“Varley’s Vancouver – Discovering the City’s Artistic Heart in Frederick Varley’s Past” Freed Weed feature column by Dave Olson in Megaphone Magazine, January 27, 2012
“Let’s Get Lost – Exploring Vancouver’s Counter-Culture Landmarks,” Freed Weed feature column by Dave Olson in Megaphone Magazine, June 11, 2010
Originally published in Megaphone Magazine (Vancouver, Canada) on February 9, 2012. Republished here intact for posterity.
When painter Fredrick Horsman Varley arrived in 1926, Vancouver was an industrial outpost where drunken tugboat captains raced across inlets and loggers and longshoremen found money to be made.
Seeking to foster culture, an ambitious league of citizens committed to a project to create an art school and gallery. And, needing a ringer to bring credibility to the newly minted college, they hired Varley, a “bohemian” member of the esteemed Group of Seven as the founding professor of drawing and painting.
Over the following decade, Varley brought a progressive style, rigorous standards and unique teaching techniques that left a permanent mark on Vancouver through generations of students. His time also included scandalous personal liaisons and swings between high-living parties on Jericho and desperate times in his artist’s cottage in Lynn Valley.
The structures where he lived and worked have disappeared like tea steam amidst decades of change. But when wandering his streets and capturing the same views, you can feel the spark in the artist’s eye—arriving in a glorious new place with no predetermined way to be, it’s wide open and ready to define any way you choose.
Raised by a draughtsman in England and trained at the same Antwerp school as van Gogh, Varley was an elusive (some say less productive) member of the Group of Seven, and different by any measure: a portraitist rather than a landscape painter, he experimented with colour and form rather than relying on the subdued palette of his contemporaries.
Having explored the Algonquin wilderness with Tom Thompson and painted in the trenches of WWI battlefields, Varley was ready for most anything, especially if it kept him away from a routine of commercial art.
The painter and his son boarded a train west on a grand adventure, leaving wife Maud to hold a sale to raise money to join them. The pair settled first in the Badminton Hotel on the corner of Howe and Pender in the shadow of Holt Renfrew to be close to the new Vancouver College of Applied Art and Design.
By the time the family arrived, he’d rented a small cottage on then-remote Jericho Beach. There he soaked in the view of the North Shore mountains and inlet, then poured it out on canvas.
He fraternized with students, faculty and artistic-minded folks with late-night frolics drinking wine on a wide veranda and discussing this emerging west coast aesthetic while Varley lithely played classics on the piano.
Varley’s inspirational teaching methods and enthusiasm for perfection brought him a loyal following amongst his students who sought his praise and company. The college gained a reputation based on the excellent faculty, but when the depression brought pay cuts, Varley and Scotsman protegee Jock MacDonald set off on their and created the Vancouver College of Art.
Professors visited from Europe, incorporating interdisciplinary studies from abstract performance art to elaborate puppet shows, and included meditation and eurythmics into the curriculum. The school actively reached out to the Chinese community for artists and students with ads in the community newspapers. It also offered studies on First Nations art and artists.
The school took along the most promising students and recent grads, as faculty including the striking Vera Weatherbie, who’d become more than a muse to Varley. At a studio space rented in what is now a leafy West End neighbourhood, Varley painted a defining Canadian portrait of Vera as a peer, clad in artist’s smock, paint chunky and broad, seafoam greens and languid eyes, and his signature thumbprint in the corner.
On one of his hiking forays, Varley spotted a clapboard house hidden in the forest in Lynn Valley. Intrigued, he tracked down the owner and agreed to rent it for $8/month, including a piano. Meanwhile, he moved Maud and the kids to a house in Kitsilano, trying to keep up appearances of a regular home life while he spent most of his time in the rustic house at the end of the line with Vera.
But the school’s struggles to stay afloat took a toll on Varley, whose artistic output decreased as the tabs at the topshelf cocktail lounge at the Hotel Georgia increased. As the school went bankrupt and the bills mounted, supplies became scarce. Nevertheless, he embarked on a barrage of masterworks, eschewing oils and canvas for watercolours on torn pieces of insulation paper.
Amidst grinding poverty, Varley found his way, placing humans in nature, intertwined, framing the painting with the subject and evoking emotions through colour. Bridge Over Lynn Canyon is part Chinese scroll, part modernist, with an impossible point of view painted from a second storey window from the house. Dhrana finds a metaphysical state of enlightenment depicting Vera gazing skyward leaning against a ranger’s cabin on Rice Lake.
The director of the National Gallery came to visit the reclusive artist, as did Emily Carr. His paintings were exhibited in major shows, but nothing really sold. Paintings were stranded in London because he couldn’t afford to ship them back. The establishment galleries wanted more Stormy Weather, Georgian Bay-style landscapes rather than the odd looking portraits.
Frustrated and broke, Varley left Maud and the kids, Vera and everything (including 18 months past due rent) and headed back to Ontario into a decade long haze of depression and alcohol. He found a patron who encouraged him to resurface, and he played himself in a short National Film Board piece showing his artistic process: an elderly man with a backpack returning from a hike, hitching into town, buying bread and cheese before starting on a new painting, all while a gaunt but powerful figure glowing from the inside hangs on an easel behind him. The film was called Redemption.
As a founding professor at the college which is now named for Emily Carr, Varley’s artistic legacy lives on through generations of Pacific artists who’ve fused European, Asian and Canadian influences. Despite finding middling success with curators, he inspired and instructed legions of admiring painters.
Tracing Varley’s steps amidst the neighbourhoods in Vancouver where he captured his artistic lightning is to experience something of importance from the seminal days of local art. A slice of the story preserved.
Along a trail which bears his name, amongst the same boulders on the banks of his beloved Lynn Creek, you can almost feel the ghost of ol’ Fred—wooden easel, gazing brush in hand up at the peak he called “the dumpling” and coaxing the spirit out of it all and taming the wild onto canvas.
Here’s a piece I’ve wanted to do for some time which published in Megaphone Magazine #55 June 11, 2010. Megaphone is “Vancouver’s Street Paper” and sold by independent roving vendors patrolling the city’s neighbourhoods.
My contribution (which came as a request for a “My Megaphone” 350 word piece and turned into a 950 feature piece) created the theme for the cover with this stellar artwork.
Here’s the article and i’ll add a few links and notes at the bottom for reference. Now, does someone want to make a Google Map of the spots?
Vancouver is always on some “best of” something list extolling luxurious skiing or exotic bistros, but it’s rarely mentioned amongst North American art culture capitals. San Francisco gets credits for its psychedelic pioneers and New York is known for art school punkers, with beat poets traipsing in-between the coasts. Even Montreal is known for jazz, comedy and underage drinking, and Ontario holds claim to the Group of Seven artists.
When it comes to art culture, I’m not talking about big dollar art conversation like “Oh, where shall we move the gallery?” Rather, I’m referring to the creative forces that bubble up from the underground, as evidenced in my wily ’80s adolescence at the York, Commodore and dingy warehouses in what’s now the yuppie enclave of Yaletown. (Of course, the cops were always there to shut the fun down —some things don’t change.)
You have to scratch a little bit to find this Vancouver where explorers found a cheap place to figure themselves out — back before shiny towers and grinning faces of realtors permeated the landscape, back before the teal-hued Expo daze, and even before the immortalized Gastown riots (we didn’t exactly miss out because the ghosts are still out there to inspire your renegade activities).
So put on your boots and get on the bus for a tour of Vancouver’s renegade past:
I traveled several splendid seasons on Grateful Dead tours and never once heard about Jerry and the lads stirring up interest for a show at the Pender Auditorium with free shows at Second and Kits beaches on August 5, 1966 — naturally, each was shut down by the excessively diligent law enforcement. Of course, any decent ‘head will tell you about the legendary free show at Golden Gate Park, which happened a year later with throngs of civic and fan support.
Before breaking in LA, Tommy Chong toiled as a guitar player and promoter at colourfully-named Chinatown clubs: New Delhi Cafe, T-Cabaret, Elegant Parlour and Shanghai Junk — plus brought in future Motown artists to blow the roof off The Blues Palace at the (now sedate) corner of Broadway and Alma. After continual shutdowns (despite re-employing strippers as comediennes), he split town with the only Hispanic kid in town who he’d hired away from carpet laying biz to become the vanguards of Californian stoner culture in the ’70s.
Meanwhile, around the corner, a left-handed whiz-kid named Jimi from Seattle killed the hours while visiting his Granny by wailing on his guitar in a chicken restaurant before heading to England so someone would listen and give a shit about what he was up.
Blocks away in West End cabarets, my great Uncle Lorne entertained town dignitaries and miscreants alike as a lounge singer in a seedy but sophisticated circuit —as a kid oblivious to the violent underworld, I always wondered why he couldn’t bend the knuckles on one hand and covered them with rings.
Further out of town, the founding fathers of creative housing recently arrived from Finland in the 1890s stuck poles in the swampy land which no one wanted near the wild cannery town of Steveston and said, “This is where we live.” Generations lived on in net sheds, boats and ramshackle huts, creating their distinct community until authorities and land-grabbers tried to reclaim Finn Slough. The hardy descendants carry on—partially prisoners of charm and confusion over land claims—far from ideal, but somehow faring better than evicted residents north shore’s intertidal Mud Flats and even the recently thwarted land lease holders of Hollyburn.
Yup, my Vancouver isn’t the city of glass and resto-lounges; it’s stumbling upon the site of the Victoria Argyle Club—run by my ol’ dead Gramps who made sandwiches for pool sharks and olden slackers who never needed a job.
My Vancouver is the motorcycle shop on site of Bumper’s—a short lived all-ages club in Whalley where metal heads sneaking mickeys hung on one side and the grab-bag of punk/goth/new wave kids smoking cloves stayed on the other. No one much ventured to the floor except the seminal night when DOA, The Spores and my friends Abortions on Toast opened the whole world to the 13-year-old version of me.
Up King George a bit by the infamous bus loop was Stardust roller rink (apparently re-opened?) where 6th graders somehow were allowed to stay out all night copping feels and rollerskating circles to REO Speedwagon.
Just across the river where the ALRT used to end, I’d use paper route money to pickup a requisite punk camo jacket from the dingy surplus stores on the waterfront behind the Army and Navy store, the same one where my Mom bought clunky Chinese boots each year for the first day of school.
Now my boots haul me along the trail named for G7 artist (and WW1 battlefield painter) Fredrick Varley, who frolicked in the ‘20s and ’30s between Lynn Valley and Jericho Beach. The fiery Scot finally split town — 18 months behind on rent — after sparking the Vancouver art scene with the first schools and exhibitions in this industrial outpost.
I showed up at school most every day, hung out at libraries and even won the school science fair, before traveling to 20-plus countries learning the secrets of pilgrims and Templars. But never once did I hear about these Vancouver legends and connections. Discounted perhaps? Ignored? Who cares. I know it now.
My Vancouver isn’t the one where it’s often harder to get a beer than Utah, where clubs of hooligans thrive in reckless packs while a low-end live music house can’t get a license. Mine is the same one eagerly celebrated by foreign draft dodgers zipping across the border with Kerouac in their back pocket and even the chain smoking ESL students who pick here for some sense of intrigue and history beyond the glossy brochures.
And now this is your Vancouver too, whether you know it or want it. Get your boots on and find it.
Story by Dave Thorvald Olson
Photo by Kris Krug
Dave Thorvald Olson is a Vancouver-based writer, producer and podcaster. Online, he’s better known as Uncle Weed and can be found at UncleWeed.net.
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