In The Making

Walking through Vancouver with legendary public artist Ken Lum makes you see the city with new eyes

Stream the episode now on CBC Gem and go inside the episode with director Chelsea McMullan.

Stream the episode now on CBC Gem and go inside the episode with director Chelsea McMullan

Director Chelsea McMullan, Director of Photography Derek Howard walking with Ken Lum and In the Making host Sean O'Neill in Vancouver. (Eva Brownstein)

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 and 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, episode director Chelsea McMullan takes you inside the episode.

Chelsea McMullan is a Toronto-based filmmaker who makes work that spans both documentary and fiction. McMullan's films have premiered at Sundance, the Toronto International Film Festival, Hot Docs and the True/False Film Festival. Chelsea is currently in production on a feature length film collaboration with Tanya Tagaq and the National Film Board of Canada.

For this season of In the Making, the producers asked Chelsea to direct an episode on one of her biggest art heroes, Ken Lum. CBC Arts talked to her about the experience.

As a Vancouver native, what was your experience of/interest in Ken Lum's work before In the Making?

I grew up in the suburbs and used to take the bus into Vancouver a lot. I remember first seeing Ken's work at the Vancouver Art Gallery and then noticing his larger public art works. My favourite work of Ken's in the city was "Vancouver Especially" — I would always make a point to walk by it. I love miniatures and I grew up in a house very similar to that piece. I never really felt totally at home in Vancouver, even though I spent my whole childhood there, but Ken's work always felt really comforting to me. I really tried to represent that in the episode. That's why we interviewed people about Ken's work and what it means to walk by it everyday.

What was your first instinct when you were assigned the Ken Lum episode?

I was excited! Honestly, being able to spend an extended period of time with one of your favourite artists is the biggest privilege of working on this show. I just wanted to be around him and hear his perspective on pretty much anything — which is sort of what the episode became. Just being with Ken and exploring cities with him is a true delight.

Unlike other artists profiled on the show, so much of Ken's work is huge public art. Was that a challenge in deciding how to shoot the show? How did you solve it?

It was the biggest challenge with this one, I think. Public art is difficult to capture with a camera because you can't really contain the piece and its context within one frame, which is vital in understanding public artworks — they're in conversation with you as you move through a city's streets, and Ken is a master of knowing exactly where to put something that will just tweak you a little, interrupt your passive gaze. My solution was to make the cities of Philly, where Ken lives, and Vancouver, where he's from, into characters in the episode, and for us to be constantly moving through them with Ken. It was a risk to commit to such a high-concept construction, but I knew it was right shortly after we started shooting it. I just wanted to give a glimpse at how cities speak to Ken and how his art responds back.

Was Ken intimidating?

Oh, meeting Ken was all excitement and nerves. He's one of my heroes and meeting someone you deeply admire can be complicated. He's often portrayed as a bit of a mysterious figure; I had an image of this very serious artist and was very intimidated. But I quickly learned that although he has "resting serious artist face," he is so much fun! He has an encyclopedic memory and will pretty much give you the historical, art history, architecture context to pretty anywhere you are. That's just his off-the-cuff small talk. I couldn't get enough.

Once shooting, you discovered that you and Ken have a mutual obsession. Tell us about that. 

Do you mean food or basketball? Probably basketball. What a year to be a Raptors fan! Especially if you can email Ken Lum about every thought that crosses your mind because he's as big a fan, if not bigger. Like anything he has an interest in, he knows everything. And he lives in Philly, remember, where I'm sure nobody wanted to even hear the word Raptors after they took out the Sixers.

Episode director Chelsea McMullan and Ken Lum with one of his Vancouver installations. (Eva Brownstein)

Was there anything left on the cutting room floor that you wish you could have included?

We talked to a number of different people for the episode. We'd question random people on the street near his public artwork. That motif came through nicely in the episode, but there were some other voices in that vein we didn't find space for. I find it really interesting the personal meanings that people connect to the objects that are the backdrop of their lives. It's very revealing, and opens up why public art is just different than the gallery setting. I'm glad we could integrate that idea into our exploration of Ken and his work, but I also feel like you could make an entire half-hour piece that's just curating people's thoughts and responses.

What was your biggest challenge cutting this story down to 22 minutes?

One of the things I personally feel is so distinctive about Ken's work is that the language of the work is very accessible — it's crafted from elements you find familiar, and so you understand its meaning almost immediately. But then if you try to step back and unpack it, it's very complicated. So for a television half hour, I knew there was no way you could achieve a comprehensive profile of his works. Just giving people a taste of how Ken sees the world around him and its relationship to his art felt more doable.

Any regrets? Advice? Final thoughts?

No regrets on this one — it was one of those moments where you feel very lucky to be there and just want to be equal to the task. Ken's interests in cities are all about the tensions between what's acknowledged, celebrated and valued and what's forgotten, rewritten or contradicted. That's something I really felt in my time with him that I'm happy to pass along: nothing around you just happened. There are reasons it is how it is, and not some other way. Ken encourages you to ask, "Why is that?" at every turn.

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).