Wherever Columbia’s soul is thriving at almost any given moment, you’ll find him there.
Soda City market? Check. Gervais Street Bridge Dinner? First Thursday on Main Street? Double check. Darius Rucker at Colonial Life Arena or Those Lavender Whales at New Brookland Tavern? Yes, checks all over.
Wherever something cool is happening in downtown Columbia, artist Trahern Cook and his easel are likely to be there, too.
A fixture at most popular downtown festivals, concerts and other events, Cook is capturing Columbia as the city grows into a new, hip identity.
“It starts with just showing up, and more often than not, it’s showing up on Main Street, because there’s just a new life. There’s a new energy that we are all, I think, aware of,” said Cook, a Columbia native and fedora-wearing professional artist who’s made a name for himself around town as the “Easel Cathedral.”
“It’s not lost on me that there’s a little golden age going on,” he said.
Perhaps you’ve seen him around. Cook has gained local recognition on social media and simply by being present at high-profile, well-attended events like the weekly Soda City market on Main Street.
“We saw him when we were here a couple years ago, and we were hoping he was going to be here again. So I was so happy when we found him,” said Annette Kinsey, who stopped to watch and photograph Cook as he painted at a recent market. She and her husband, G.K., were visiting from Virginia and considering adding one of Cook’s paintings to their art collection.
“Look how he squeezes everything in (to the frame) to make it look really action-oriented,” she marveled.
Cook paints all over the Southeast. But Columbia is home.
And in Cook’s art, a picture of Columbia clearly emerges. It’s a picture of a new, lively city taking shape in the old streets of Columbia.
From his canvas seep the city’s elements: The rich colors of Main Street. The twang of the Flat Out Strangers jamming on a sidewalk. The smell of boiled peanuts and beer. The camaraderie of a city that’s steadily growing in size and culture but still is small enough to feel like an extended family.
It’s relatively recently that downtown Columbia has become a place worth capturing in paintings. The city is experiencing a downtown renaissance of sorts, with a business and culture boom that hasn’t been seen in decades.
One of the driving forces of downtown’s rebirth, Main Street’s Soda City market, also has become a sort of “home base” for Cook and his art.
“Because I insist it is,” joked Emile DeFelice, the founder of Soda City who revels in Cook’s presence at the market most Saturdays.
“I call the market a different painting every week,” DeFelice said. “To me, the atmosphere and the feeling and the vendors and the people, it’s literally a different thing every week.”
“We’ve had a populace where the demand (for activity) is long pent-up,” DeFelice said. “Columbia is not short on things to do, and that is a fantastic thing. And the city has a group of excited citizens and visitors, and we’ve got all sorts of stuff for them.”
At a recent market, Cook set up shop – er, easel – at the intersection of Main and Hampton streets and welcomed the flood of onlookers and friends who would become a part of the scene he was painting.
The painting was relatively slow-going as the artist paused to talk with so many who stopped by.
One of them was Fred Berry, frontman of a popular local bluegrass band, the Mustache Brothers. Cook has painted the band.
Berry’s a fan of not just Cook’s work, he said, but of the subject matter he sees on the canvas.
“I remember when there was nothing here” in downtown Columbia, Berry said, as Cook captured a market scene where thousands of people would pass through that day. “It went from a place you didn’t want to be to a place you want to be.”
Cook says he’s just “out there telling stories” about that place and the people in it.
“It’s relational art, experiential art, because it’s about hanging out with people,” Cook said. “We’re playing something right here, and we’re, if not a destination, we have a culture. And I think that’s what I’m trying to pull out of my work – to convey the life and the joy of what we’re doing here.”
Reach Ellis at (803) 771-8307.