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Four Muralists about to Splash Their Visions onto Vancouver

‘Three years ago, I wondered how to get the work of artists who face barriers up and onto the large walls.’

Dorothy Woodend 19 Jul

Dorothy Woodend is culture editor of The Tyee. Reach her here.

The Vancouver Mural Festival hits the streets in August, but creatives are already hard at work. On a warm Friday afternoon, just outside of Emily Carr University campus, four artists are busy painting, stenciling and occasionally doing that thing that every artist does, stepping away from their work in order to better see how things are shaping up.

Seema Shah, Sandra Yuen, Penny L. Lim and Sidney Smallman were selected through a juried process after submitting their work and attending a workshop offered through Kickstart Disability Arts & Culture under the direction of independent artist Wendy Oberlander.

Kickstart Disability Arts & Culture has been at the forefront of ensuring that access to the arts is open and available to everyone. The organization launched in 1997, when a group of artists including filmmaker Bonnie Sherr Klein, activist/poet Catherine Frazee and sculptor/dancer Geoffrey McMurchy, came together to offer “both pleasure and politics in disability culture.” For a background in the beginnings of the organization, Klein’s film Shameless: The Art of Disability offers a deeply affectionate portrait.

Oberlander explains how she came to be involved: “Three years ago, enjoying the murals around town, I wondered if there was a way to get the work of artists who face barriers up and out onto the large walls. I realized that, at least initially, it would not be practical to work on such a large scale, so I wrote a proposal to the Vancouver Mural Festival for a small-scale project, bringing artists' work to public spaces through the work of the VMF.”

The Vancouver Mural Festival enthusiastically accepted the proposal, followed by Kickstart Disability Arts & Culture and Murals Without Walls came into being. “As an independent artist, this felt pretty great — realizing that others saw the worth of this idea,” says Oberlander.

The artists worked en plein air for four days. Each person has their chosen medium, acrylics, spray paint, collage materials as well as a large 4x4 plywood sheet. After all of the preliminaries, it still comes down to making the work: the process of thinking up what you want to do and then applying colour, shape and form.

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Penny L. Lim with her work Doggie Dreams. Photo by Wendy Oberlander.

For Penny L. Lim, a farmers’ market, dogs and the curious logic of dreams arose quite spontaneously. As she explains, some of the images in her painting came from things observed, the things that the dogs like to eat and do, while others floated into existence from pure imagination. With its gentle, lyrical style, Lim’s work bears some resemblance to that of Marc Chagall. There is a similar floating, playful quality to the animals and foodstuffs depicted. A terrier stares boldly off the canvas, quivering with the condensed energy of the breed. Another hound slumbers peacefully in the foreground, whilst overhead asparagus, peas, green beans, beets, a whimsical snowman and squirrel join together in a gentle dance. It’s funny, surreal and deeply charming.

Sandra Yuen has an established art practise, moving between paintings of Vancouver houses to more organic things like flowers. Her work sells briskly to people with a penchant for vintage Vancouver architecture. The flat bold blocks of colour and crisp hard lines of her paintings are almost Hockney-esque in their assertiveness. As Yuen explains she does a fair amount of research for her work, taking photos of the houses from the mid-'50s and '60s that she finds interesting.

Yuen has painted for years, since graduating from Langara College with a fine arts diploma, and an art history degree from UBC. An active member of the Federation of Canadian Artists, and a recipient of the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal, she has exhibited her work throughout the Lower Mainland.

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Sandra Yuen with her work The Disappearing City. Photo by Wendy Oberlander.

It’s easy to see why her work is coveted by collectors. The mid-century architecture that is slowly disappearing in Vancouver, as older single-family houses are torn down and replaced by new condominium developments, gives her work a vivid poignancy. As she explains about the canvas that she’s currently working on, the intent is to make the bottom half slowly vanishing into quicksand to provide a figurative representation of what is taking place across the city.

Her artist statement explains the genesis of this idea: “My cityscapes are about anonymity, isolation and memory. My father was an architect who taught me aspects of design and perspective. In my house portraits, I paint homes in my neighbourhood. Homes provide us with comfort and belonging but may also separate us from engagement....”

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Murals Without Walls founder Wendy Oberlander says the project started small this year, but the intent is to grow. ‘It was a real pleasure to work with four diverse artists,’ she says, ‘each with their own style and interests.’ Photo by Wendy Oberlander.

Sidney Smallman, the youngest of the group, is going into Grade 12 at Tupper Secondary School in the coming year (he’s photographed with his artwork at the top of this story). In creating his work, Smallman has a collection of helpers who angle the plywood sheet, previously spray painted a vivid aquamarine, so that Smallman can apply brushwork in a deeper shade of blue to the edges of the picture frame. The effect creates wavey shapes that appear be eddying in unseen currents, resembling a sea of underwater foliage.

In the centre of the board, the helpers affix a stencil of a fish that had been created the day before. With some help from his mom, Smallman lays down a bed of light grey spray paint, going over the sleek shape until he’s satisfied with the results. The process of adding scales takes some consultation. How thick should they be? Is the random placement of individual scales better than a more regimented approach? It’s a collaborative process, but throughout Smallman clearly communicates his intentions, what he wants and what he doesn’t.

“He is a serious artist who understands value, colour and mark making,” says Oberlander. “He knew exactly what the piece needed, at each step.”

In the end, after removing the masked off area, the shining scaled creature at the centre is revealed in all its silver piscine glory.

A self-taught artist, Seema Shah works frequently in collage. Shah had her first two-person exhibit at the Outsiders and Others gallery in Vancouver in January and she is currently one of eight B.C. artists whose work is showcased in the Pacific Northwest Collage Collective’s first regional exhibit at Collapse Gallery in Wenatchee, Washington from July 9 to 31, 2021. Her work possesses a mischievous, fierce energy, as the figure at the centre capers, long-limbed and sharp-toothed overtop of the word “Quicksand.”

Seema Shah with her work What Quicksand?Photo by Wendy Oberlander.

As Oberlander explains Murals Without Walls started small this year, but the intent is to grow the program, allowing for more artists to create work. Of the experience, she says, “It was a real pleasure to work with four diverse artists — each with their own style and interests, as the panels show.”

Generous community support was a big part of Murals Without Walls. Kickstart provided funds and administrative support, Opus Art Supplies gave a discount on materials, Emily Carr University donated the space and personnel, and the Vancouver Mural Festival gave tech support, tools, as well as the opportunity to display the work. Additional support came from the City of Vancouver, the Hamber Foundation, posAbilities and Art Hive at the Jewish Community Centre.

The pleasure and joy of making art and bringing something into existence that hadn’t existed before is palpable on the Emily Carr plaza, as each person bends to their work, busily engaged in the act of creation.

The finished works will be assembled together into two sandwich boards that will be on display at the Mural Festival’s pop-up plaza near Main and Fifth Avenue in August 2021.  [Tyee]

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