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Mudflats House 2, Dollarton 1971
Mudflats House 2, Dollarton 1971

David Wisdom's views of Vancouver Add to ...

When David Wisdom, erstwhile host of the CBC Radio shows Nightlines , Radiosonic , Radio On and Pearls of Wisdom , found himself an ex-employee of the public broadcaster 18 months ago, he looked around for a way to pass his free time.

Consider that this is a man who had previously alphabetized his singles record collection and played 10 tracks a week on Nightlines until he reached the z's - some nine years later - and it's clear that Wisdom does not falter in the face of a big project. Turning his sights on a pile of boxes filled with photographic slides dating from the 1960s to now, he decided it was time to get organized. So, he sat down and systematically scanned and photo-shopped between 9,000 and 10,000 images.

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"I resurrected them," he says. "And in the process I realized that I had something." Something is right - his organizing has now led to a public exhibition and two artist talks (with slides, of course), all at Simon Fraser University.

What he has is a remarkable collection of images of Vancouver, its buildings and its people - many of them long-time friends such as artists Jeff Wall, Ian Wallace and Rodney Graham and sci-fi writer William Gibson. The transparencies may have been gathering dust in recent years, but in the late 1960s and 1970s, Wisdom was an enthusiastic creator of communal slide shows.

"About 30 of us used to gather - often in Jeff's house - and show our pictures," recalls Wisdom. "I don't think Jeff screened any, but I remember some of Ian's slide shows."

With company like that, it's hardly surprising that Wisdom never thought of himself an artist. "I consider artists as people who make money making art," he posits. "I was a radio host for 30 years, and most of my friends have been artists."

So, when he was asked by SFU to mount an exhibition of prints of his slides, Wisdom was slightly taken aback.

"I always thought there were some really good ones," he says, "but they needed someone to contextualize them and say they are good before anyone would notice them. I have seen a lot of photo exhibitions and I do think these stand up."

A deal for an exhibition required he give an artist talk, which made him even more nervous. "I said I would do as many talks as they liked - so long as I could do them as slide shows."

Last Friday, SFU hosted the first slide show to a standing-room-only crowd. It was a visually arresting, endearingly nostalgic, witty affair that charted Vancouver's architecture, fashions and foibles across the decades. Wisdom's self-deprecating commentary was lapped up by an enthusiastic audience that included many friends as well as fans of his radio shows.

"That's my foot," gasped one woman as Wisdom flipped through a selection of slides documenting women's shoes - with legs attached.

"It was my first-ever talk as an artist, and there was a great deal of trepidation" admits Wisdom. "I decided that if I couldn't make it intellectual, at least I'd make it entertaining."

Tomorrow, Wisdom will return to host a second, expanded show at SFU with a spectacular lineup that includes slide shows from a number of his cohorts. Graham will present his favourite album covers (recently shown in the Louvre), animator Marv Newland is bringing his best car pictures and artist Neil Wedman will concentrate on the sidewalks of Vancouver.

Wisdom will screen a clutch of his own compilations, both old and new, set to music: "For one of them, I've taken a track from Bob Dylan's new album," he says. " My Wife's Home Town - which casts it as hell. I've used lots of pictures from my wife's hometown in Western Nebraska."

From the seventies, he has unearthed a presentation entitled Dick/Patti. "It is - in tableau form - a recreation of the downfall of President Richard Nixon and the kidnapping of Patricia Hearst," he says, sounding slightly abashed. "I'm almost having second thoughts about that one."

He plays Nixon, Jeff Wall also stars and William Gibson takes on a number of roles, including the Washington Post's Bob Woodward and Patti Hearst's boyfriend. (Gibson's wife, Deborah, plays the unfortunate heiress.) Patti will be screened with its original Kraftwerk soundtrack; Nixon with a bit of John Adams's opera Nixon in China . "I couldn't remember what I used before," Wisdom admits, with a chuckle.

So, maybe he should start selling tickets and call himself an artist after all?

"Ha!" he says, laughing. "If it works out, perhaps. I've been wondering how I can justify doing all this."

David Wisdom: Vancouver 1970-1975 is on display in the Teck Gallery at SFU's Vancouver campus through Aug. 29. Friday's slide show starts at 7 p.m. in Room 1600, also at SFU Vancouver.

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