Like many of us, B.C.-based painter Edward Epp has been following the devastating news of the Ebola crisis in West Africa. But for Mr. Epp, it has really hit home. He lived in Liberia in the 1980s – first from 1981 until the end of 1984, and then returning in 1988 for a few months.
It was a prolific period for the artist, and Mr. Epp produced a collection of colourful works – a sort of "visual poetry" documenting his impressions of a country he grew to love deeply. For many years, most of those works have been stored at his Shawnigan Lake property on Vancouver Island.
Now, he is preparing to part with 35 of them. On Saturday, they go on sale at Vancouver's Marion Scott Gallery, with proceeds going to Medécins sans frontières (Doctors Without Borders), one of several organizations working to contain the outbreak in West Africa. (Prices range from $400 to about $4,000.)
In August, the World Health Organization declared the outbreak in West Africa a public-health emergency of international concern. The virus has killed more than 5,400 people; nearly 3,000 of those deaths have been in Liberia.
The Globe and Mail met with Mr. Epp, born in Saskatoon and now living in Vancouver, at the gallery this week as the show was being installed.
What brought you to Liberia?
My wife and I met in Prince George and decided it was time to spend some time in another country and offer some kind of life service. We made a decision, sight unseen, after consulting with various individuals about a place that would maybe be a match for us, and we ended up in Liberia, West Africa. Most people thought [we were going to] Libya. We spent a few months in the capital city of Monrovia. I was looking for work and I made contact with an individual from a little museum at a small university in the interior of the country. He said we need an art instructor. So I travelled to the centre of the country, and it was very, very rural. It was like going into another era – like 600 years ago; that's how it felt. Except the university had a fairly modern campus. And they offered a four-year degree in arts and education and even music and art. And they hired me.
I know you like to paint en plein air; is that how many of these were made?
Absolutely. One of my artistic goals was to feel comfortable working in a very dense kind of environment of nature; to be in the middle of it like Emily Carr. How did she resolve being in the middle of these heavy forests on this side of the coast and use her [art] to make sense of her territory, her space, her place? And that's one of the roles of an artist; to create a visual poetry making sense of this place.
Fast forward to these many years later: It must have been really difficult for you to learn about the Ebola outbreak there.
It certainly was. Liberia became a home for me. I don't feel sorry for people in Liberia; it's a far too simplistic way of responding – pity. And I think it's tragic that we're distancing ourselves from the suffering of Liberians. So this idea of overreacting [by] setting up so many barriers [with travel restrictions] I think says more about our culture and about our kind of separating ourselves from humankind. If Ebola were happening in Prince George, how would the people in Vancouver respond to it? That's basically how we should be thinking. That's how I think about it. I worked there. I learned to appreciate that culture and I think that we should work with respect and with carefulness and collaboratively with the government of Liberia.
What is your hope for the show? I imagine it's not just about fundraising.
I want it to be beautiful. I wanted to provide the space to create – like an artist does – a tactile, sensual experience; to bring Liberia closer in a warm embrace. Here's a Canadian guy from the Prairies who spent time in this country. My kids were born [in Africa], it's beautiful, and I want to share that with the public.
Are you trying to put a different face on Liberia? Show us the beauty so it's not just reduced to a headline about Ebola?
Exactly – but not to forget that. But instead of responding with pity or fear, I would like people to respond to the beauty and that power.
Edward Epp: Paintings from Liberia is on from Nov 22 to Dec 6 at the Marion Scott Gallery in Vancouver, with an opening event Nov. 22 from 1 to 4 p.m., with remarks at 2 p.m.
This interview has been condensed and edited