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Leonard's legacy 'doodles' on exhibit at Mayberry

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We know him as a poet, a singer, a novelist, a philosopher, a fedora-wearing ladies man and a robed, shaven-headed Buddhist monk.

Now Winnipeggers will get to see a whole other side of the multi-hyphenate known as Leonard Cohen: visual artist.

Mayberry Fine Art (212 McDermot Ave.) is hosting this city's first exhibit of Cohen's artworks from March 9 to 23. The show and sale, entitled Leonard Cohen -- The Poet. The Painter. is scheduled to coincide with the singer's Old Ideas World Tour concert on Monday, March 11 at the MTS Centre.

The exhibit will feature 35 of his still-life and figure drawings, portraits and self-portraits -- pulled from a private art collection that spans decades, but never saw a public gallery space until 2007.

"The visual has been part of his art for 40 years. It just hasn't been shown in the form of these prints; the technology wasn't there," says gallery owner Bill Mayberry. Each permanent ink print (in editions of 20 to 100) is signed, titled, numbered and stamped with Cohen's personal seal, two interlocking hearts. Prices range from $2,500 to $7,000.

Mayberry says Cohen, 78, is likely at the reflective stage of life where he realizes his so-called "doodles" could become part of his legacy. For his fans, it's another window into the creative workings of the Montrealer who became famous for setting his poetry to music.

"You can put these up on the wall, play his music and envision the characters he sings about," Mayberry says. "It's like he's putting images to his poetry."

Indeed, Cohen's drawings have graced the covers of his albums, and many were included in his latest poetry collection, 2006's Book of Longing.

The pieces in the Mayberry exhibit, which follows the artist and his muses from 1960s Montreal to the Greek island of Hydra, reflect the themes well-explored in Cohen's music and poetry: his love of women, sexuality, desire and deep introspection. There are sensual nudes -- including one titled My First Wife -- green-eyed self-portraits, red guitars, fruit bowls and black sunglasses. Some have words or phrases on them.

In describing his art practice, which was apparently an activity he enjoyed with his children while sitting around the family's kitchen table, Cohen once wrote: "From a mirror on my desk. In the very early morning. I copied down. Hundreds of self-portraits. Which reminded me of one thing or another."

Mayberry says he was initially reluctant to bring Cohen's artworks to Winnipeg -- they're from the collection at Vancouver's Granville Fine Art -- because of the recent trend of galleries promoting celebrity painters, such as Burt Reynolds. That wouldn't be Cohen's style, he says.

In a 2007 interview with Winnipeg arts journalist Robert Enright for Border Crossings Magazine, Cohen admitted he has no special insights into the visual arts world, and modestly described his drawings as "acceptable decoration," that he never considered would be shown in an exhibition.

"Just as play is deadly serious for children, so doodles are deadly serious for me," he told Enright.

At first glance, Cohen's artworks do have the appearance of being quite amateur, says Mayberry co-owner Shaun Mayberry, but they end up being another vehicle for exploring his multi-layered prose.

"He's not pretending to be a visual artist, which I really respect," he says. "They're not laboured, they're honest."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 9, 2013 G4

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