In The Making

'Art does not find many of us easily': On Ken Lum, a role model for a generation of unlikely artists

The Vancouver-born artist means a great deal for those who didn't come from the "right families," go to the "right schools" or grow up in the "right places."

The Vancouver-born artist means a great deal for those not from the 'right families' or the 'right places'

Ken Lum in Vancouver (White Pine Pictures)

Since the 1970s, Ken Lum has produced iconic artworks that speak to the complexities of class, race, labour and language, always framed by his mordant sense of humour. A prolific writer, teacher and artist, Ken is best known for his public artworks as well as his thinking about monuments. On Lum's episode of In the Making — streaming now on CBC Gem — host Sean O'Neill meets him for a walk through Philadelphia where he currently lives, then their city walk continues through Vancouver, Ken's hometown, where the majority of his works are located. Below, writer and curator Kim Nguyen writes an essay for CBC Arts on why Ken Lum matters so much to her and those who were not born into an easy path toward being an artist.

Art does not find many of us easily.

Especially for those who did not come from the right families or go to the right schools, or were not born in the right places or raised by the right kind of parents — you know, the kind with the best kinds of access and the best connections. Some of us grew up with the wrong kind of texture to our lives.

My peers and I have spoken at length about our absence of mentors, whether the result of following anti-authoritarian types down rabbit holes or the exhausting and dispiriting effects of white supremacy that fostered irrational competitiveness, false singularity and eventual collapse of the colleagues that came before. Without guidance, coming upon art was — depending on who you ask — serendipitous but more likely accidental. We had to seek art out, if not force ourselves in. No one was rolling out red carpets, nurturing our natural talents or setting aside swaths of money. Art did not look like us and it wasn't looking for us.

It was impossible to see ourselves in the paintings of snow-capped mountains and stretches of "untouched" land, in the austere Europeanness of photoconceptualism, in the incessant regurgitations of modernism. It was a form of alienation that became routine and expected. That is, until we learned of Ken Lum.

To encounter Ken's work for the first time is to find a family and lose a home. It is always two things at once. It demands entry as much as it refuses. It is to feel seen, remembered, and still strange and out of place. It conjures what we have repressed and what we have forgotten, of who we are and who we were. It is feeling right and getting right with the melancholic loneliness that is existing in this universe. The wrong kind of texture lies not below the surface but lingers above all of the work, if not the very fabric of its making.

Ken's work granted us permission in ways that are difficult to articulate. There was a messiness, both in personality and form, that he embraced, and he was unafraid to depict his subjects as deeply human. We are, as he reminds us, never just one thing, and we are never exempt — sharing insecurities with a subject does not free us from judgment, and surpassing a social or economic class does not remove its effects. We just are. The complexity of our lives can be what drives art, what beckons it to our door, but also what keeps it outside.

Ken Lum with a new public artwork made for Burnaby B.C. — a sculpture of a retired workhorse that will sit at a major intersection as a sentinel of both the past and the marginal. (White Pine Pictures)

Mentorship can occur in unusual ways, and our numerous lessons from Ken have come through direct and indirect means — from asking the very simple question of, "Who are you?" to his succinct ability to express deference and dissent in a solitary response, or by revealing to us that even with profound recognition of who we are, we can still ask ourselves, "What is this world and why are we in it?"

Of most significance, though, is that he taught us that our terms of engagement require us to know everything about you in addition to everything about ourselves. To know you is to be cognizant of our difference from you, and to develop a vernacular separate from and not for you. And to know ourselves means to be contradictory, honest and completely incongruous with this world.

In the Making takes you on an immersive journey inside the lives and work of Canada's leading artists. Stream the whole season now on CBC Gem, or watch it on CBC-TV Friday nights at 8:30 p.m. (9 p.m. NT).