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A ‘Family’ of Artists of the Downtown Eastside

For many in the neighbourhood, art has been a lifeline. Now a new collective is bringing their work to a wider audience.

Jen St. Denis 9 Feb 2021 |

Jen St. Denis is The Tyee’s Downtown Eastside reporter. Find her on Twitter @JenStDen. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.

Wendy Stewart spends days working on each of her paintings of downtown Vancouver street scenes. Ken Foster works quickly, churning out paintings by the dozens.

Larissa Healey, also known as Gurl23, has worked in an array of mediums, from graffiti art to indoor murals and paintings on canvas. The Anishinaabe artist has even painted sneakers.

James Hardy, also known as Smokey Devil, is a prolific street artist who has documented the drug poisoning crisis in art and text in the alleys of the Downtown Eastside. Photos of his work have been used to illustrate countless news stories about the rise in fatal overdoses.

BOY and Shawn Hefele are drawn to irreverent takes on pop culture touchstones like Mickey Mouse and the Flintstones, and also have roots in the graffiti scene.

They’re just a few of the artists who live or work in the Downtown Eastside and are part of a new group called the Downtown Eastside Artists Collective. The group was started by Trey Helten, the manager of the Overdose Prevention Society at 390 Columbia St.

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A mural by Smokey D honoured Overdose Awareness Day. Photo by Maggie MacPherson.

Art has been a part of the Overdose Prevention Society for years, and the walls in its current space are covered with local artists’ work. Helten said the idea behind creating the collective is to bring the artists’ work to a wider audience, show off the latest paintings and help sell the art.

A Facebook page provides a platform to showcase the artists’ work and reach a wider group of potential buyers.

“There are so many great artists in the Downtown Eastside,” Helten said, adding that encouraging people to make art is a way to “help build people up instead of knocking them down.”

For artists in the neighbourhood, making art is much more than a hobby: for many, art has been a lifeline through mental illness or substance use. Making and selling art is also a way to supplement low incomes; some artists plow all the proceeds from selling their work back into art supplies.

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Shawn Hefele says making art helped him stop using drugs and alcohol: ‘It was one of my outlets that really helped keep my mind off other stuff.’ Photo by Trey Helten.

Shawn Hefele has drawn and painted ever since he was a kid, but there was a 10-year period of his life when he wasn’t making art.

“I got really messed up on drugs and alcohol and art was not a part of me anymore,” Hefele said. “I always doodled, I always wanted to, but the drugs came first, and everything came after.”

When Hefele stopped using drugs and alcohol, making art helped him stay sober. He now works at the Overdose Prevention Society.

“I’ve been clean for almost 12 years,” he said, and making art has helped. “It was one of my outlets that really helped keep my mind off other stuff.”

Like Hefele, BOY has been drawn to art ever since he can remember. A lot of his work is a throwback to his childhood, including “weird” takes on classic cartoon characters like Mickey Mouse and Betty Boop and bright renditions of classic cars.

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A lot of BOY’s work is a throwback to his childhood, including ‘weird’ takes on classic cartoon characters like Mickey Mouse. Photo by Trey Helten.

BOY said he sells his art “cheap,” for around $40 a painting, and there’s a reason.

“It makes my stuff affordable and approachable for people who want to buy art, but couldn’t afford fine art,” he said.

BOY came to live in the Downtown Eastside after he was given a three-month eviction notice in 2013 and wasn’t able to find another apartment to rent. He ended up staying in shelters for six months, becoming depressed and suicidal. Finally, he found a permanent home in a building in Chinatown.

BOY’s friend and fellow artist, Larissa Healey, says BOY inspires her.

“You know why I admire this man? He has so many different diagnoses and to have him still here, from the things that he’s gone through, it’s an inspiration,” said Healey. “For people with mental health issues, it keeps us level.”

Healey’s work has been showcased in museums and galleries, including the National Gallery for Canada. But much of her art can be found on the street: with Corey Bullpitt, Healey worked on two well-known murals under the south side of the Granville Bridge, And the Raven Brought the Light and The Storm.

Healey has also hidden some of her work across the city.

“I’ve buried a lot of my pieces in the city over the past 30 years,” she said. “As buildings would go up, I’d hit the wall and the building would squish it between two buildings. So I get to have my messages show up years later, when a building drops.”

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For Wendy Stewart, the Downtown Eastside offered affordable housing that let her focus on creative work. Photo by Maggie MacPherson.

Stewart was working as a paralegal and paying $1,900 a month for an apartment in Vancouver, but that lifestyle wasn’t working out and she wanted to work on writing and painting full time.

She came to the Downtown Eastside in search of affordable housing so she could devote all her time to creative work. At first, she was working on a novel, but then also started painting and selling her art near the Carnegie Community Centre at Main and Hastings for $15 or $20. Many of her paintings are street scenes of neighbourhood landmarks like the Ovaltine Café or the Carnegie.

“When I started, I didn't have very much money, and I was buying the dollar store acrylic paints, which are like $1.25,” Stewart said.

“I was buying dollar store canvases, and sometimes I couldn’t even afford to get those. I’d paint over things I’ve already done. My mom said, ‘Stop doing that.’ She said, ‘Don’t paint over your work.’”

Today Stewart sells her work through her art shows and social media. For Stewart, moving to the Downtown Eastside was the key to be able write and paint full time.

“Some people might consider that a step down,” she said. “But for me, it wasn’t. It was the big step out.”

Hefele said the Downtown Eastside Artists Collective has created a community of artists who are learning from each other.

“Every day you see Ken Foster, you see his new art, you see what he’s doing, you see Smokey Devil, you talk to him about what he’s doing, you show him what you’re doing,” Hefele said.

“It’s just like a nice family of artists where we’re talking about what we’re doing.”  [Tyee]

Read more: Health, Art

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