CHINATOWN might still seem a little rough around the edges to some, but back in the ’80s, it was a lot rougher. Montreal-based artist Nicholas Vandergugten was born into that scene; he and his brother spent their early childhood folded into what he remembers as a world of “crazy characters”—a “man’s world. Luis [Merino] and Darcy [Gould] and Harry [Shafer], all these big male personalities vying for their place; it’s problematic. I felt there was a lot of competition as well as love and admiration, a lot of big egos mixed with sensitivity.”
Nicholas’ father, Bert Vandergugten, settled there with his wife in the late ’70s, and produced a prolific body of work—yet had a complicated relationship with the exhibition and sale of it. “The Last Picture Show,” an October event in Chinatown showcasing a half-century of prolific output, was Bert’s idea, and he had every intention of being there—in body, not just spirit—“but he wasn’t able to make it,” Nicholas explains. Surrounded by his father’s impressionistic landscapes, figure and still life paintings, and sculptures, he tells me, “It was very important for him to be here, to be present and to say goodbye…but [his death from cancer] didn’t end up being that smooth.”
Bert “didn’t want a celebration of life, or funeral,” Nicholas insists. Yet as I sit with him and talk about his father, many friends and associates come up the rickety wooden stairs to do the same. Memories and anecdotes are swirling around us, and Chinatown’s old guard are recounting their ’80s exploits. When Nicholas entered grade school, the family decided to move to Thetis Lake, where the boys could more safely explore. Bert made his living as a welder and fabricator, not as an artist. (He made the red iron gate in Fan Tan Alley.)
“Being an artist was more of an ideology than simply a profession. [Bert] wouldn’t like the term ‘profession’ as an artist…showing or not showing didn’t affect whether he made work, but he still needed validation,” Nicholas says.
There’s a sizeable volume of work still available for sale, with all proceeds going to the Victoria Youth Clinic art program. Nicholas can be reached via email at email@example.com and you can view Bert Vandergugten’s work at www.bertvandergugten.weebly.com. “It’s all a part of history,” Nicholas offers as he gestures around the room. “Even if you don’t know the man, he was an artist in the ’80s. Chinatown is changing so rapidly. To hold on to something from that time is interesting.”
Mollie Kaye is a multi-faceted mid-century enthusiast who documents her community connection project, “Turned-out Tuesdays,” at theyearofdressup.com.
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