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Artist leaves us powerful print legacy
He loved the Irish—including his wife—could hold his Guinness, perform admirably as a kids’ soccer coach and roar with unparalleled enthusiasm for a good live band.
Yet if there’s one thing Doug Biden, the man behind the colourful print collection featured in the Kelowna Art Gallery this month, really knew how to do, it was inspire this kind of passion in others.
“He was one of those kinds of profs who students wanted to come and give mixed tapes to, back when they gave mixed tapes,” said Robert Belton, a UBC Okanagan fine arts professor.
In his near decade-long career at what was then Okanagan University College, Biden was known more for his zeal for life, his spontaneous floor hockey games in the school corridor after hours, than the sum of his artistic career.
“I just think that people thought he was a lovable kind of character—but one who had chops,” said Belton.
Even his good friends were, therefore, shocked when the exhibit, curated by his friend Darrin Martens of the Burnaby Art Gallery, revealed the extent of his work.
“They were astounded at just how much he produced. You go into that show and you realize that this guy had such a wide range of skills and he just produced this…sensuous, tasty, experience,” Belton said.
Bright, political and at times a bit shocking, UBCO sculpture professor Byron Johnston describes the show—Doug Biden: Visceral Allegories —as “concerned about the world and the healthiness of it.”
There are images of Bobby Kennedy, of football players with millions, soldiers heading to war, and men hanged from the gallows.
For the many Okanaganites whom Biden touched as a teacher, colleague and friend, however, one stunning theme grips with nearly the same voracity as the images he built.
The over-arching obsession of Biden’s work has to do with the body, its internal organs and the systems which make us all tick.
As the artist passed away in 2007 after a heroic, though incredibly cruel battle with pancreatic cancer, it is tempting to chalk this fixation up to an internal struggle with the disease.
His wife, Ingrid Abbott, said Biden did not believe this was ever the case.
Years before he got sick, he watched his mother wage a long battle with cancer; his father had also died of an illness.
The obsession with the body stems from those life stories, she said, noting she once asked him if he felt there was a premonition in his work.
“He emphatically said he had no idea (he was sick),” said Abbott, admitting it did nevertheless foreshadow the last two years of their life together.
Diagnosed on Easter weekend 2005, while his family was away visiting the coast, Biden was initially given only palliative options by Kelowna’s medical community.
He opted to take his chances with the pancreatic clinic in Vancouver.
“We were not just going to take three to six months,” she said.
Biden was 48-years-old when he fell ill, he had just run the Campus-to-Campus Half Marathon, as a member of a fine arts relay team, and had two young children, Hilary and Nicholas Biden, who attended Okanagan Mission Secondary.
The treatment was difficult, experimental and required chemotherapy, radiation and major surgery; but when it was over, incredibly, he was deemed cancer free.
“I said to Doug, ‘Well, you’ve got your life back, what do you want to do? Do you want to go live in an Ashram in India? Do you want to travel the world?’ And he said, ‘I want my life in Kelowna back,’” said Abbott.
“He didn’t need an epiphany to know he was really happy.”
Biden worked hard for his teaching post at OUC.
For six years he worked in Kelowna while his family lived on the Sunshine Coast, in an oceanside home he commuted back to as often as he could.
He had taught at the Emily Carr University of Art and Design and Capilano College, but when the printmaking position became available in the Okanagan, the family made huge sacrifices to ensure he could work.
“He lived the bohemian lifestyle while he was teaching, working until four o’clock in the morning,” said Abbott.
“Then he could spend time with the family when he was home,”
The results are self-evident. Visceral Allegories captures only a selection of a much larger collection, but still manages to touch on everything from 9/11, to women’s rights, the impact of media on social thinking, religion and the holocaust.
There is even a commentary on pornography dubbed Eve Does Adam, Rick and Terry: The Vagaries of Sex and Love, which features his children looking at a fuzzy, yet obviously crude pornographic image.
The bulk of the show was created on the KLO campus of OUC in its printmaking studio.
If you ask one of his students what he was like, they’ll tell you simply: he was fun.
“He was really interested in what he was doing,” said Arlin Ffrench, a tattoo artist who now lives in Vancouver.
“He was really into printmaking and really into making art and had a really fun attitude.”
A very spiritual person, Johnston remembers his last words to him were that he would be sending him messages.
Johnston curated a Biden show for the Penticton gallery last year and the main boardroom of the university’s provost is decorated exclusively with Biden prints.
It has taken three years for this show to wind its way to Kelowna and Biden himself helped select some of the work before his death.
“It is so incredibly special that it is in Kelowna and that it is in a big gallery,” Abbott said.