CD of B.C. artists is a labour of love

Artist Gary Sim recently sent me his new publication, British Columbia Artists. It’s a CD. So I slipped in the CD and clicked on “artists.” I decided to start with Sophie Pemberton, a Victoria woman known as “British Columbia’s first professionally trained artist.” Her biography popped up and I noticed she had exhibited with the Island Arts and Crafts Society. Going to the IACS page, I called up a “list of exhibitors” and was immediately sidetracked by one of my favourites, an old Victoria artist named Thomas Bamford.

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Clicking on Bamford, I learned that in 1890, he exhibited 40 paintings with the Vancouver Art Association. The paintings are all listed by name. In fact, all the artists from the Vancouver Public Library artist files are cross-referenced here. Catalogues, essays, reviews are all transcribed. I skipped from Bamford to Peggy Packard, to Fred Varley, to Emily Sartain, and soon realized I was disappearing down a rabbit hole of information.

You’d have to call this databank a labour of love. Vancouver’s Sim, who created it, at first set out to record everything relevant under the title Art & Artists in Exhibition: Vancouver 1890-1950. As the gathering proceeded, he expanded it and named it British Columbia Artists. Now listing 16,500 artists and including more than 1,300 biographical articles, it is a unique and very valuable compendium of our history.

Sim, who is also a talented wood engraver and artist, included himself in the index. “I include everyone,” he confessed. “There is no ‘high grading’ or ‘cherry-picking’ of noted artists. This is the only way to make a trustworthy source of information.”

He started the project in 1996 when he purchased a painting by Maud Sherman (1900-1976) and went to “look her up.” What little information there was was devilishly hard to find, leading him on a merry chase from the library of the Vancouver Art Gallery to Vancouver City Archives, UBC Special Collections and the Vancouver Public Library. He decided to assemble the various bits of information he found into a work that would be a finding aid and a biographical index for others to use.

He found listings of more than 400 exhibitions in Vancouver before 1950 and has diligently transcribed the names of the artists and titles of exhibited works, which he found in more than 100 catalogues of the time. This led to the inclusion of key reviews and documents, and eventually set him on a course to make interviews, copy artists’ statements and transcribe “occasional papers.” More than 150 arts organizations (many now defunct) are indexed.

While there can never be enough images to satisfy me, Sim has already included more than 200 pictures.

Why would anyone, without institutional resources, undertake such a task?

“I tired of finding [Wylie] Thom’s [unpublished essay] The Fine Arts in Vancouver 1886-1930: An Historical Survey referred to over and over as the only information available on the period,” Sim told me.

So he ferreted out all the original documents, published them online and knitted them all together with 28,000 one-click hyperlinks. This is bound to stimulate a better understanding of how, artistically, we got here.

Naturally, dipping into such a pool of information brings out the fact-checker in me. And while Sim’s work on Vancouver artists seems scrupulous, it makes me itch to get going on the story of Victoria’s early years. He has built a superb superstructure to which all participants will surely want to contribute in years to come. And while the concept of an inventory of artists and exhibitions up to 1950 is complex enough, the notion of the British Columbia Artists project “from 1700 up to the present day” is daunting indeed.

Sim’s definition of a B.C. artist is basically that the artist created artwork “in and of British Columbia.” Lots of scope there. He’s going to need plenty of help just to list the artists from this Island.

The people who need this — auctioneers, art historians, libraries and archives — are slowly becoming aware of Sim’s unique computer-based endeavour. I find it amusing that BC Bookworld’s editor was unwilling to review it because “they only review or include works that are printed on paper.” A paper copy of this CD would fill more than 3,500 pages, but it all fits on one slim disc at a cost of $175, and incremental upgrades are free.

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