Elegy for a Beatnik

At the Vancouver Art Gallery, Fred Douglas cleaned up, slept naked, and finally got an exhibit.

By Claudia Cornwall 16 Mar 2005 |
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When Fred Douglas died on Valentine’s Day, we lost an artist, a photographer, a professor, a friend, and a gifted storyteller.  A fount of stories about being a beat in Vancouver, he could entertain you for hours with his descriptions of outrageous events.  It was obvious from listening to Fred, that that the scene here in the fifties, though not as famous as the one in San Francisco, was every bit as crazy and colourful. 

In his early twenties, Fred was living on no money, painting anything he could get his hands on, paper, cardboard, bed sheets. Canvas if he was lucky.  In 1959, he rented a storefront on West Pender, a marine engine shop that he converted into a studio.  “It was a hell of a place, completely rat infested,” he told me.   Every night he and his friend, Curt Lang, who was sharing the digs with him, would put out traps.  And every morning, there’d be a couple dead rats.  But it didn’t seem to make any difference.  There were always more rats.  As soon as they went to bed and turned the lights off, the rats came out in droves, running all over the floor, making sharp scratching noises with their claws.  Fred said, “It was horrible.  You’d feel one of the fucking rats come over you.  They became brazen.  They’d stop on you.  You’d feel their weight and then you’d feel the warmth of their bodies.  You’d shake the cover, sometimes you’d have to shake it a couple of times before the fucking things would move.”

Once Fred recalled, he was painting and he had to take a leak.  He was really interested in his work, so he walked backwards, towards the bathroom, keeping his eyes on the painting the whole time.  He unzipped, stepped into the bathroom and looked down.  “There was a fucking huge rat sitting on the edge of the toilet. He was shocked too.” Fred knocked the rat into the toilet and slammed the lid shut. “I flushed it. I must have flushed it six times.  Then I opened it up.  He was drowned, but he didn’t go down.”

Naked in the VAG

Finding a regular job was not a top priority with either Fred or with his friend, Curt.  Nevertheless, they managed to land work, as janitors in the Vancouver Art Gallery. “What a fiasco,” Fred recalled. “We never did very much work.  I’d say, ‘Look there’s not very much work to do, why don’t we just do the work and then fool around?’”  But they never did.  “We’d just think of doing things.  They had wheelchairs for the crippled people to be pushed around in.  We’d have wheelchair races through all the galleries like sport car races.  We got really good at it.  We learned that to go around a corner you could grab one wheel and stop it and spin. Of course, you’d leave black marks on the floor.  We’d do it night after night.  There were black marks all over the place.  They’d leave us notes begging us to please clean up.”  Fred and Curt left notes too; they’d criticize the exhibitions, calling their reviews, “The Janitors’ Report.”  

Things got wilder.  They began to have parties.  Once a guitarist dropped by and Fred remembered how Curt got ceramic pots out of the Gallery store.  He set them up as drums so he could accompany the musician. “Boom Boom Boom. All fucking night for hours,” Fred remembered. The zenith—or nadir point, depending on how you looked at it—of their careers as janitors began as an act of charity.  “Jesus, I remember one night in the winter, we’d let people in to sleep on the couches--people who didn’t have any place to sleep.  We let them in night after night.  I’d wake up at 7 in the morning and get them out of there.  The staff started to come in by 9 and I just didn’t want to get caught.  One night, I had a girlfriend sleeping with me. We were naked on this couch.  The fucking alarm didn’t go off.  When I woke up I saw this guy and he saw two naked people laying on the couch.  He was funny because he didn’t want to lose his cool. But of course he did.  Who wouldn’t?  Instead of leaving right away, he looked at a painting for the longest time, then spun around and ran out.  I had to go and collect everybody. They wouldn’t get up and I had to argue with them.”

When Fred’s people were finally on their feet, they couldn’t go out the back door because it was locked. Fred had to walk through the lobby with his woebegone troupe following. “I was so embarrassed that I looked down at the floor.  I didn’t know who was in the lobby.  I could see people’s feet but I didn’t have enough nerve to look up and see whose faces were there.”

Writing until the end

Fred and Curt were not immediately sacked.  They kept their jobs for a little longer before they were finally let go.  And their relations with the Gallery remained cordial.  Looking back, Fred was astonished, particularly by Doris Shadbolt’s forebearance.  “Even though we’d done everything wrong, she was still nice,” he said. (Shadbolt was then the Gallery’s director of education.)   In March 1960, Fred and his friend, Curt, were part of a group show at the Gallery. The neo-constructivists as they called themselves, got favourable mention in a newspaper review. “The experience with which they are concerned is the purely artistic experience, from which all romantic, sentimental, literary and ‘soulful’ elements are banished for what they are—claptrap,” wrote an anonymous critic. 

Soon Fred and Curt moved to another house on Pender Street, a block further west.  A couple of years later, their old place, the marine engine shop, was demolished.  The night it was torn down, a friend of Fred’s was driving home to West Vancouver. Fred recalled him saying, “I saw this kind of black shadow moving on the road ahead of me.  As I drove closer, it was just a sea of rats coming out of that building.  They were taking off for the waterfront.  There were thousands.”

When my husband, Gordon, and I visited Fred a week before he died, he was weak, but very much himself. For several years, he had been working on a book that layered photography, painting, and text. “You better buy a copy before all the assholes get them,” he growled.   He was still writing—an essay about the ephemerality of things. “I just wish I had more time to work on it,” he said.

Claudia Cornwall is a frequent contributor to The Tyee.  [Tyee]

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