The Art of Island Living

by Sandy Robson for Tourism Vancouver Island

west eagle salt spring view

Completely surrounded by ocean waters, we Islanders are said to have a little more salt in our blood than most. It seems there might be a little dab of paint running through those veins as well, for Vancouver Island, Victoria and the Gulf Islands have an unusually high concentration of artists. From pastel & ink to oils, watercolour & acrylics a rich tradition of artistic expression has developed that flows through and around our island home.

Since the First Nations’ peoples put their mark upon the land with striking, graphic representations of nature and the creatures (both physical and spiritual) dwelling here, a strong sense of place has permeated the creations of Island artists. This bold approach to art as integral to life and community would be embraced by the generations of Islanders to follow.

With a passion for the vanishing art forms of the First Nations, noted artist Emily Carr was drawn into wild coastal realms where few of her station and fewer still of her gender would venture at the time. Born in 1871, in Victoria, she spent a lifetime capturing the essence of the ancient landscapes and peoples of Vancouver Island and coastal British Columbia. Although given the name Klee Wyck (or “laughing one”) by the Nuu-chah-nulth of Vancouver Island's west coast, much of Carr’s life was a struggle to make ends meet while she painted in isolation. Recognition came later in life and today she is viewed as one of the most important Canadian artists of her generation. Many of her works can be seen at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria and her home (located near Beacon Hill Park at 207 Government Street in Victoria) is a BC Heritage site and open to the public from May to mid-October.

A passion for expressing the west coast experience on paper, canvas and board has been carried forward to a diverse and inspired group of Island artists. This past year we lost two Island treasures with the passing of painter E. J. Hughes (1913-2007) and Myfanwy Pavelic (1916-2007), both recipients of the Order of Canada. Hughes’ highly stylized landscapes (ferries crossing the Georgia Strait, fishing boats in their harbours, old farm houses and the ever-present forests of Douglas fir, Red cedar and our signature Arbutus trees) and Pavelic’s stunning portraits (many of well known figures including conductor Yehudi Menuhin and actress Katharine Hepburn) continued to build Vancouver Island’s reputation for nurturing and sustaining the arts community. That reputation draws artists from around the world today to live and work, sharing their knowledge, skill and vision with future generations.

Galleries such as The Old School House in Qualicum Beach, Comox Valley Art Gallery and the Nanaimo Art Gallery with its sister gallery at Malaspina University-College all feature the works of established and emerging Island artists. Studios can be found throughout the region (like that of landscape artist Gordon Henschel in Port McNeill or Roy Henry Vickers’ Eagle Aerie Gallery in Tofino) featuring the work of a local artist or group.

In the case of Sooke Harbour House, art has spread beyond the gallery into every aspect of the hotel, with an eclectic and ever-evolving mix of works to be found, even in the elevator. As a sponsor of the State of the Art Show & Sale running this year from October 4 to 17, owner Frederique Philip is devoted to artistic expression in all realms and has published The Art of Sooke Harbour House, with a foreword written by acclaimed artist and Salt Spring Island resident, Robert Bateman.

Art lovers visiting Victoria should also consider a stay at Swans Suite Hotel where the personal collection of Michael C. Williams (1930 ~ 2000), comprised of original works from the Pacific Northwest, is displayed throughout the hotel. Colourful, diverse and unconventional, this collection of over 1600 pieces including paintings, sculptures & furniture, has been bequeathed to the University of Victoria, and provides wonderful ambience to the guestrooms, bistro and brew pub. On a recent stay I must admit to a jaw-dropping moment as I turned and came face to face with Myfanwy Pavelic’s Blue Sky… a stunning portrait of former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau.

Known as The Little Town that Did, Chemainus has taken the passion for art one step further and made their entire downtown village an artist’s canvas. When you visit this large outdoor gallery you can follow the yellow footprints for a self-guided tour or travel via horse-drawn carriage or simulated steam train ride to view the 36 murals and 13 statues depicting the town's colourful history, people and future. New works are added every year and the town has a festive, fun & creative air about it.

From the weekend dabbling of Sunday painters to artists in the spotlight of the world stage, Vancouver Island is a place where art & life have formed a vibrant and rich partnership... with its landscape and people providing inspiration for all.

While art is best enjoyed and experienced in person, here are a few websites to inspire you to plan for some art-full Island Time of your own...

Emily Carr
To the Totem Forests
The Art Gallery of Greater Victoria

E.J. Hughes

Myfanwy Pavelic

Michael C. Williams Collection
Swans Hotel

Sooke Harbour House & Gallery
State of the Art Show & Sale

Chemainus Murals
For Thumbnails & artist information

The Old School House Arts Centre
Comox Valley Art Gallery (
Gordon Henschel Gallery
Eagle Aerie Gallery

Some current favourites...
Craig Bauer
Peggy Burosky
Bev Byerly
Lorna Dockstader
Rob Elphinstone
Brian Scott
Linda Skalenda
Cameron Thurbide

Links to a few more Island artists...

Federation of Canadian Artists

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