Art work for dental work: This Vancouver dentist has traded his services for 25 years

His collection features some of the city's most notable artists. See it at Griffin Art Projects this fall.

His collection features some of the city's most notable artists. See it at Griffin Art Projects this fall

That's not a 24-hour news channel. At left, a video work by artist Adad Hannah (Boy Sitting on a Tire) plays in the Vancouver office of Dr. Zenon Trylowsky. A piece by Graham Gilmore (I Barely Touched You) hangs at right. (Courtesy of Trapp Projects)

Curator Patrik Andersson is days away from opening a new exhibition at Griffin Art Projects in North Vancouver. The show will ultimately gather at least 100 works, with most representing a who's who of the established local art scene. They're all very different artists, making very different types of work, he notes. "But they all go to the same dentist."

That dentist would be Dr. Zenon Trylowsky. A long-time friend of Andersson's, he's run a practice since 1996, operating out of the Vancouver Block on Granville Street. "It's an iconic building, but if people knew what was going on inside..." Andersson muses, trailing off. Because for as long as Trylowsky's been practicing dentistry — longer, really — he's also been cultivating an art collection. And though he certainly acquires things through traditional means, he accrued much of the collection by trading with his patients: offering dental work in exchange for art work.

"It's a great way of: a) helping some people that need a little assistance, and b) you know, adding to the collection," says Trylowsky. And though the dentist doesn't disclose the particulars of how a transaction plays out, he's engaged in this form of pro-bono exchange for the last 25 years. It was an idea he borrowed from another dentist, he explains — the man who owned the practice before him. When they met, Trylowsky was impressed by the senior dentist's art collection. Unlike typical waiting rooms, decorated with uninspired landscapes — maybe a magic-eye print of a catamaran, if you're fancy — this dentist had a taste for contemporary art. Trylowsky was inspired. Why not surround himself, and his patients, with what he loved?

And since starting his business, he's decorated his office just so. By and large, the artists he collects are patients past and present. But these aren't hobbyists. "I don't think he just buys or collects art from any artist that shows up and has a sore tooth," says Andersson. "These are strong pieces by strong artists." And though Trylowsky is reluctant to pick favourites, he remarks on his fondness for works by Vikky Alexander, Ron Terada and Rodney Graham. One item by Kelly Wood — an image of a shiny, hard-candy sucker — loomed in the waiting room for ages, and as dentist humour goes, it's a pretty sweet joke. "It was just to, you know, remind people why they're in a dental office," he says. "A subtle hint!"

Kelly Wood. Sucker, 1996. Transmounted C-Print. (Courtesy of Trapp Projects)

On Sept. 25, the public will be able to view that work and several dozen more without booking a cleaning. Griffin Art Projects will host Teeth, Loan and Trust Company, Consolidated: The Trylowsky Collection through Dec. 11, while over at the dentist's actual office, a smaller exhibition will be underway. Featuring work by Kim Kennedy Austin, Ryan Quast and Neil Wedman, the office event is for patients only, unfortunately. But Andersson's curating that bonus exhibition as a nod to a project from his and Trylowsky's past — something that arguably kickstarted the dentist's collection.

In 1997, Trylowsky was just one year into his practice and Andersson was a fledgling art curator with nowhere to curate. But he had an idea, which he pitched his old pal. "Zenon really needed clients," says Andersson, so he suggested turning the office into an exhibition space. He'd get a gallery, and the foot traffic might land Trylowsky some clients. "That was kind of my hook for getting him to let me do shows there," says Andersson. "We thought it was pretty funny, and then as it turned out, it's sort of what happened." 

For a decade, Andersson curated art shows for "The Trylowsky Gallery." In any other context, their pop-up was just a room across the hall from the main practice — a space where Trylowsky would toil away at his paperwork. (And it's where he still does, in fact.) But the duo benefited from a plum location. The office is around the corner from the Vancouver Art Gallery, and they'd lure the museum crowd by throwing their events at the same time as the VAG's opening night parties. But by 2007, the dentist's days as a guerilla gallerist came to an end. Andersson's curatorial platform (Trapp Projects) had outgrown the makeshift space, but Trylowsky's interest in contemporary art persisted.

Rodney Graham. Artist Bar, 1950s, 2016. C-print. (Courtesy of Rodney Graham)

He'd met countless artists, many through Andersson's circles. Oftentimes, those introductions were strictly dental referrals, and recently, Andersson's been thinking about that fact a lot. It comes to mind whenever he discovers a long-lost piece in the Trylowsky Collection — specifically art by colleagues plagued with tooth trouble. Back then, he'd tell them to "go see Zenon." And apparently they followed his advice; the proof, seemingly, is in the collection. 

But Andersson's discovered something more revelatory while developing the show. The Trylowsky Collection is, on one level, the record of a relationship between a dentist and his unusually notable patients — but it's also a story about Vancouver art over the last 25 years, he says. "I think for a lot of the artists in the show, it will be a nice kind of retrospective," says Andersson. Beyond the folks who keep regular six-month check-ups with Trylowsky, not many people have seen these works. But Andersson says they "remind one of little moments and events in the history of this place. It's a very local collection with the exception of one or two artists."

Earlier this week, every item in the collection was handed over to Andersson, and for the first time in forever, Trylwosky's walls are bare: no art at home, no art in the office. It's a thrilling moment, he says — knowing that he's about to share his collection with the public. But perhaps it's also a strange one. Before Andersson approached him with the idea of doing the exhibition, he didn't feel like a true collector, he says. "Because you're just sort of surrounded by it, you kind of think of it as a normal thing," he says. To enjoy art, support art — there's nothing more natural. Says Trylowsky: "You realize that it's a big part of day-to-day life, in a way."

Neil Wedman. Laughing Gas, 1998. Oil on linen. (Courtesy of Trapp Projects)

Teeth, Loan and Trust Company, Consolidated: The Trylowsky Collection. Featuring John Anderson, Vikky Alexander, Jerry Allen, Lotta Antonsson, Roy Arden, Kim Kennedy Austin, Tim Barber, Tom Burrows, Neil Campbell, Lincoln Clarkes, Christos Dikeakos, Jamie Dolinko, Marcel Dzama, Mark Gilbert, Graham Gilmore, Rodney Graham, Adad Hannah, Cameron Kerr, Robert Kleyn, David Korty, Tim Lee, Robert Linsley, Attila Richard Lucacs, Kelly Lycan, Jason McLean, Al McWilliams, Mathew McWilliams, Myfanwy McLeod, Eric Metcalfe, Julie Morstad, Shannon Oksanen, Heather Passmore, Isabelle Pauwels, Ryan Quast, Tony Romano, Derek Root, Peter Schuyff, Alex Tedlie-Stursberg, Ron Terada, Mia Thompsett, T&T (Tony Romano & Tyler Brett), Holly Ward, Neil Wedman, Brian White and Kelly Wood. Sept. 25 to Dec. 11. Griffin Art Projects, North Vancouver.


Leah Collins

Senior Writer

Since 2015, Leah Collins has been senior writer at CBC Arts, covering Canadian visual art and digital culture in addition to producing CBC Arts’ weekly newsletter (Hi, Art!), which was nominated for a Digital Publishing Award in 2021. A graduate of Toronto Metropolitan University's journalism school (formerly Ryerson), Leah covered music and celebrity for Postmedia before arriving at CBC.

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