, real and virtual, commission portraits from him, reproductions of family photos and come to his exhibitions to give him their precious typewriters: the hope is that James, with his art, can give those now dusty objects a second life.
James was only six years old when he was fascinated by the story of Paul Smith, a man with cerebral palsy who, unable to hold a pencil in his hand, began drawing using a typewriter given to him by his parents. Inspired and intrigued by his story, James, then an architecture student, got involved. He wondered if he too could create portraits using such an unusual and mechanical tool. He went to a charity shop: ‘I asked if they had a typewriter and two elderly people, who happened to be there, overheard me. They took me to an antique shop and that’s where I bought my first car. It was a stroke of luck.”
James came out of that shop full of ideas but confused about how to implement them. He first understood how to use that tool to write and then how to use it to draw. His “typings” use a random assortment of letters, numbers and punctuation marks to form an image. “It’s how you combine them that reveals the final image,” he explains. «It was like learning a new language and it’s an art in which you can use both hands: you tap the keys with one and you hold the paper and position it with the other».
He began to depict architectures, streets and then portraits. «I must have made 200 drawings – she says, but the reality is that I have no idea». The small illustrations, which she draws on A4 sheets, can take up to a week to complete. But the portraits are even longer. «The truth is that it never gets easy, it’s always a challenge» confesses Cook, who describes his work as a «puzzle of letters, numbers, punctuation marks», in which «you learn from your mistakes because there are no instructions ». She tends to use symbols like parentheses to recreate curves, while he uses the @ for shading.
«The most difficult thing is to portray people – explains Cook -. Many commission me family portraits or ask me to reproduce the wedding photo: that work must be perfect. And then, the smaller it is, the more you can’t go wrong with a single detail ». Cook likes to complete his drawings outdoors, where he often attracts the attention of onlookers. “People are a little confused at first because they think I’m writing a letter. But then they approach and become curious about my drawings».
Tom Hanks portrait
From Queen Elizabeth to the Monnalisa: Cook loves to portray celebrities. He gets excited remembering what Tom Hanks depicted and sent him the portrait, explaining his profession in a letter. “Eight months after he sent the drawing back to me, I was amazed when I received my print with his autograph and a short message,” recalls Cook. The actor’s handwritten note read: ‘To James Cook. This is great! Tom Hanks.” The Oscar winner “has more than 120 typewriters – says Cook, smiling -, he has more than me”. That drawing was one of the artist’s first. “It was inaccurate, when I look at it I think back to the fact that it’s not one of the best I’ve done”. But it doesn’t matter. It is unique, like all others.
James has a collection of over 55 typewriters, which he keeps in his study, home and in his car and has only bought three of them. «All the others have been given to me by my fans – he confesses -: there are many people who come to my performances with typewriters to give them to me. Some of them, when they buy a drawing, also buy the tool with which it was made». This is the thing he prefers about his work: the bond that is created with people, but also that people have with their typewriter: «They give them to me so that I can give them a second life».