Ken Foster's Vancouver shares the work and life of an artist who's refused to conform

Vancouver's van Gogh has sold his paintings locally for two decades and now has produced a book to take his art and life story beyond the city

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      There are thousands of Ken Foster paintings floating around Vancouver and beyond. The prolific artist who's usually found wandering the Downtown Eastside's alleys is one who practises his craft for money. It's not that Foster doesn't care about his art. He does. But Foster cares more about heroin and, especially, crack cocaine.

      "There are lots of times when Ken will paint just well enough or long enough to be able to hawk something to make a few bucks," Sean Nosek told the Straight.

      Nosek met Foster the way so many did before him and have since: Foster was selling his work on the street and caught Nosek's eye. The two began talking, became friends, and now, years later, have a book coming out together.

      Ken Foster’s Vancouver: Life, Art and the Alleyways will be released by Granville Island Publishing this Saturday (September 1). It's a collection of Foster's paintings, plus his life story as Nosek recorded it over countless hours spent with Foster at his home in one of the Downtown Eastside's shabby single-room occupancy (SRO) hotels.

      It wasn't always an easy project to bring together, Nosek recounts. There were many paintings originally intended for publication in the book but which were sold on the street before they were even finished, he explains. For Ken Foster’s Vancouver, the two agreed they wanted a number of original works in which Foster invested significantly more time than he puts into the quick jobs he paints for sale to tourists in Gastown.

      "We needed these to go above and beyond," Nosek said. "That meant there were lots of times when a painting that Ken had been working on didn't find its way back to the book, and when we had to start again from square one."

      On his drug use, Foster is unapologetic.

      "I ask Ken if he ever wishes he could stop using," Nosek writes in the book. "He gives me a serious look and says, 'Why would I want that? My drugs are how I frame my day. How I space time. It’s how I reward myself. There’s nothing wrong with it, other than how society looks at it. The only problem is they’re just so expensive.'"

      It’s Downtown Eastside alleys that became Foster’s trademark, although he's perhaps now 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.

      "With his innate sense of composition, Ken Foster edits a subject to its bare bones," John Taylor, curator of public art galleries in Ontario and British Columbia, writes in the book's foreword. "When that is combined with his uncanny understanding of light, the result is masterful."

      Many Vancouver residents will likely regard such accolades as long overdue and appreciate that they've finally arrived.

      In the book, Foster's story begins in 1971, when he was adopted by a family in Ontario. It follows Foster through high school, when he "took pleasure in provoking his teachers" and began skateboarding the streets of Vancouver. It ends in the alleys of the Downtown Eastside, where Foster has spent so many of his years as an adult.

      Granville Island Publishing

      "Those close to Ken say that in his early twenties he had a growing sense that something wasn’t quite right," the book recounts. "No one knew exactly what to make of it. But art leaves clues. Ken completed a large mural, with some help from [Foster's friend] Bobby, in 1994. The piece garnered the two men some good attention. They were featured in the local paper, where they articulately defended public murals as 'art for all.' The reporter seemed to agree. The headline in the Surrey/North Delta Leader read 'Spray Can Artists Giving Status to Street Art.' Most telling, however, is the title Ken gave the mural. It was called My Malfunction. Today, it is hard not to see in this a sort of cloaked confession, or at least a warning that something was amiss when it came to his mental health."

      Alongside Foster's artwork, Nosek paints a touching portrait, not of a victim, but of a rebel.

      Foster has a mental illness and he might be addicted to drugs. But neither of these traits are why he spends hours in the rain selling paintings for $10 each. In Ken Foster's Vancouver, you see the work of a man who's lived life his way. And the beauty he's found in the darker parts of the city where he's made his home.

      Over the last two decades, Ken Foster's artwork has spread out in pieces with owners across Vancouver. Now, the Gastown resident is publishing a collection in a book.
      Travis Lupick