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Local illustrator brings a legend to life

Airdrie-based illustrator Hugh Rookwood is hoping to keep the legend of John Ware alive during Black History Month and beyond with the launch of a crowdfunding campaign to finance the print run for a children’s book called Howdy, I’m John Ware.

“He was born a slave and raised as a slave in the United States, and it’s the story of how he made his way to the foothills of Western Canada and became this amazing rancher,” Rookwood said. “This is a story that transcends anything about colour.”

Geared to children aged eight to 12, the tale – written by Ayesha Clough, a former journalist and founder of Red Barn Books – aims to bring the legend of John Ware to “a new generation of Canadians,” according to a press release.

“John Ware is a real-life role model for how to overcome huge obstacles, while managing to stay kind and funny, but also standing for what’s right,” she said in the release.

The story is enhanced with comic-book-style illustrations courtesy of Rookwood, whose company Chozen Studios has collaborated with brands like Dark Horse, Mattel and Hasbro. For this project, he based many of his drawings on actual photos of the Ware family preserved in the Glenbow archives to bring a real sense of history to the true story of John Ware.

“It’s about perseverance, it’s about not allowing your situation or others to define you – it’s about going out there and working hard and defining yourself,” he said.

“He was a slave, and he left his family and went to another country, at such a turbulent time, and managed to become somebody who – because of his talents and abilities and determination – somebody who garnished that respect. Regardless of color, regardless of status, he became something to be recognized, something to be admired and appreciated.”

While Rookwood said he couldn’t compare his own experiences with those of the legendary John Ware, he said the story hit home for him – and contains many important lessons for readers of all ages and races.

“No matter what ever happened in my life, no matter how bad things got, one thing I could rely on was my drawing skills and my talent,” he said.

For the past fifteen years, Rookwood said, he’s been able to use those skills to support his family, and added he hopes the tale of John Ware shows young readers how important it is to follow your dreams and find your passion.

“The thing I hope this story gets across, and what I try to talk about, is to find that thing that defines you, the think that makes you you, and just go after it,” he said.

Pre-orders are open on Kickstarter until Feb. 29 to help cover the $7,500 cost of a print run, according to the release. Pledges start at $1 and the eBook is available with a pledge of $8, or two paperbacks can be purchased for $25.

Special rewards for backers include a tour of the Bar U Ranch, a National Historic Site where Ware once worked; and a John Ware Tour of Calgary with local historian and playwright Cheryl Foggo. An eBook listing the names of all backers will be ready in March, and paperbacks will be shipped out in April.

For more information, visit

Jessi Gowan,

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