British Columbia

'He has this huge following': Vancouver street artist's work to be featured in upcoming book

Among some circles, Vancouver Ken Foster is a well-respected artist with a signature style. To others, he is the guy who has been hawking his work for a few bucks for more than 20 years.

Ken Foster has been selling his paintings on Vancouver's streets for the past 20 years

Street artist Ken Foster has been selling his paintings on the streets of Vancouver for about 20 years. (Maryse Zeidler/CBC)

A small crowd is gathering around Ken Foster, who is sitting in Vancouver's Blood Alley, splattered in paint, working on one of his signature Vancouver landscapes. 

"I work pretty fast. At my best I'm pretty spastic," Foster says, delivering a steady soliloquy about his process.

"If I spend too much time on things and start to think about it, I tend to ruin them."

Painter Ken Foster's work often depicts Vancouver cityscapes. (Maryse Zeidler/CBC)

Sitting on a small ledge in the alley with a plastic bag of supplies nearby, Foster, 47, is at ease talking about his lifetime making art.

He barely acknowledges the people who walk by professing their admiration for his work. 

In some circles, Foster is a well-respected artist with a unique style and an international following. 

To others, he is known as the guy living in alleys who has been hawking his work on city's streets for more than 20 years. 

"I try not to sell anything for less than $20," he said, adding that he did once sell a painting for $2 to buy a Slurpee.

Foster has struggled over the years, battling addiction and sometimes living on the street. 

Now, Foster has an opportunity to share his paintings with a broader audience. 

Ken Foster has been selling his artwork on the street for 20 years 1:40

He has partnered with Sean Nosek — an admirer who is also a blogger and school administrator — to produce a coffee-table book, Ken Foster's Vancouver, featuring a handful of new works. 

Adding Foster's art to public record

Nosek first met Foster four years ago after actively looking for him. He had heard of a down-and-out artist who created unique paintings and sold them for a pittance. 

"Something about this really caught my fancy and I thought it would be pretty neat to have an encounter," Nosek said. 

Soon, Nosek and Foster began meeting over coffee, often talking about art but sometimes just about growing up in Metro Vancouver in the '80s — Foster grew up in Delta; Nosek in North Vancouver.

Sean Nosek, left, has partnered with Vancouver artist Ken Foster to publish a coffee-table book of Foster's artwork. (Maryse Zeidler/CBC)

Nosek told Foster about his love of writing (he is a former high school literature teacher) and about his blog, Zen for a Crazy World, which has received international attention. 

Foster suggested they collaborate on a project, and Nosek suggested a book; Foster would create the artwork and Nosek would write the narrative. 

"This is a man who produces art every single day, but in some ways it's sort of scattered to the winds," Nosek said. 

Foster says he studied fine art at Kwantlen College for about three years before completing a year at Emily Carr. He says he didn't know what a coffee table book was until he saw one. 

"[Sean] suggested it and I said sure, why not?"

The book will be published by Granville Island Publishers. Funds from a successful Kickstarter campaign will go towards editing, layout, and a small print run. 

'He has this huge following'

Nosek is not the first person to be taken by Foster's combination of artistic ability, charm and underdog narrative. 

Vancouver director Josh Laner spent two years filming Foster to create his documentary, Ken Foster, which recently played at film festivals across Canada.

And Kim Briscoe, owner of Kim's Prints in Gastown and the West End, has been selling Foster's work out of her shop for about 10 years. 

Customers from all over the world collect Foster's signature Vancouver landscapes. 

"We sell Ken nearly every day," Briscoe said. "He has this huge following."

Foster's work sells to Briscoe's customers for anywhere between $50 and $750 per painting.

"Ken's Corner" at Kim Prints in Gastown. The store sells Ken Foster's work to a dedicated following of fans. (Peter Scobie/CBC)

Skater aesthetic grounded in contemporary style

A few blocks east of her shop, Gallery Gachet also owns some of Foster's work as part of its permanent collection.

Foster was most notably part of its Contemporary Outsiders exhibit in 2008.

Alleyways are a common subject for Vancouver artist Ken Foster. (Maryse Zeidler/CBC)

Anthony Meza-Wilson, the gallery's volunteer coordinator, says Foster has a distinctive style.

"He's got a little bit of a skater aesthetic. But it's also very well grounded in a contemporary, representational depiction of life in the neighbourhood," Meza-Wilson said.

Foster will create about 25 new works for his upcoming book. 

Granville Island Publishing says it hopes the first print run to be ready by next fall. 

About the Author

Maryse Zeidler

@MaryseZeidler

Maryse Zeidler is a reporter for CBC News in Vancouver, covering news from across British Columbia. You can reach her at maryse.zeidler@cbc.ca.