Had a bomb not exploded in the lobby of the Pantages Theatre in 1933, and sent the box office grille through the front window of the Vancouver Café across the street, Tom Carter might never have become a painter.
At least not the painter he is today.
The restaurant belonged to his grandfather. And when his dad happened to mention it years later, Carter began his research into Vancouver history—in earnest.
“I really cared about where I come from and what happened before me. I got that from my mother. We used to visit graveyards and look at the graves and make up stories about the people. Ghost towns in BC like Sandon or Phoenix in the Kootenays. She was very attuned to that.”
When Carter was growing up in Surrey, his mum and dad would bring him and his sister downtown to see movies. And because his mum was in an architecture course at UBC, there was a particular interest in buildings: The Strand, The Birks Building, Scott’s Café.
In a sense, Carter sees the ghost town behind present-day Vancouver.
“There’s evidence of the past everywhere you look,” he says. “A brick street that goes nowhere—there was a viaduct there 40 years ago. What’s left of the foundation of a factory where people used to work. You realize there used to be a completely different life. Take the West End. You can see evidence of some of the old stone gates or walls with a 60s building behind it. Or a retaining wall of what used to be a monastery. We walk by them every day, oblivious.”
When he was young, Carter used to read the Encyclopedia and pour over the black and white pictures from the 1940s
“I was obsessed with old movies,” he says. “I was always talking to old people about how it was back then. I almost thought I should be there, in the 1920s and 30s, not here.”
Even though he did not start out as a painter, he seemed to have it in his bones. Both his parents painted. In fact that’s how they courted—on plein air painting trips in the Okanogan. What’s more, Carter’s mother taught school in Surrey and would try out art projects on Tom and his sister at the kitchen table before she tried them out with her pupils.
And his dad taught him how to draw cars with rounded fenders and running boards.
As much as painting was a part of Carter’s DNA, so was music.
“I grew up on jazz and inherited my grandmother’s 78s. She was a flapper and loved to dance.”
So instead of going to university, Carter and a buddy of his started a recording studio. His parents, who had hoped he’d go to college, decided to make him an offer instead of standing in the way. They gave him a loan, some audio courses, and the use of their basement. Tom and his friend paid off the first loan with interest and on time. So Tom’s parents loaned them more money, until the recording studio outgrew the space, and they were ready to go to a bank for a larger loan—a mortgage, in fact, for a warehouse in Surrey, which they also outgrew, added on to … and finally sold.
In the meantime he painted from time to time, but it wasn’t until he realized the lounge in the recording studio needed a large painting, that it occurred to him he might paint it himself. He knew exactly what he wanted, “a bold, expressionist type painting of the Cotton Club.
“I was just going to have to paint this thing,” says Carter. “So I bought a 36 by 36 inch canvas. I took it over to a friend’s place with a bottle of wine. She’d cook food. And we’d paint. She introduced me to gesso. She’d just erase a part of her painting she didn’t like. I didn’t know you could do that. I thought it had to be the way you wanted it to be the first time, which is of course impossible, so I never liked my painting. She just gesso-ed over and redid it, and suddenly I realized it could be fun.
“I took the painting back to the recording studio in Surrey to finish it. I’d wait for everyone to leave, so I could paint. It became my passion.”
Once completed, the painting hung on the wall for about four months. And then somebody bought it.
“It felt right that they should have it, and I felt the affirmation for being paid for it. Suddenly this put me in a different place.”
By then the music business had changed a great deal. “The pressure outweighed the passion,” as he puts it, so he sold the recording studio and bought a loft in a renovated Edwardian building downtown.
“I thought something’s got to change, and I had lots of time on my hands, so I painted like crazy.”
One thing led to another, and Carter sold quite a few paintings—large ones—scenes of Vancouver in the 30s, 40s, and 50s. Many of them commissions. He had a new profession. Carter became the go-to guy for people who wanted historic scenes of Vancouver.
“The problem is you get pigeon-holed and boxed into one thing,” he says. “Then people don’t take you seriously as an artist—fellow painters I mean. And the problem with anything historical is suddenly you’re pushing nostalgia buttons—warm fuzzy paintings of the olden days when everything was nice.”
Which hardly describes Carter’s paintings. They are, more often than not, quite somber.
“I paint the mid-century city because it has that sense of melancholy and isolation,” he says. “I put paintings in a film noir setting because it’s neutral and in the past. On the other hand, it’s not so long ago that we’re disconnected from it.
“Show me the beauty of something real. Like Blues. There’s beauty in the fact that things aren’t easy. Most of us have challenges and most of us have to deal with disappointment. Arthur Erickson said something like: real beauty is never pretty. Pretty is surface, shallow. Real beauty comes with depth and integrity and toughness—tenacity, character, true compassion and empathy. All these qualities are really beautiful—almost never pretty—and they sometimes come from ugliness.”