Neon lights lure painter

Jeff Wilson is photographed with his paintings of the Astoria Hotel, Save on Meats and The Only Seafoods neon signs in Vancouver. - COURTESY OF PMAC
Jeff Wilson is photographed with his paintings of the Astoria Hotel, Save on Meats and The Only Seafoods neon signs in Vancouver.
— image credit: COURTESY OF PMAC

Scottish-born Jeff Wilson opens a new exhibition on Thursday at the Port Moody Arts Centre, with acrylic paintings showcasing Vancouver’s mid-century neon lights. The Tri-City News caught up with Wilson about his show, which closes on July 10 with an artist’s talk.


Why neon?

“I think because the neon signs are some of the icons in the downtown eastside. I’ve lived here for 10 years and they’re some of the most distinctive landscape elements in the neighbourhood. They’re bright. They’re cheery. And they’re an enduring part of the local landscape here. They’re something very unique to Vancouver. There are not many places in the world that have as much neon as Vancouver had and they are certainly remenants of that time.”

Have you been to other cities around world — Tokyo, New York City — where there is a proliferation of neon?

“I’ve been to Tokyo and various other places. The nature of these is that they’re all mid-century. Vancouver had a golden age from the post-war to the 1960s where there was a great tradition of design as well as neon production, which endured until the signage laws came in the ‘60s. Because I live in the downtown eastside, I’ve lived beside these signs for 10 years and they cheer me up and the local folks here.”

Why do you live in the DTES?

“Gastown and the downtown eastside is where the history of Vancouver began. Vancouver is the terminus of the Canadian Pacific Rail and that finishes at the end of our street.”

And Port Moody, where you will be exhibiting, was to be the terminus.

“That was the intention until [CPR president] William Cornelius Van Horne did a secret deal with the Granville township.”

For your paintings, did you work off old photos?

“All of these signs are still around so l took photographs around town and worked off them.”

What’s the oldest sign you captured?

“It could be the Ovaltine [Cafe]. That was 1948. It is certainly the best preserved out of all of them.”

Do you believe there should be more neon today?

“Oh, certainly. There’s something particularly beautiful about the reflection of the neon signs in the sidewalks and streets on a rainy day. And especially at night, too. I understand the city’s trying to promote folks to produce signs nowadays but they are expensive and we don’t have the design companies that were around to do that anymore.”

What do you hope people will get out of the show?

“At the end of the day, it’s pictures of familiar things that people like to look at. The fact that they are local and colourful and bright adds to that.”

• The opening reception is June 19 from 6 to 8 p.m. at PMAC (2425 St. John’s St., Port Moody). Jeff Wilson will be in attendance. Also, Lynne Fahnestalk’s exhibition A Rivet of Robots has been held over until July 10. New works are being added and the artist will be at the opening reception. Call 604-931-2008 or visit pomoarts.ca.





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