Ken Kirkby: Painter. Raconteur. Fly fisher. Environmentalist. Born Sept. 1, 1940, in London, during an air raid; died June 20, 2023, of cancer in Nanoose Bay, Vancouver Island; aged 82.
I stopped to buy newspapers on the way to Ken’s. That was his only request. He wanted to know what the world was up to, even as he was leaving it. He smiled and put the Times Colonist and The Globe and Mail aside, not trying to stand, he was too weak for that, and apologizing for still being in his bathrobe, late in the afternoon. He managed, however, to tell some tall tales featuring himself. He always had time for that.
The last time I’d seen Ken Kirkby full of life he was standing on the porch of the small cabin he liked to rent on a B.C. trout lake. It was dawn and he was in his bathrobe, the same one, a coffee balanced on the railing, a small, faint blue cloud of smoke escaping him as he had his first cigarette of the day. He raised one hand, a salute, then swept his arm out toward the lake, still and shining, with trout rising, as if to say, this is all ours. He never rushed to go fishing. He waited until the conditions were just right, and he liked to guide his wife, artist Nana Cook and sometimes his son Michael Kirkby, whom he had with his first wife, Helen Michalchuk.
In his visits with Michael as a boy, he tried to make up for his absences by teaching him important life lessons: like how to wield a shotgun, pluck a grouse and cast a fly with the delicacy of a brush stroke. He also delighted in taking him for his first cheeseburger, knowing that his ex would not approve of fast food.
The fish would go home to his smoker. On a cold winter’s day, he would pull out a trout and eat it, drinking from a bottle of homemade red wine, and he and Nana would talk about the day they’d caught that big fish, on the same lake where they were married in June, 2017, standing knee deep, with the wedding officiant gamely wading in with them. They had a glass of champagne after the ceremony and then went fishing, staying out until darkness fell on that long, perfect evening.
Ken spent his early years in Portugal, where he had his first art show, at age 16, in Lisbon. The praise he won then spurred him to make painting a lifetime career. Later, while he was still a teenager, his family moved to Canada, and he soon started painting big landscapes. As a young man he travelled in the Arctic, and he tried to get its essence, its soul, onto canvas.
Isumataq, an oil painting nearly four metres high and 46 metres long, took Ken 12 years to complete. Its massive scale was exhibited at Art Expo, in New York, the Museum of Nature, in Ottawa, and a few panels were displayed in Parliament in 1992. During the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, the painting was shown at an ice rink, a venue that Ken said in Canada was like being displayed in a church.
For 20 years he had a studio near Bowser, on Vancouver Island, just above the high tide mark, in a red barn he reluctantly shared with a family of otters. Any rats that intruded were dispatched with an air rifle. There he mostly painted sweeping West Coast landscapes, the distant blue mountains, the pebbled shores.
Every few years he would organize an art auction to raise money for environmental causes, putting up dozens of his own paintings and cajoling other artists to donate their work. Once he had an idea, he would spring into action, and those in his circle would be towed in his wake, whether they wanted to be or not.
Ken did not know how to do nothing, and painted daily, leaving two unfinished canvases on easels in his studio. The lake seemed empty without him, but his friends poured a glass of Portuguese wine into the water as a goodbye toast.
Mark Hume is Ken Kirkby’s long-time friend.
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