‘Staggering, epic, a treasure trove…’

British Columbia Artists
“An extensive visual finding aid to reference information on more than 20,000 artists who worked or are working in British Columbia…”

Vancouver: Gary Sim of Sim Publishing, 2024 (ongoing)

Reviewed by Christina Johnson-Dean


Nomanclature by Gary Sim. Pen and Ink

Staggering, epic, a treasure trove – are words used to describe British Columbia Artists, an extensive digital finding aid to references for B.C. visual artists, started over 25 years ago, when Gary Sim (born in 1951) became intrigued with watercolour artist Maud Rees Sherman (1900-1976) after buying her painting, which he later found out was Mace Point (or Green’s Point on Savary Island). His catalogue of visual artists is an utterly immense undertaking compiling information about artists who have worked here since 1700 C.E.! But that’s not all you will find when you
investigate Sim Publishing .

Sim himself is a prolific artist – mainly drawings, prints, photographs. This spring (March 12 – April 2, 2024) he is showing works from The Adventures of Noman Collection at Vancouver’s West End Community Centre. His website has endless options to view and purchase his work.

Meanwhile,his resume of jobs beyond artist runs from log cabin builder, equipment installer (Canadian Telephone and Supplies), driller, scaler, blaster, rock gang foreman (B.C. Rail Co.), agricultural draftsman and designer (Agrisystems International), draftsman, production manager, contract administrator (Vancouver architectural firms), to architectural technologist (Architectural Institute of B.C.). That’s without the plethora of detail.

Gary Sim is currently displaying work from The Adventures of Noman collection at Vancouver’s West End Community Centre (March 12-April 2, 2024). Photo Gary Sim
Artist Gary Sim is also a retired architectural technologist. Photo Gary Sim

His main labour of love has been British Columbia Artists available online for free, but donations are gladly welcome, especially now that he has somewhat retired. There is no tax receipt, but Sim offers a “rewards programme” of one of his prints. Here you can get a taste of his broad interests, though the natural world of our province is prominent. Of course, there are sea and mountain scenes, wildlife in abundance, but also ships, boats and trains, labourers and their construction equipment. A Candle for Ukraine is a touching reminder that our seemingly safe and comfortable world here in B.C. is fragile and connected to all on this planet.

A Candle for Ukraine by Gary Sim. Hand-tinted relief print (Nov/Dec 2022)

For a writer about B.C. history, especially in the arts, his site can be incredibly useful. I know from personal experience, since I wrote three books for Mother Tongue Publishing’s
Unheralded Artists of B.C. series. As a writer pores through millions of letters, exhibition catalogues, news clippings, bills of sale, interviews, etc. there are hundreds of artists, dealers, reviewers, benefactors, teachers, who are part of the story, and their details might not just spring to mind.

For highlighted entries, there is a brief biography, list of exhibitions, and a bibliography, consisting of a list of references. Under Bibliography are any specific publications about the artist. The real value of this resource, however, is that it is digitally interconnected. Thus, an entry such as an exhibition is cross-referenced to that exhibition’s catalogue, so at a control click, a researcher can go directly to the source (without having to go back to one’s saved files or an internet search or in the old-old days, the file folder with a photocopy)! Thus, it is helpful to not just researchers and writers, but to potential buyers, collectors, and the just plain curious. Though Sim has diligently listed artists found in the multitude of exhibition catalogues over the years, not all artists are given the full treatment – the biographical details, references, etc. But at least you have the name and the when, where and maybe even the what that the artist exhibited.

For instance, the First Nations artist George Clutesi (1905-1988) is included in full, whereas other indigenous artists such as Bill Reid (1920-1998) and Richard Hunt (born 1951) are listed with exhibitions and references, but do not have separate pages with biographical information, though examples of their work are included in the alphabetical index! For more information, one is off to Google and Wikipedia.

I tested out the change since I first used this resource when writing The Life and Art of Ina D.D. Uhthoff in 2011 for Mother Tongue Publishing to the current 2024 version. Though the more current entry on Ina Uhthoff (1889-1971) does not include her Scottish exhibitions prior to her first visit to B.C. in 1913 and subsequent immigration in 1919, it does include the book I wrote under the Biblio which would give the full rundown of how she built her career before coming to Canada. As a visual artist, who started the Victoria School of Art and was a driving force behind the establishment of the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, she was certainly an obvious artist to include in British Columbia Artists from the beginning.

Sim’s database is an ongoing work. Christina Johnson-Dean noted it needs a visual of Ina D. D. Uhthoff. Image from The Life and Art of Ina D.D. Uhthoff (Mother Tongue Publishing)

Artist Mary Filer (1920-2016), known for her drawings and paintings through her early work in Montreal, New York, and London, developed an impressive career in glass art, especially after meeting urban architect and planner Harold Spence-Sales and moving back to Canada in 1969. She was not in the Sim resource in 2011, but in the current rendition of British Columbia Artists. She does merit attention, including the Unheralded Artists of B.C. book of her life and art. Filer’s parents had moved from Winnipeg to Vancouver when she was building her career in the east and the United Kingdom, and thus she kept her B.C. connections, including a solo exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery in 1950. However, it was after her move to Victoria and then in 1977 to Vancouver that her success was clearly established in B.C. Sim had started with B.C.’s earliest artists, and over time added more artists, and with the times broadened. There are no visuals for the Uhthoff page, but there are photographs of Mary Filer’s home with her glass art. Sim was probably fortunate to have visited her; Filer and her husband were known for martinis and partying!

How does someone definitely heralded and well-known such as Emily Carr appear in British Columbia
? Very much as the others – a perfunctory biography and a wealth of references. She also
merits more visuals – a postcard print of her painting Blunden Harbour and now the addition of
a photograph of a bug-proofed Carr ready for sketching at the Nass River.

An early sketch of Jack Shadbolt, listed in British Columbia Artists here

How does a well-known male artist of the period – such as Jack Shadbolt – fare in British Columbia Artists? The usual biographical notes and, with the latest version, more references have of course been added. In the earlier edition, there are no visuals, but in the recent version there are works from 1939’s Savary Pudding (the Summer Sketching Camp on Savary Island) – a Savary Island connection!

As for modern, contemporary artists? Sim features events on his website, and though his work dominates, many contemporary artists are part of the events. He is also on the lookout for new artists to add to B.C. Artists, but the emphasis has been the past. Sim updates, but the immensity of trying to include thousands of contemporary artists in the current index is mind-boggling. Sim has been making great effort to keep up with his entries, but it’s a huge project, especially as we grow in population and in our definition of what qualifies as a visual artist.

Between 1978 and 1987, Gary Sim worked in challenging conditions for BC Rail, which he wrote about in his book Railway Rock Gang. Photo Gary Sim

The site includes lists of Sim’s papers, talks, articles as well as never-ending volunteer work – festival, fairs, exhibitions, administrative jobs for arts and writing groups. He has been a longtime supporter of the Alcuin Society, a non-profit association of lovers of the book arts (typography, type design, calligraphy, paper making, illustration, printing and binding) as well as the history and future of books and libraries. His 2013 hard-cover book, Railway Rock Gang, is a
personal memoir of nine years (1978-1987) working to drill, blast, scale, chainsaw and salvage along the cliffs of the B.C. Rail’s mainline.

Emily Carr, bug-proofed, ready to sketch at the Nass River. Photo of Emily Carr provided by Charles C. Hill (at the National Gallery of Canada, from an Emily Carr sketchbook in their collection)

Sim has given numerous talks – worth a listen on YouTube is his detailed Vancouver Historical Society talk on early artists, art societies, and art schools in Vancouver as well as his personal story. It brings to mind how artists of different ethnic backgrounds, especially of First Nations
heritage, were typically overlooked. What has been considered an artist? The classic, colonial view described the professionally-trained artist working as an artist (and represented by a gallery or subsidized by a patron), a professionally trained artist working as a teacher and painting “on the side,” the partly-trained person working in any kind of employment while painting “on the
side,” and the amateur artist (Sunday Painter) painting for fun or as a hobby. The female gender often fell into the latter category, though quite accomplished. Crafts were certainly a part of early exhibitions (and societies – hence the Island Arts and Crafts Society in early Victoria), but the emphasis was on painting, drawing, and sculpture. Fascinated as many (such as Emily Carr) were with First Nations artistic creations, their endeavours were often not seen in the context of art exhibitions and art schools. Sim also pointed out that people might not recognize a First Nations artist by name nor were specific names attributed to works in the past, hence the intersection with anthropology. For people immigrating from elsewhere, such as Lee Nam, Emily Carr’s artist friend of Chinese heritage, there is brief mention. With the Chinese Exclusion Act and other laws and policies, based on ethnic background and appearance, it’s a wonder some artists managed to continue. When one considers art forms from around the world – tattooing, metalwork, woodworking, textiles, to name just a few – our world is much broader.

Sim’s database is a vast digital resource

Almost 1,000 books and publications have been donated by Sim to the Library and Archives of the National Gallery of Canada, and in 2018 there was a solo exhibition of Gary Sim’s donations, featuring rare and early works dating back more than 100 years. Librarians and historians appreciate his work, and Sim has been nominated several times for the Melva J. Dwyer Award for excellence in reference and research tools in Canadian art and architecture.

Sim is currently focused on research about Maud Rees Sherman, the artist who originally got him started on the B.C. Artists project. He was fortunate to acquire a wealth of diaries, photographs and other Sherman family materials as well as to be in contact with people on the family tree. It has taken him to Savary Island where he was able to identify where her painting was made, but more importantly, it has taken him on a fascinating ride through the intricacies and details of Vancouver’s history and the land and sea of British Columbia – a place in the world he clearly knows and loves.

Mace Point by Maud Rees Sherman. The watercolour that started Gary Sim working on British Columbia Artists back in 1996.


Christina Johnston-Dean

Christina Johnson-Dean graduated from the University of California, Berkeley (B.A. in History with Art minor) and then trained as a teacher.  After three years teaching in public schools, she took her retirement money and traveled around the world, teaching in Thailand and New Zealand, before settling in Victoria.  She completed a M.A. in History in Art and served as a teaching assistant as well as creating local art history courses for Continuing Education.  Since 1987, she has been teaching in the Greater Victoria School District.  Her publications include The Crease Family:  A Record of Settlement and Service in British Columbia (1981), “B.C. Women Artists 1885-1920” in British Columbia Women Artists (Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, 1985) and three titles for Mother Tongue Publishing’s Unheralded Artists of B.C. series:  The Life and Art of Ina D.D. Uhthoff (2012), The Life and Art of Edythe Hembroff-Schleicher (2013), and The Life and Art of Mary Filer (2016).  In addition, she contributed to Love of the Salish Sea Islands with an article about Gambier Island (2019). [Editor’s Note: Christina Johnson-Dean has recently reviewed the work of Robert Amos and Kathryn Bridge.]


The British Columbia Review

Interim Editors, 2023-24: Trevor Marc Hughes (non-fiction), Brett Josef Grubisic (fiction)
Publisher: Richard Mackie

Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board now consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. The British Columbia Review was founded in 2016 by Richard Mackie and Alan Twigg.

“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster

3 comments on “‘Staggering, epic, a treasure trove…’

  1. Thank you Christina and the British Columbia Review for posting this article. The majority of my recent work on BC ARTISTS has been to completely transcribe early exhibition catalogues, specifically those from the Vancouver Art Gallery’s BC Artists exhibitions (done to 1950 so far) and the BC Society of Fine Arts (done to 1958), and link all artwork listed in them to artist biographies. This is the only way artist biographies are created, with just a couple of exceptions (Ira Dilworth and Charles Dudley Gaitskell). Thus, Toni Onley does not yet have a biography file as I have not transcribed an exhibition catalogue that he had work in. If and when I complete the series of Island Arts & Crafts Society exhibitions (the first two are done) then Lee Nam will finally get a biography file too. As Christina notes, it is impossible to list every artist in the Province today, it has been hard enough trying to list every artist from the past! In the meantime I am happy to know that a lot of people are using the project (average 70 visits a day) and finding useful information. As well, many people have contributed to my work, they also deserve thanks.

  2. Kudos to Christine Johnson-Dean for this superb and thorough description of Gary’s Sim’s collection of data on British Columbia Artists. Her clarification of what can be found by navigating through it is very helpful.

    Sim’s catalogue is an invaluable aid to artists, art historians, museums, galleries, collectors and every professional entity working in the field of fine art. Our organization consults his documentation regularly to identify whether an artist is from BC, or even has passed some time in British Columbia creating art. The data he has collected enriches our understanding of the breadth and depth of our cultural past and present.
    Thank you Christine Johnson-Dean, and thank you, Gary Sim.

  3. Dear Christina,
    Thank you for the excellent review/article about the BRITISH COLUMBIA ARTISTS website and for its valuable link; it is a “Staggering, epic” and for an art collector “a treasure trove”!
    Thank you very much.

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