Surviving while being creative: A history of early Vancouver artists

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This Thursday Feb 23 at 7:30pm, artist and researcher Gary Sim gives an illustrated talk of early Vancouver artists at the Museum of Vancouver. Part of the Vancouver Historical Society lecture series, the talk is free and open to the public. Above: “Looking Away” Block Print by Gary Sim, 2005.

After his divorce in 1995, artist and researcher Gary Sim started casting about for new things to do. He found himself attending a monthly estate auction at the Westin Bayshore and became such a regular that he was hired by the auctioneer. He handled pottery from Japan, masks from Africa, and jewelry from Russia. Once he hauled in a dugout canoe and a 10-foot totem pole, another time, a Mexican throne. Sim started buying art for fun. One of those paintings was by Maud Sherman, a student of Group of Seven artist Fred Varley.

“I was curious to learn more about Sherman and identify the location in her painting. By the time I’d accumulated enough information to write a brief biography, I’d collected material on hundreds of other artists. When I started losing track of what I found, I created a digital index. Today that index has over 2,500 pages and provides information on almost 18,000 artists.”

Early artists typically painted landscapes–views from railway lines or ships, new towns, First Nations villages, and residents that they met along the way. “The earliest BC artists were really explorers, and most of their work is considered documentary art, rather than ne art,” says Sim. “It was a new world for them, and some artists couldn’t cope with the magnitude of the scenery. The mountains were featured in thousands of paintings.”

These early artists and the struggles that they faced are the subject of Sim’s talk on February 23 for the Vancouver Historical Society. “The difficulties were almost insurmountable,” he says. Artists fought off hungry insects, wolves and other creatures sometimes in +40 degree weather. Emily Carr purchased an old caravan trailer for painting trips that she called the “Elephant.” Sim says she also built a mobile protective device that made her look like the “Tin Man” when she painted in Northern BC.

While travel was difficult, galleries were almost non-existent. Few miners or loggers lined their walls with original art and the number of potential clients was limited. Most of these early artists survived by teaching or doing advertising illustrations. Some, he says, painted signs, windows and carriages, decorated ceremonial arches or buildings, while others were supported by a patron, and a few were independently wealthy.

“Some amateur or Sunday painters also exhibited. Many artists were itinerant, moving from town to town to paint local scenes, showing their work in store windows or hotels,” says Sim. “If a painting turned out well, it might be painted a few more times for sale. They had to hustle their work.”

"Higher Rises" Block Print by Gary Sim, 2005
“Higher Rises” Block Print by Gary Sim, 2005

Sim has also had his own struggles and share of interesting jobs. He’s worked at everything from fruit picking to fighting forest fires. From 1978 to 1987 he worked for BC Rail rock gangs drilling, blasting and chain sawing his way along the cliffs and canyons beside the BC Rail mainline. In 2013, Sim published a memoir called Railway Rock Gang, based on those experiences.  As work took him around the province, Sim filled his spare time painting and drawing his surroundings. Over the past decade, he has exhibited his work more than 40 times.

Curious to learn more about the lives of early Vancouver artists? This month’s Vancouver Historical Society speaker series welcomes Gary Sim for an illustrated lecture that is open to the public. The talk starts at 7:30pm on Thursday February 23 at the Museum of Vancouver (1100 Chestnut Street).

The Vancouver Historical Society‘s speaker events take place on the fourth Thursday of the month at the Museum of Vancouver.