On a mild evening in early September, Ken Foster – his black sweatshirt’s hood framing a gaunt face partly concealed behind a scraggly beard – hovers on the periphery of a Vancouver pub’s patio clutching a medium-sized painting.
The piece – measuring about 36 x 36 inches – is a mix of spray-paint and charcoal pencil, the scrawny artist explains to a backpacker at the patio’s fence. It’s a combination he clearly employs regularly, evidenced by black-stained hands and a generous-palette’s worth of overspray splattered on his baggy brown cords.
Many of the pub’s patrons – some conversing in foreign tongues – ignore him. Others offer a glance and a disinterested shake of the head. None of the body language gets lost in translation: pitcher not picture.
Upon closer inspection, however, the piece – a dark, desolate view of an alley – is skilled and intricate. On the bottom of it, scrawled in charcoal: “K. Foster”.
Drug addicted … schizophrenic … artist. Besides draught beer, to most folks sitting on the patio, that might as well be the order on this night. To the casual observer, Foster’s just a homeless dude trying to hock a painting for cash.
“I’d be happy with 50 bucks,” he says to another about a piece that he claims took three hours to finish. “But I could go lower…”
On the street, things can always go lower.
There are others on scene – a doorman, a banjo-playing hipster-type and a talented freestyle rapper – who approach Foster, say hello, admire the work.
In those circles, he’s a legend, renowned for his talent and prolific output: The 39-year-old Foster paints up to eight pieces a day and has been selling it on these streets for nearly 20 years.
On this night, though, Foster lopes away, the painting still hanging from his hands.
Foster is a hustler: artist, agent and salesman rolled into one. Publicity doesn’t pay the bills; paintings do.
His canvas? Anything he can get his hands on: Styrofoam, discarded wood and plastic pillaged from furniture store dumpsters, dirty alleys, rundown streets.
Geographically, it’s not far from Emily Carr University of Art + Design on Granville Island to the Roosevelt Hotel, one door west of Carnegie Library at the corner of Vancouver’s infamous intersection at Hastings and Main streets. Foster, who grew up in North Delta, attended the school for almost a year, mostly to socialize. “Looking back, I probably could have gotten more out of it,” he says.
“You looking for rock, buddy?” It’s the last question posed to me on the rainy street before getting buzzed through two locked doors into the hotel. Visitors must sign in so the night manager escorts me up to his second-floor office, where he takes my licence and records its particulars. A computer monitor displays black-and-white images of the street below and, on the counter, within easy reach of the doorway, two open boxes of unused hypodermic needles.
“I’d be wary of going in Ken’s room,” the manager says. “Bugs … But don’t tell him I said that.”
No matter. Foster offers the same warning as he points to his room’s paint- and charcoal-stained door. “You can go inside of you want, though,” he adds.
Getting inside is the problem. The stench of urine mauls the nostrils as the door opens to a shin-deep sea of scrap: disused painting supplies, cardboard boxes, discarded paintings, signs, clothing, stained pillows and garbage make navigating the tiny room perilous. A cockroach rambles across the wall. “You should see them run when you turn the light on,” he says, laughing.
Outside in the hallway, Foster sits on the stairs eating mashed potatoes out of a Styrofoam bowl. He doesn’t know how to use a computer and seems surprised to hear that he has almost 500 fans on a Facebook page dedicated to his work. “I don’t even know what that means,” he says, between bites.
One of his admirers, music producer Brian “Stroker” Deluca, met Foster on the street while running a studio in Gastown and owns 17 of his pieces. “Very creative, insightful,” DeLuca says of Foster’s work. “There’s a lot of stuff going on, but what I like best about it, is that it’s not always entirely polished stuff.
“He tends to do it on scrap pieces, whatever he can find, and sometimes a lot of the pieces are really rough around the edges, and that I think would be a reflection of where he’s at. Sometimes he’ll be at the top of his game, feeling good, and he’ll have some real sharp looking pieces. But other times, you can tell he’s at his wit’s end and things aren’t going so well … but a lot of emotion comes through on those particular pieces.
“Every piece tells a different story … Every time I buy one I wonder if it’s the last time I’m going to see the guy.”
“I don’t realize that when I’m painting them,” Foster says about his darker work. “But when I look at them later I see things that make me realize I wasn’t in a good place.”
Foster describes his style as hip-hop tossed into a dumpster with the good parts blown out the back of it. “Graffiti mixed with [H.R.] Giger and elements of [M.C.] Escher,” he adds casually.
Foster’s friend Matt Reader boasts that he can make $200 a day selling it. “I don’t know any artists who make that,” he says. Looking at Foster’s frail frame and squalid surroundings, it’s obvious where most of that money goes.
“Drugs have been a companion the whole time I’ve been on the street,” he explains. “It’s me and my drugs. That’s my social structure. It’s how I reward myself and how I space time.”
A commission is agreed, the sole stipulation being that it be something on the street.
Two days later, Foster – who’s hacked at his beard and now features a braided-like mohawk – shows up in a Chinatown alley with the finished piece. Using ink from a pad and his fingernail, he’s created a phenomenally detailed alleyway on the backside of a foam-core for-lease sign. In the shadowy foreground, on the right, a lone figure smokes against a wall. The alley itself is a forbidding tunnel; but the far end of the vortex yields to the brightest part of the work. A gleam of hope, perhaps?
“I have a lot of amazing ideas and I know a lot of people would appreciate them,” Foster says. “I’d like to have my own studio and a place where I can do shows.”
Finding that won’t be easy: “There’s not an hour in the day that I’m not working,” he says. “I’m always stashing things, trying to get business. I still got to walk around for hours to try and get things sold. I guarantee that no one is this city has worked harder than me today.
“My feet are bleeding.”
He hands over the piece, pockets the price and shuffles away. For now, anyway, he’s heading back towards the Downtown Eastside.
Story by Graeme McRanor originally published in the Vancouver Sun on October 12, 2010