In 1998, the BC-based Expressionist landscape painter, Vern Simpson, was commissioned to execute and install two very large acrylic on canvas paintings for the newly renovated lobby of a major office tower in the heart of Vancouver's business district.
Vern Simpson, Forest Edge (1998), acrylic on canvas, 10 x 7 feet
The work contract included detailed specifications for construction of stretcher frames measuring 12 x 7 feet and 12 x 9 feet using two-by-four kiln-dried fir (cut to profile) with 2 x 2 inch kiln-dried bracing. The painted canvases were to extend around the sides to the back so that the two paintings could be installed without a frame. The subject matter was to be of the BC coastline and of the hillside coast gardens as portrayed by Simpson in his most recent series.
Simpson's first step was to get intimate with the installation space, looking at the viewpoints: the entrance, the staircase and the atrium. The downtown business district site was once covered with giant old-growth cedars and firs, now replaced with towering office blocks and condos. He proposed to incorporate a reference to what had once been, and also what was nearby, namely Stanley Park, the North Shore, and the surrounding islands and mountains.
The physical challenge of size was resolved by choosing acrylic on canvas which could be rolled and easily transported. Simpson built a temporary wall in his Gulf Islands' studio so that the canvas could be attached to the plywood with heavy-duty clips. Two rollers with axles were suspended above with a 13 x 10' foot raw 12 oz. duck canvas attached to each, one behind the other. He sized the canvases, loosely blocked in the colour, and began to paint although he could only see about half of a painting at any given time.
The heavy-duty stretchers were built as specified, then disassembled after numbering each part. A local engineering firm that designed prototype robotic packing machines, fabricated the hangers which when fastened to the granite walls in the lobby, would allow the paintings to rest securely. The final stages of the paintings were completed by a barefoot Simpson, on the floor, using a step-ladder for an overview.
The stretchers, canvases and tools made a huge bundle that fitted in his VW Westphalia. At 5:00 on a Friday afternoon, Simpson, his son, an artist friend, and a couple of other friends unloaded the canvases, tools, and stretcher components in the lobby of the building and then began to assemble the work. The larger of the stretched canvases was the first to be lifted and guided to rest on the waiting hangers. When the second canvas was in place, Simpson handed a level to his son and said, "check it". It was perfect.
In 2008, the lobby underwent further extensive design renovations which unfortunately did not include the rehanging of Simpson's work. The paintings were unceremoniously removed from the walls they had occupied for nine years, and were transported to a storage facility to await a new home.
It is interesting to note that Simpson's paintings replaced a work by Joanna Staniszkis, which had hung in the lobby since the building was originally built in 1984.
Next: The Case of Setsuko Piroche.