Inside Mark Prosser’s colour-swirled Vancouver

    1 of 2 2 of 2

      Get the best of Vancouver in your inbox, every Tuesday and Thursday. Sign up for our free newsletter.

      Looking back, there’s a case to be made Mark Prosser found his calling early. But because life has a tendency to get in the way of things we’re truly passionate about, it was only a couple of years ago that the Burnaby-based artist finally turned a lifetime hobby into a career.

      “I’ve never taken a class, but as a child I loved painting cars, and I loved painting logos for bands—things with a bit of a graffiti feel to it,” Prosser says. “I was really up for anything. I did portraits in high school, and got some praise for that. It was something that I naturally liked doing. If you have a passion for something, it’s easy to be inspired by everything.”

      So while he’s painted for almost his entire life, it’s in the past couple of years that Prosser has started to make a name for himself with works that put a colour-swirled, post-impressionism, retro spin on beloved Vancouver landmarks: places like Kingsway’s 2400 Motel, Hastings Racecourse, Science World, and the Blarney Stone in Gastown.

      As much as the West Coast tends to be one hundred and fifty shades of grey in months not named July, August, or September, in Prosser’s world the city’s skies are luminous azure blues, Grape Crush purples, and phosphorescent greens. Structures we take for granted, like the Pattullo Bridge, end up looking like something from a van Gogh fever dream—no accident, considering the Dutch giant is one of Prosser’s idols. 

      Mark Prosser with his painting of the iconic East Van cross.

      Raised in small-town Manitoba, he moved to the West Coast in his twenties, partly because he was looking for something different.

      “I was in Winnipeg at that time, and I literally saw where my life was going—it just wasn’t what I wanted to do,” he recalls. “It was almost literally like I had a midlife crisis. I’d just got accepted into engineering at university, and I was engaged but I wasn’t happy. We’d just bought a house, but one summer I was like, ‘I gotta do something different.’ ”

      The mountains and their energy have always called him, he says: “So I literally snapped my life in half and moved out here with a backpack. Manitoba wasn’t really an art place. Moving to Vancouver, which was more artistic, really revived my artistic side. So I kept at it.”

      Because art rarely pays the bills (except for a lucky few), Prosser took a stock market job in sales after his move to the West Coast, the thinking being he’d be off the clock by the early afternoon, leaving time for his art. For years he focused on painting animals, selling his work as a side gig. And then the pandemic hit, putting his job on hold, as it did for many.

      “My wife said, ‘Take this time, and don’t paint for anyone else,’ ” he recalls. ‘“Don’t paint to make money—just do it.’ ”

      Prosser did just that, setting a goal of doing five animal works in five days.

      “And I did,” he relates. “I wasn’t trying to make them perfect like I always have. I used to spend 50 hours on a piece, maybe 60, which was mind-numbing. So instead I was like, ‘I’m going to let it flow—do it in an afternoon and have fun with it.’ I posted them, and the response was insane. I sold three in the first week.”

      When his sales job started up again, Prosser would paint a couple of hours in the morning, and pick up the brushes again after getting home, blasting out his work out on both socials and his website for the world to see. Feeling like he was on a roll, he began dabbling in landscapes, and then turning his attention to the city he’s come to love. First came a neon-expressionistic painting of the East Van Cross on a whim, followed by a stylized Science World where False Creek is all washes of burnt orange, pineapple yellow, and cotton-candy pink.

      “That’s when my art started connecting with a lot more people, because a lot of people can relate to something they’ve been to or seen, as opposed to lions and animals,” Prosser notes. “It was a different vibe, and I love it because I can combine my love of architecture and structures and history all into one thing.”

      We live in a city that’s never been shy about bulldozing its past, and Prosser posits that’s one of the reasons his works have resonated with Vancouverites. He often paints landmarks— A&B Sound, the fabled Smilin’ Buddha, The Coronet movie house on Granville—that no longer exist, and in some cases he wasn’t around to see. His painting of the old Wally’s Burgers on Kingsway sees the now-demolished hamburger stand reborn, looking retro-cool under a star-shimmered sky, with orange and purple muscle cars sitting in the parking lot.

      “I listen to what people say—they were telling me, ‘You should paint Wally’s’ about a year before I actually did,” Prosser says. “I love muscle cars and that whole American Graffiti era with car-hops, and the burgers, so I kind of paid tribute to that. When people respond to that, that’s another level of energy. If I can love what I do, and find that people love it too, the whole thing becomes a force.”

      Today Prosser does art full time, selling both originals and prints, his store also offering his works on everything from coasters to umbrellas. Things have become so busy that his wife Richelle—whom he repeatedly credits with getting him to where he is today—now helps fill orders and deal with requests and commissions, with the business running out of their home.

      While making art is now a business for Prosser, who recently turned 50, he loves that it never feels like work.

      “Before the pandemic, I had relegated painting to something that was going to be my side hustle when I was old,” he says. “It just so happened that things got kick-started 30 years before that.”