Tiko Kerr's new exhibit 'The Past is Personal' reveals private works

Vancouver artist Tiko Kerr shares works from his personal collection in 30-year retrospective of his work.

New exhibit traces Kerr's journey from aspiring doctor to HIV/AIDS advocate and celebrated painter

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      Vancouver artist Tiko Kerr is known for his dynamic, colour-saturated depictions of Vancouver, and for his HIV/AIDS advocacy work.

      His latest exhibit traces his 30-year journey as an artist by sharing works he's chosen to retain for himself...until now.

      "With every kind of new body of work I've created, I've always held back something for myself," says Kerr.

      "This is my opportunity to showcase the work I really valued of my own."

      'Six years of magical living'

      Throughout his career, Kerr has drawn on on his personal experiences for inspiration, beginning with a life-changing trip to Bali.

      The aspiring doctor head to Bali for what was supposed to be just a few months, and turned into what Kerr calls "six years of magical living."

      There, Kerr was deeply inspired to create art, eventually abandoning his plans to become a doctor to pursue a career as a painter.

      'The Past is Present' showcases work from Tiko Kerr's long career, including this 1980 self-portrait. It depicts a young Kerr reflected in the rearview mirror of his Balinese motorbike, where he was first inspired to trade plans to be a doctor for a life as a painter. (Tiko Kerr)

      The earliest work in the show is a 1980 self-portrait that depicts a young Kerr reflected in the rear-view mirror of his Balinese motorbike.

      "It's a picture of me looking back at me and looking forward to the dotted line of the road leading into the future," says Kerr. "It was really the beginning of me discovering the true me."

      A unique vision

      Kerr, who grew up on the Prairies, moved to Vancouver in the mid-1980s. He was immediately captured by the beauty of his adopted city, and began to capture it through his paintings.

      Kerr often painted dynamic, colour-saturated pictures of scenes in his adopted home of Vancouver. His distinctive style evolved from his deep of appreciation of the changing light, but also from his struggles with astigmatism. (Tiko Kerr)

      He began to develop what he describes as his distinctive "wobbly" style by embracing the changing light of the city — and his changing vision.

      "When the sun comes out in Vancouver, the place is transformed. The quality of colour and light is magnificent," enthuses Kerr while reflecting on a 1995 painting of the Burrard Bridge at dusk.

      It was during this period that Kerr began to embrace the astigmatism he had experienced for years.

      "I just started to incorporate that wobbliness into my work, trying to reveal the spirit that I believe exists in all inanimate things."

      Kerr's vision continues to evolve, which he takes in stride.

      "I play games with myself. I cover one eye and see how distorted it all is," remarks the painter.

      "Unfortunately I'm losing colour in one eye as well, so I've got black and white and falling off in one eye, and really heightened clear vision in the other, and it's really fun."

      'The Lazarus Tree' and a rebirth

      Other works in the show reflect his love of rowing, which he pursues in Vancouver Coal Harbour in the early hours of the day.

      "It's retrospective experience. you have your back to the future, but you're going forward looking at your past," muses Kerr.

      It was while rowing that Kerr was inspired to create The Lazurus Tree in 2008.

      The series depicted the transformation of beautiful catalpa tree that once stood next to the Vancouver Rowing Club, but was uprooted by the 2006 windstorms in Stanley Park.

      A study of the pre-storm tree is part of the exhibition.

      'The Lazurus Tree Study' was painted in 2008, as part of an exhibit inspired by an iconic tree that was uprooted in 2006, but ultimately found new life. It parallels Kerr's own health struggle and triumph after successfully lobbying the federal government in 2007 to give HIV/AIDs patients access to new medication. (Tiko Kerr)

      Kerr says the tree was marker for him, and he felt the loss deeply. But eventually, the fallen tree was cleaned up and found new life as a setting for photos and playground for kids.

      "I call it TheLazarus Tree because it has a new life now," says Kerr, who fought for his own survival in 2005, when he became resistant to the HIV medications he'd been taking since his diagnosis in the mid-1980s.

      Kerr became part of a small but vocal lobby group that eventually convinced the federal government to give them access to medication that was not yet approved by Health Canada.

      Kerr's health was transformed — just was his Lazarus tree was.

      "It was the same sort of experience I celebrate by getting my life back and moving forward," says Kerr.

      Looking back while moving forward

      In addition to showcasing early works, "The Past is Present" also gives a glimpse of Kerr's newest direction.

      The abstract, figurative 'Harlequin' from 2014, points to a new artistic direction for Kerr. (Tiko Kerr)

      A piece entitled Harlequin portrays a more abstract, figurative form.

      "It's been a really fun opportunity for me to begin working more intuitively and playfully, and falling forward to a new vocabulary," says Kerr.

      As for what it's like to part with the works he's says he's "hoarded" in his studio and home, Kerr laughs and says, "I've lived with these paintings long enough. They should have a life of their own."

      "The Past is Present" opened May 28 at David Robinson Studio, 440-1000 Parker in Vancouver. Kerr presents an artist talk at that location on May 30 at 2 pm PT.

      To hear Tiko Kerr listen to the audio labelled: The Past is Personal: Artist Tiko Kerr reflects on long career in new show.