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VANDU resident artist Kevin Yake attending VANDU’s bi-weekly Art Table.

DTES artists partner with drug users network to create memorial mural

Downtown Eastside residents create memorialization mural that pays tribute to loved ones lost to the opioid epidemic.

By Ollie Nicholas , in City , on March 22, 2022

As drug-related deaths reach a record high in British Columbia, the resident artist at the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users  is inviting the Downtown Eastside community to join him in creating a collaborative mural that memorializes lost loved ones.

In the 12 years that Kevin Yake has been associated with VANDU, he has witnessed what he calls “the deterioration of the neighbourhood” and a growing hopelessness amongst its residents. In light of the report released by the BC Coroners Service in February that revealed a record high 2,224 drug-related deaths in B.C. in 2021, Yake felt compelled to act, offering hope through art.

Over the next two months, residents of the neighbourhood have been invited to join Yake in adding the names and portraits of lost loved ones to a collaborative memorial mural. The mural will be painted on a piece of a four-by-eight-metre piece of plywood so it can be easily moved as part of VANDU’s ongoing protests over drug policy in British Columbia.

“I’ve always wanted to invite in more people to create art,” said Yake. “There are a lot of artists and creative people in this area, but they get caught up in their addiction. We’re going to use the mural as an opportunity to give people a positive outlet and the chance to learn different styles of art.”

Artist Maddy Andrews and VANDU member Mike Geddes begin work on the collaborative mural at the VANDU headquarters in the Downtown Eastside.

VANDU has often used artwork as a means of protest and for giving a voice to drug users in the Downtown Eastside. Yake decided that the next VANDU art piece should be a collaborative one that invites participation from fellow drug users. VANDU has been in operation since 1998, running its organization with the goal of helping people who use illicit drugs to live healthy and productive lives.

Maddy Andrews is leading VANDU’s Art Table, running bi-weekly art sessions for VANDU members.

Yake is working with local artist Maddy Andrews, who is being supported by a $5,000 grant from the City of Vancouver’s 2022 cultural grants. Andrews will lead bi-weekly Art Table sessions at VANDU, from early February to April. During these sessions, VANDU members will have access to art supplies and learn hands-on artistic skills through formal workshops hosted by guest artists and elders.

“The inspiration for this project is the healing potential of creating art,” said Andrews. “Artistic expression is a well-known outlet for processing emotions and grief. This project seeks to provide a safe and versatile opportunity for self-expression in the form of visual arts for drug users and equity-denied groups in the Downtown Eastside.”

Maddy Andrews preparing the plywood that the mural will be painted on in the VANDU headquarters. 

Yake and Andrews believe that the creation of the artwork is also an opportunity to point out that the opioid crisis is worsening, six years after the B.C. government declared the epidemic a state of emergency. The situation has created a feeling of despair for many VANDU members who believe that they are kept out of sight and mind in Vancouver.

“People around here are considered as garbage. If we didn’t memorialize each other, no one would do it,” said VANDU member and mural collaborator Mike Geddes. “Art helps us escape in a positive way, and it also helps to keep people’s legacy alive. It gives us all a chance to be seen.”

VANDU member and Art Table participant Mike Geddes.

Yake and Andrews are unsure of what it will look like when it’s finished, because it will depend on the collaborators. They are not concerned about the final product. For them, it’s more about hope and participation.

The Art Table sessions run on Tuesday and Sunday at the VANDU headquarters in the DTES, giving drug users a regular opportunity to socialize and learn new art skills.

“Simply being present in a space where others are working with creative processes can be a positive experience, and bring down tensions,” said Andrews. “We’re keeping the time and the space open because that’s what people in the Downtown Eastside need.”