Vancouver's van Gogh asks for public's help taking his work from the streets to a book

Impoverished Gastown artist Ken Foster has sold his paintings locally for two decades and now hopes to create a collection for wider distribution

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      A little over four years ago, Sean Nosek’s imagination was captured by stories of a tormented artist walking the streets of downtown Vancouver.

      “I had heard about this sort of legendary figure who was known to make amazing art, but you could only get it if you found him somewhere or happened to cross paths,” Nosek told the Straight. “It made me think of the stories of [Henri de] Toulouse-Lautrec, who would sketch on cardboard in Paris, or of [Vincent] van Gogh battling his demons.”

      Nosek began taking daily walks through Gastown looking for him. Weeks went by with no luck. “Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw this guy splattered in paint,” Nosek continued at a Downtown Eastside coffee shop.

      He’d found Ken Foster, a locally well-known but enigmatic artist who’s sold his paintings on the streets of Vancouver for the past two decades.

      “He stalked me,” Foster joked in an interview alongside Nosek. “I just met him on the street. He wanted to get some pictures made or something….And then I guess we kept in contact with each other.”

      A friendship grew and Nosek’s initial curiosity morphed into a determination to collect and share Foster’s work, as well as his story, with a wider audience.

      Now the two of them are now working on a book. The plan is for it to consist of 25 of Foster’s paintings plus the artist’s life story as written by Nosek, an English major who previously worked as a high-school teacher.

      They’re in talks with Granville Island Publishing and recently launched a Kickstarter campaign to help make it happen.

      “It’s a powerful, gripping story, and I think that will resonate with people,” Nosek said.

      Sean Nosek (left) went in search of Ken Foster, an artist based in Gastown, and the two of them later paired up to produce a book.
      Travis Lupick

      Foster grew up in north Delta and Surrey and for a time enrolled at the Emily Carr University of Art + Design. He said he found the education a little too structured, however, and it wasn’t long before he dropped out. Foster moved to Commercial Drive and there began selling paintings on the street. Next he found himself in the Downtown Eastside, bouncing between the rundown hotels there and those in Gastown.

      “I think I’ve lived in almost every one of them,” Foster said. He’s also spent time homeless.

      “The last time I was [living] outside, I spent a year in the Abbott alley, near that empty parking lot [at West Hastings Street],” Foster said.

      Ken Foster is best-known for his paintings that capture the unique landscapes of Downtown Eastside alleys.
      Graeme McRanor / Ken Foster

      It’s Downtown Eastside alleys that became Foster’s trademark. Over the years, he’s painted thousands of them. They’re immediately identifiable by Vancouver’s bridged utility poles and the mostly old brick buildings that line them.

      Foster still does plenty of those—he estimates he creates between three and 10 paintings every day—but has equally well-known for his larger paintings of Vancouver skylines.

      His work is also recognizable by the materials on which Foster creates it. He sometimes uses traditional canvas but prefers recycled surfaces as varied as pizza boxes and street signs. They’re highly stylized paintings but also consistently accurate. Nosek emphasized how impressed he is by Foster’s ability to recall details of the city. He explains that Foster usually paints in his room, seldom looking at the skylines he creates yet still intricately capturing each building from memory.

      “I painted on the streets for years and years,” Foster said. “But mostly, right now, I paint in my room. I’m not looking [at the subject], most of the time. I’m usually looking out of my head.”

      Josh Laner

      A forthcoming documentary about Foster depicts his struggles with schizophrenia and unabashed affection for crack cocaine. The film by Josh Laner, titled Ken Foster, is a fast-paced window into a chaotic life. There are scenes of addiction and sadness, but many more of Foster genuinely enjoying life and his work as an artist.

      Nosek recounted initially pitching Foster the idea for a book. “You produce amazing art, you have a cool story, you have this connection to our city, and your art reflects our city,” he told him.

      Foster replied with “something smart ass”, and then immediately agreed. “Why wouldn’t I want to see something like that?” he said.

      Foster and Nosek’s Kickstarter campaign runs to November 2. Pledges as low as $10 get contributors a small painting by Foster. A pledge of $50 or more gets backers a copy of the book when it’s released in 2018.