Ian Cunliffe is of the opinion that beauty is ubiquitous.
Not merely in the places you or I expect to find it, like the night sky when filled with a silver peppering of stars or a blooming flower bed in the first weeks of spring, but in the unassuming, unexpected places regular folk pass by. Down a bedraggled alleyway, for example, or in the entranceway of a humdrum café.
It is a skill that few who are prone to picking up pencils or pressing the shutter of a camera actually obtain, to find magic in the mundane or beauty in the boring, but Cunliffe masters it with ease.
It is the reason, no doubt, behind his burgeoning success.
Cunliffe, a North Vancouver primary school teacher by day, has garnered a cult following in recent months for his drawings that depict little pockets of his West Vancouver home.
Some of his chosen settings, like Ambleside Beach or Lighthouse Park, are so well established they are practically synonymous with the coastal municipality. Yet others, arguably his finer works, are more niche: The rosy facade of the Villa Maris apartment complex, the crimson feline statue that guards The Red Lion Bar & Grill, or the traffic lights that sit on the corner of 22nd and Marine.
“When I first started sketching, there were these places I would choose because I liked them, not realizing at the time that these places meant as much to other people as they did to me,” Cunliffe says. “It is this shared experience that gives real meaning.”
Cunliffe's sketches requested by expats in U.K. and Mexico
For those who reside in West Vancouver, as I do, these obscure snapshots resonate on a visceral level.
It is as though Cunliffe has adventured into the cobwebbed corners of one’s memory and rifled through the cabinets that contain mental imagery only stored absent-mindedly – like the houses on routes only driven when under highway hypnosis. He dusts them off, spruces them up, and ensures they are given the attention they truly deserve.
He says he would like his work to speak to “anybody and be enjoyable to anyone,” but if you live on the North Shore, and you have lived here for a while, he wants it to have that inside element, too. Like a private club that only few are a part of.
Cunliffe, who draws under the moniker Sketchy West Vancouver, says his drawings have been requested from as far away as the United Kingdom and Mexico. Expats, more often than not, yearning for a little slice of home.
“It makes me think that maybe you can take a person out of West Vancouver, but it’s hard to take the West Van out of the person,” he chortles.
Even for those who don’t live locally, there is universal appeal to be found in a Cunliffe creation. Whimsical and animated, crafted from squiggly pencil lines and splashes of watercolour pen, each piece looks as though it is on the precipice of springing to life, like the opening scene of a children’s cartoon.
Citing playful illustrators like Quentin Blake and Tony Ross as his biggest inspirations, he says he doesn’t know whether his pieces can be deemed “childishly simplistic, or simplistically childish.” His followers would likely say it is their winsome character that makes them so beguiling. God knows we all need a bit of joy and innocence right now.
Sketchy West Vancouver's success a 'wonderful problem to have'
The artist analogizes his newfound success, comparing himself to an airplane mechanic who has walked into a dusty old hangar to work on a plane that is mostly in pieces on the floor.
“You look up from your work part way through it to realize that you’re 10,000 feet in the air and you’re wondering, how the heck did I get up here?” he says.
“This whole thing has been a wonderfully unexpected surprise.”
What begun as a hobby has since turned into a side hustle, and Cunliffe is selling the sketches on his wall quicker than he can put them up. Commissions from locals hoping to see their own favourite places given the Sketchy West Van treatment are coming in fast – a "wonderful problem to have", he says.
With only so many nooks and crannies in West Vancouver capable of being sketched, does he ever worry he'll run out of locations?
“Oh my goodness,” he beams, “I think I could happily sketch here forever.”
“There are just so many hidden gems that I’m only just discovering or rediscovering, and that is one of the wonderful things about this type of journey.”
He attests there are enough pockets of beauty in West Vancouver to keep him putting pencil to paper for “the next couple of decades. However, should he ever wish to look elsewhere, his next stop, logically, would be North Vancouver.
“I grew up just outside of Deep Cove and I’m a school teacher in North Vancouver. I feel a lot of connection to the North Shore at large,” he said, adding how he often envisions himself in a boat, travelling from Lions Bay to Deep Cove, with his sketching gear in tow.
Mina Kerr-Lazenby is the North Shore News’ Indigenous and civic affairs reporter. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.