A Natural Resource

Local company harvests Valley waters to create unique variety of natural sea salts

gillian brooks

“Graffiti has negative connotations attached to it, more about so sometimes graffiti as an art form is not well received or understood,” says spray-paint artist Gillian Brooks, beside one of her murals in Cumberland. “Sometimes I just have to go for it, so people can see the potential.” Photo by Boomer Jerritt

What comes to your mind when you think of graffiti? Unfortunately, what comes to mind for many is something negative—vandalism, tagging, crime, drugs. But there is a flip side to graffiti—beautiful, powerful, eye-popping works of art created by a growing segment of professional artists that use spray paint as their medium of choice.

There are many people who call themselves graffiti artists—people who grab a few cans of Krylon and head to the nearest dark alley. Then there are people like Gillian Brooks who take the medium seriously, and who strive to make graffiti art recognized for what it is—an up and coming art form that should be respected.

“It all comes down to vandalism versus art,” says Brooks, 33. “I’ve witnessed both sides—people creating crime and people making beautiful and original works of art. I use the same medium as the vandals, but I turn the negative into a positive.”

Brooks does so by creating beautiful murals that are full of vibrant color and positive imagery, and she’s doing so right here in the Comox Valley.

Brooks calls herself a muralist/spray paint artist—and since she’s a woman, she’s quite a rare breed. “I don’t know of any women here on the Island who do what I do,” she says. “I do know of a couple of female spray paint muralists in Vancouver, but all in all, the female graffiti artist is not common.” In fact, according to Brooks, graffiti artistry is mainly a man’s world. Brooks likens female graffiti artists to female break dancers or female tattoo artists—they exist, but they’re few and far between.

Though Brooks stands out as a female spray paint artist, she believes that standing out has made her better at what she does. “I had to work hard to prove myself in the beginning, and it always pushed me to do better,” she says. “Now I can hold my own with the best of them.”

Brooks recalls that she’s always wanted to paint big things. “I drew on paper and such when I was young, but I really wanted to paint the walls,” she remembers. “So when I was 11 my parents gave me my first wall to paint, a wall in the garage.”

For that first mural she copied a picture of a yellow house that she saw on an old Re/Max calendar. “They let me paint the entire interior wall of the garage with a big yellow house,” Brooks says. “It was pretty amazing that they let me do that!” And the mural is still there after 22 years. “My parents don’t own that home anymore, but one day I drove by and the garage door was open. I could see the mural of the yellow house as I drove by.”

When she was 14 her parents allowed her to paint a mural in her bedroom. “I’ve always been able to paint realistic images from what I saw. For example, I could take a small image and make it larger, but still keep the proper proportion. At the time, Disney characters were my favorite subject to paint. So, using normal paint and paint brushes, I painted my bedroom walls with scenes from Jungle Book.”

Brooks got involved with graffiti art when she was 17. She attended an art program for high school students called Bealart out of London, Ontario, her hometown. At the program she met many aspiring artists from various backgrounds who specialized in different forms of art. Particularly, Brooks was drawn to some boys who specialized in creating works with spray paint.

“I noticed their sketch books and I was really interested in what they were creating,” she says. “I began following them around so I could learn how they made their art.” It was fascinating to Brooks, and soon she was completely caught up. “It didn’t take me long to see that graffiti art was a great scene, and that there was really good art coming out of it.”

Specifically, graffiti art is a creative genre that uses spray paint and large surfaces. According to Brooks, spray paint is quite diverse as an artistic medium. “Spray paint can be used to create images that are extremely realistic or images that are just bold, bright and fun,” she says.

“I also like to use spray paint because it’s instant and it can be so big.”

The paint Brooks uses isn’t the kind you would purchase at the hardware store. “That wouldn’t work for the type of art I do,” explains Brooks. Instead, she uses paint that is formulated specifically to be used by professional artists. Since Brooks can’t buy such paints here in Canada, she orders all her paints from a supplier in California.

“All the colors are pre-mixed, so I just choose the colors I’m attracted to. The manufacturer comes up with new colors every year and they always have fun names attached to them. Actually, it’s a lot like choosing eye shadow,” says Brooks with a laugh. She should know—she is also a make-up artist.

To create her work, Brooks takes caps or nozzles of varying sizes and attaches them to the cans of paint. The different nozzle sizes give Brooks more control over the thickness of the lines created from the sprayer.

Brooks’ style of art is influenced by many things, but mainly she is inspired by images that some people would describe as retro. “More than anything, I’m inspired by things that are vintage,” she says.

Tattoo flash, Brooks’ major inspiration, comes from the old tattoo designs that would line the walls of tattoo parlors in the 1930s, 40s and 50s. Sailors would go from port to port, and they’d often get a tattoo as a souvenir of the places they’d been. Remember Popeye and his tattoo of the anchor on his arm? Tattoo flash designs were created in such a way to be quickly done, so the tattoo artist could create more tattoos in a short amount of time. Over the years the sailors travelled around showing off their tattoos, the images began to repeat, and certain images became very popular. Eventually they became iconic. Roses, swallows, pin-up girls, tigers, anchors, scrolls and skulls are synonymous with flash tattoo.

Brooks uses many flash tattoo icons in her artwork, but her favorites are roses and swallows. She also likes to adorn her art with what she calls “ladies” and “gentlemen”—vintage looking characters complete with ribbons and pin curls, or top hats and monocles. It’s a design that is positive, upbeat and unique to Brooks—a design that can be relatable to kids and adults alike.

“My art isn’t really open for interpretation,” Brooks says. “I just like to create images that are beautiful, positive, and fun to look at.”

Flash tattoo art also has bold, thick lines to withstand years of wear. As Brooks explains it, these images mesh well with graffiti art, which uses a formula of solid lines and bright colors. Though it may sound like a simple formula, Brooks says it has taken her years of practice to get it right.

“I try to make my lines as clean as possible. I don’t use any stencils or masking tape. It’s part of the old school graffiti style to do everything freehand. It’s like painting without a safety net.”

Cumberland has been Brook’s home for the past six years. “I feel that the vintage feel of my work meshes well with Cumberland,” she says. “My art is vintage, our town is vintage—so it works.”

Cumberland is also the location of Brooks first mural on the Island. “It all started when my friends moved into a house that was right next to a partially completed mural,” says Brooks. “It had stood like that for years. The wall was gloomy and dark, and it just screamed to be painted.” The couple suggested that Brooks paint the wall to brighten it up—so she did. It took six long days, but Brooks turned the area into what she calls a secret garden. “People walk by and see the mural, and it makes them smile,” she says.

In fact, Brooks has only had positive responses from those who have seen the mural. “People really love it. It’s a definite improvement from what used to be there.”

From that humble beginning, things are really starting to pick up for Brooks. “I’ve got three projects on the go. One of the projects is to cover the complete exterior western wall of the Waverly Pub. It’s a huge surface, so we’ve got a big plan and it’s going to be amazing when it’s finished.”

As well, Brooks has received permission to paint a mural over some unsightly tagging that’s occurred on the back side of the Patch Big Store. “The owner is more than happy for me to create some art there to dissuade others from tagging that wall,” she says. “Though it’s the back side of the building it’s also quite visible from the street, so it will be an improvement that’s for sure.”

Lastly, Brooks has been asked to paint the side of the Corre Alice art gallery with a fresh and exciting mural that incorporates her favorite images—swallows and roses.
Brooks’ future looks as bright as her murals. However, she knows she has a long way to go before graffiti art is taken seriously. “Graffiti has negative connotations attached to it, so sometimes graffiti as an art form is not well received or understood,” she says. “Sometimes I just have to go for it, so people can see the potential.”

Though it isn’t the road most travelled, Brooks hopes that someday she’ll be recognized as a serious artist. “What I want most of all is to be paid to do what I love,” she says. “It used to be that sign making and such was a real trade. People would get out there with their paint and they’d paint big signs on the sides of buildings. I’d like to see that happen again. I’d love it if business owners contacted me to add some color to their spaces.”

Though she has big dreams for her future, Brooks points out that she wouldn’t be where she is today without the support of her friends and family. “I have been really fortunate to have supportive friends and family in my life who have never criticized or swayed my decision to go against the grain and spray paint on walls.”


To contact Gillian Brooks email: [email protected]


The process of creating their specialty sea salts begins when the Brian and Lia McCormick collect water from the ocean in large plastic food grade pails.  The sea water will then sit and settle before being filtered by electric pump through screens to remove all remaining particles.  Photo by Boomer Jerritt

The process of creating their specialty sea salts begins when the Brian and Lia McCormick collect water from the ocean in large plastic food grade pails. The sea water will then sit and settle before being filtered by electric pump through screens to remove all remaining particles. Photo by Boomer Jerritt

Who doesn’t love salt? Sprinkled on fresh garden tomatoes in the summer. Tossed on popcorn, discount or rubbed with oil onto fresh kale and then baked in the oven. Now, stomatology
thanks to one local business, sick
you can enjoy salt straight from the ocean in the Comox Valley.

And it’s not just any salt—it’s hand harvested salt that has been gently spiced, or smoked, or even prepared using local wine.

Lia and Brian McCormick operate Clever Crow – Hand Harvested Sea Salt, Herbs, and Spices. They started hand harvesting their specialty salts last October, from bays just north of Courtenay up to Campbell River. “We’re always trying different spots,” says Lia.

“We’ve looked at sandy or rocky places, depending on the weather condition and the season, or if there is a lot of seaweed.” For them, it’s always a question of where the best location will be to collect water. If the water is cloudy in a certain location, they will carry on up the coast, stopping along the way to see if the water is clearer. Sometimes, if a few consecutive bays are cloudy, then “something has stirred up the water,” says Lia, “and we just won’t collect any that day.”

Occasionally when out on the beach people will approach the couple and ask what they are doing. When they explain that they are collecting water to make culinary salts, the reactions can be amusing. “People often look confused, and then stare out to sea and say ‘oh yeah, I guess you can do that.’ One man even said “don’t tell my wife!’ I guess he was afraid she’d start experimenting in the kitchen.”

While regular table salt has been boycotted by many households, traditional and natural sea salt has been increasing in popularity due to the recognition of its many health benefits. Natural sea salt contains trace minerals and is actually a very healthy addition to our diets.

The process of creating their specialty sea salts begins when the McCormicks collect 20 litres of water from the ocean in large plastic food grade pails. Once back at their quaint Courtenay home, which is brimming with lush green gardens, the sea water will sit for one or two days so that anything heavy can settle out. The water is then filtered by electric pump through screens to remove all remaining particles.

“There are no books on how to make sea salt,” says Brian. “In a very hot climate you can rake it, but we can’t do that here. The first few times we ended up with a grey slushy mess, and so the first months of harvesting were dedicated to discovering how to pull the salt out of the sea in order to create flakes of finishing sea salt for culinary use.”
So begins the process of rapidly boiling 80 litres of ocean water down to 15 litres. During the boiling stage, a mineral called gypsum starts to accumulate on the side of the pots, and this is removed due to its chalky taste. As the salt content reaches a high concentration, the water is then moved into crock pots where the water continues to be heated until salt crystals begin to form.

“It’s sort of funny to say, ‘Oh, we do it in crock pots,’ but that’s our small scale way to do it right now, because the temperature is low enough, and we can leave it on all day,” says Lia. In her kitchen, a counter top full of crock pots waits for the salty water on the stove, which is in two large enamel pots, to complete the first stage of boiling down.
As the crystals form they are scooped out and laid to dry. A large glass tray full of what looks to be heaping snowflakes in a magical winter wonderland contrasts the heat of the day and the fact that these flakes are actually drying slowly in the oven.

“The last three or four litres of water produce very small crystals,” Lia explains, “which contain a high content of nigari—the salt used in making tofu—and it is quite bitter. We don’t use the small crystals.” Lia will often examine other sea salts in the stores by holding them up to the light and searching for the small yellow bits that indicate the presence of nigari, just to see how their product compares.

Once the salt has dried completely the fun begins. The McCormicks take their salt to the kitchens at Prontissima Pasta, where they mix and package their different sea salts. And what a variety there is! A square plate with eight colorful salts in perfect little piles, along with a few of the spiced almonds also made by Clever Crow, and a side dish of sliced cucumbers from the greenhouse to use with the salt, offer a perfect sampling of their products.

There is of course the natural sea salt, which has a nice crunch to it and is perfectly white, as well as smoked sea salt, a citrus blend, rosemary, spicy chili, the sea vegetable blend, which uses only Canadian seaweed, a seasonal garlic scape and chive blossom blend, and the Ca Beautage Wine salt, which adds a deep purple red complement to any dish.

“At first I was experimenting with wines and ports,” says Lia. “I thought a port salt would be really good, but with all the sugar it was very sticky—it sort of clumped together, so we’re not going to go with that one.” The Ca Beautage Wine Salt uses a wine that is 100 per cent estate grown, “so this really is a local sea salt.”

Clever Crow produces a variety of sea salts and herbs.  Photo by Boomer Jerritt

Clever Crow produces a variety of sea salts and herbs. Photo by Boomer Jerritt

All of the salt mixtures are created using herbs from the Clever Crow gardens and farm when possible. For example, their newest salt, the garlic scape and chive blossom blend, is a seasonal salt that was produced after the first stage of garlic harvesting in July. The McCormicks lease an acre of land in Dove Creek where all of their herbs are grown. They also grow most of their own food there, and sell produce such as greens, potatoes and beans at the Farmer’s Market alongside their artisan salts.

“It’s nice to have room to grow these things that take up so much room,” says Brian of the decision to lease farmland. “They fill up our yard so fast.” One look around their backyard patio and it is easy to see this is true—fennel, tomatoes, herbs and cucumbers fill up the yard and are all but tumbling out of the greenhouse.

Among the salts Clever Crow creates is the Citrus Blend, which uses the zest of lemons and limes, has a lovely yellow color, and is suggested for salmon and scallops. It is one of the few salts that is not 100 per cent local. “The flavor comes out more in oil or on hot fish,” says Brian.

Another popular product is their smoked sea salt, which is created after smoking the salt in a smoker for six or seven hours using a special blend of wood. This produces a grey salt with a unique smoked flavor that happens to be Lia’s favorite.

The Rosemary salt—Brian’s favorite—uses Clever Crow’s rosemary, which is air dried and then coarsely ground, and similarly the Chili Salt is created by grinding dried hot red chili peppers grown in the greenhouse. This salt varies in color from orange to pink to red, and a suggested use is with butter and lime juice on corn on the cob. The Chili Salt is also used on Clever Crow Spicy Almonds, the only snack food available at this time.

“It’s just something I do,” says Lia. “It helps to bring people into the farm stand, and in the fall I use local hazelnuts instead of almonds.”

All eight of the current salt blends can be found at the Saturday Farmer’s Market where recipes and suggestions for use are also offered. “We have lots of repeat buyers,” says Lia. “I like it when people come back and tell me they enjoyed the product. I feel proud about putting out a product that is pure, clean and produced in small batches.”

“In Canada, everything’s been so homogenized” adds Brian. “There are no regionally unique foods [aside from some cheeses], especially on the West Coast.” Brian, who loves gardening, would like to move into curing his own meats using the Clever Crow sea salts. Part of the vision of Clever Crow was to create a regionally specific food—not a surprising ambition considering the couples’ recent endeavors in the Valley.

Lia and Brian moved here 18 years ago, and in 1996 they bought the Bar None Café, a small vegetarian bistro, which they owned for 7 years. “It drew people from all walks of life,” says Lia. “There were always interesting discussions happening, we had an open jam night, and we even published a cookbook.

“It’s been closed for almost 13 years and not a day goes by that people won’t mention it to us,” she adds, noting that through the café they established great relationships with local farmers.

Upon speculation, Brian says that this is what launched him into his profession as a chef. “I did the whole cooking thing backwards,” he says with a laugh. “I bought a restaurant, started cooking, and then went to school!”

After leaving the Bar None behind, Brian worked closely with Locals Chef Ronald St.Pierre at the Kingfisher. When the award-winning Chef St. Pierre decided to open his own restaurant—Locals— Brian moved with him and worked as his sous chef for two years before deciding to take some time to explore his own path. Lia also works at Locals and has been there since it opened five years ago.

“We’d like to go a little bit bigger,” says Brian, who envisions supplying local restaurants with their salts, and having the product carried in stores in Victoria and Vancouver. “We need to find a facility with the ability to process more water. I would like to experiment with a reverse osmosis system.”

The couple reflects on the fact that this is a little tricky because the parts would have to be non corrosive, or perhaps they would need to find a desalinator, which runs about $5,000. Yet the desire to keep it small scale and local is strong.

“People often ask about the cleanliness of our product,” Lia adds, “yet if you compare our oceans to other places like Vietnam or the Mediterranean, I have no doubt that our water is cleaner. If you eat oysters, mussels, or clams, we’re the best place in the world for shellfish. The oysters in this area are flown all over the world. Well, you have to have clean water to grow shellfish. If we thought our water wasn’t good enough here then we should be outraged that our water isn’t clean enough to make salt.”

When asked about how they transitioned from owning a vegetarian bistro to wanting to cure their own meats, Brian and Lia look at each other and simultaneously say: “Mexico.” They both laugh. “We were going to travel through small towns, and we didn’t want to have any food issues,” says Lia. “The pork and chicken were so good and it seemed more real than the grocery store. The main reason for us being vegetarian was we didn’t want to buy all the grocery store farmed meats. Living here there are so many small scale, ethically-raised animals that we reevaluated our dietary beliefs.”

“I’d like to buy a small farm, grow the herbs, do the salt packaging, raise our own pigs, and cure our own meats,” says Brian. “If there is a dream it would be going in that direction.”


For more information visit their Facebook page: “Clever Crow Herbs, Spices, and Sea Salt”