Kathy Ager is standing up high on a scissor lift, staring intently at the patch of wall in front of her, adding a tattoo detail to the painting of a disembodied marble bust. My first attempts at attracting her attention are in vain, but after a more assertive bellow, she turns and smiles.
“Sorry,” she says, as she brings the mechanical platform down to earth. “About 50 per cent of the people who walk past stop and say something, which is so completely distracting, I tune it all out.”
I can’t blame her: we are on the corner of Manitoba Street and Fifth Avenue and the air is filled by traffic and construction noise. Every which way I look, I can see another artist hard at it, painting the wall of one building or another in readiness for this year’s Vancouver Mural Festival.
“At first I said no,” Ager admits when I ask her how she came to be part of the festival. “I was like, ‘Are you crazy?’ It was terrifying. I’ve never painted a mural before, I was in the middle of preparations for a solo show in Los Angeles… I told them I absolutely didn’t have time.”
But the festival curator didn’t give up, telling her she would have help and persuading her that it would be a great experience. Even then, the project had a bumpy start: Ager was shocked to find she had a little over a week to come up with a concept, then had to go back to the drawing board when the landlord of the building she was assigned didn’t approve it.
“I think it was on account of it being a 40 foot long naked woman with tattoos,” she notes with a sigh. “It was a marble Greek statue seen from behind—there was a bum.”
The final design retains the head of the statue (and its tattoos) placed in a still life that both heavily references classical art and includes a snaking frame of playful, crimson, cartoonish graphics that include hearts, tongues, and ghosts. Ager has titled the piece, “Homecoming.”
“I was living in Europe for nine years.” She explains. “And so it’s kind of about me returning home. The tattoos on the bust represent the stuff about you that you can’t escape, the stuff that just becomes you.
“My dad passed away when I was little, and there’s always been a cloud over everything,” she says. “Vancouver is kind of sad to me, in a physical way—when I see certain buildings and places, it’s a very physical reminder of things. But then I went to Europe and I discovered I have all this emotional memory that I carry with me—everywhere you go, there you are.”
There are references to Vancouver—a basketball and a Grizzlies jacket, a Mac DeMarco album—that, Ager says, she has included in homage to her hometown. “It’s this idea that you can leave and escape yourself, but realizing that you can’t.
“I come home and I am still haunted by the same ghosts.”
Despite her initial reservations, she says working on the mural has been something of a revelation: “I came back to Vancouver a year ago and have been shut up in my studio alone, working. Being out here, I’ve been having the time of my life, meeting so many people, feeling like part of the community. Usually when you make a painting not that many people will see the actual work—and most of my work I make as a message and I want people to see it.
“When I paint, I feel like I’m screaming my feelings,” she explains. “It’s amazing to feel I can just scream them out here in front of everyone.”
Vancouver Mural Festival runs until August 10.
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