It says something about artist Will Rafuse’s nostalgia for Vancouver that, even though he has moved to the far side of the country, he is still obsessively painting the disappearing streetscapes of his former West Coast home.
There is just something about the tug of this place, and the fact that the city is changing so rapidly, that has kept him painting its old corner stores and vibrant neon signs during his past decade in Montreal, and now in his new home of Saint John.
The Only Seafood, Vernon Drive Grocery, Golden City Cafe, and Boots by Dayton: these are just some of the vintage landmarks that populate his works, some of which will be on view at the Kimoto Gallery as part of this year’s South Granville ArtWalk, on Saturday (June 18).
Then again, it may be his very distance from here that feeds his nostalgia. “When you leave something, you think about it in a different light than you would if you saw it every single day,” says the artist from New Brunswick, reflecting on the B.C. city where his art career flourished for two decades, and still grows.
“I do my take on something that has disappeared or that I think may be torn down, because I love that city and I’m so surprised how much it’s transformed over the past 10 or 20 years. Now it’s changing every day. And now that I’ve been coming back every year for a show, I really notice it.”
He’s in the midst of finishing a work that honours one of Vancouver’s best-loved neon pieces: the 1950s Smilin’ Buddha Cabaret sign as it once hung in its East Hastings streetscape, in oils across a 22-by-38-inch canvas.
Like so many of his paintings of neon, it’s captured in daylight, to show the tubing and layered colours, with the sun reflecting off the surfaces and wires criss-crossing it as they might have back in the day.
“Neon is kind of alive in itself. You can hear the hum of the gas,” he says. “People gravitate toward it because they can relate it to something in their own life. It brings back a memory for them. People will say, ‘I ate at that restaurant’ or ‘I drove by that grocery.’ ”
He adds that the glowing, jiggling-bellied beacon of the long-closed live-music haunt, where everyone from Jimi Hendrix to D.O.A. played, is a classic.
“Besides the Only and the Ovaltine, I think it’s right up there,” he says. “So many people have a lot of nostalgia for that place, and that area [100 block East Hastings] has fallen pretty much as far as it can, unfortunately. That sign holds dear to so many people.”
So just how does Rafuse remember these sites in such detail when he’s putting brush to canvas on the other side of the country? He works from archival photos as well as his own shots. “I have a huge library of imagery I’ve taken on trips out there,” he says.
And it’s his own pictures of signs and streetscapes that really drive home the pace of change in this ridiculously booming West Coast town.
“Even the ones I’ve taken five years ago, it’s changed,” says Rafuse, whose work joins a summer group show of other Kimoto artists, like David Wilson, Jim Park, and Kimberley French, who celebrate, question, and explore this place’s streets and nearby landscapes.
“The old is disappearing very quickly.”
The South Granville ArtWalk runs along Gallery Row from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., with artist talks, wine-and-cheese tastings, and more than a dozen exhibitions.