On Wednesday (May 23), the temperature in Vancouver reached a high of 20° C—about 3° above the average. Hot, I thought, but hardy your proverbial Dante’s inferno.
Dante may have disagreed with me though. By his own admission he had been outside under the hot sun all day. But he was too busy with his painting to answer a lot of questions, and I was likewise in a rush and plain forgot to ask him.
I should explain that “Dante” was the name given to me by the artist I saw standing up to his ankles in uncut grass, painting at his wooden easel, on the northeast corner of 7th Avenue and Ontario Street.
For my part, I was half a block from the end of my journey by bike to cash in returnable beverage containers at the recycling depot located in the alley off 7th and Ontario.
What with the load of bottles and cans burning a hole in my bike trailer and the depot closing at 5 p.m, I had better things to do than stop and chat with strangers but curiosity got the better of me. It looked like the fellow was painting a portrait of the rather unassuming building on the corner and I wondered why.
After a quick exchange of first names, I saw that the subject of the canvas really was the two-storey masonry brick building located at 7 West 7th Avenue and only the building.
I could see the appeal of the scene framed in the larger context of its overgrown surroundings but Dante’s painting was focused on the building and its barren, concrete parking apron—to the exclusion of the picturesque, gnarly tree beside him and the wild and unruly grass under his feet.
I wondered out loud if his painting had been commissioned by the retail occupant of the address (a florist) but no, I was told, it hadn’t.
He just liked the way that the building looked, he said, as he gingerly daub-daub-daubed more green “foliage” on the top left corner of his canvas.
Okay, I thought. Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder but fit subjects for painting are in the eye of the painter.
To my eye, his painting appeared more-or-less finished, so, for a final question, I asked him how long he had been at it.
“Since seven,” was his laconic reply. Meaning that he had been painting steadily for about 8 hours when I spoke to him at 3 p.m.
Drawing out the telling
When I stopped to chat with Dante on Wednesday, I was mindful of how it felt, nearly 40 years ago, when people would incessantly interrupt me when I was drawing outside, either for fun or profit, in my capacity as a commercial illustrator.
At the time, I came to realize that for those who could not imagine doing such a thing themselves, to witness the facile recreation of the real world in two-dimensions was akin to watching a magic trick; it both amused and bemused them. So I was always tolerant and polite, even if the endless questions, or rather the Question, made me grit my teeth.
With the benefit of personal experience and empathy, I had no intention of asking Dante the question that hundreds (if not thousands) of people from all walks of life had broached when they encountered me drawing out of doors in the 1980s, namely: “Did you draw that?”
Ugh! I still get a twitch just thinking about it.
Actually, my questions to Dante were more of an excuse to be able to record the fact that someone was seen drawing in public in 2018—so rare has the sight become in the neighbourhoods.
This is not to say that Vancouver residents have given up on the pleasure of creating art.
Judging just by the canvases and suchlike that end up in Fairview and Kitsilano Dumpsters, a great deal of drawing and painting for the fun of it still goes on. It’s just that, these days, it all appears to go on behind closed doors.
Dante is the first person I’ve seen painting outside for—wow!—I can’t even count the years.
Naturally I was very happy to see him doing so and to talk with him. And for his part, Dante was very polite to answer all of my of questions, even if he did seem to be gritting his teeth a bit.