Do you consider yourself an artist? It’s the question every creative, inventive person most dreads. Do I say yes and sound pretentious? Or do I say no and betray my passion? It’s the kind of conundrum that no one likes to address. And Johnny Burgess is no exception.
When I ask the 22-year-old Whistler High grad the question, he hesitates for a long time before answering. “Yes, I think so,” says the darkly handsome young man. He pauses for a moment longer. Searches for just the right words to use. “I’m on the path, that’s for sure. I guess the most appropriate way to put it would be to say I’m an artist pupil. I have one more year to go at school. After that, we’ll see.”
He certainly looks the part. With his scraggly black beard and wild tangle of hair he reminds me of a young Che Guevara. Tight black jeans and a scruffy T-shirt add to the impression. All he needs is a beret to complete the portrait…
But there’s no pretence in his comportment. This is who I am, his body language says. I’m totally comfortable with myself. Are you?
“Look,” he continues, “I’m not into throwing that term around lightly. And I don’t believe that art school is the only place to develop your art. But I’ve learned a lot over the last three years. For me, being a student at Emily Carr (Vancouver’s Institute of Art and Design) has been a very positive experience.”
A painter by inclination, Burgess considers himself a general fine artist now. “I’ve had the opportunity to explore all sorts of different media at school — silk screening, digital stuff, photography. It’s all pretty interesting. The courses, the students, the instructors — I can tell you, it’s way different from what I grew up with…”
He laughs. “It was a bit of a shock for me at first,” he says. “But in a good way. You see, growing up in Whistler hadn’t really prepared me for the social complexity of a place like Emily Carr. There is just so much more diversity here. So much going on. At first I was a little overwhelmed. But then, it was like: ‘Oh well. This is the scene. Might as well get into it.’ And it’s worked out really well for me.”
He says it was only during his last few years at high school (he graduated in 2003) that he realized what he wanted to do in life. “I started doing bad art and got really excited about it,” he says. And laughs again. “Well, I didn’t consider it bad art at the time. Now I look at it and wonder how the heck anybody recognized any talent there…”
We are sitting in the backyard of a row-house he shares with three other students in Vancouver’s Strathcona district. One of the city’s last neighbourhoods to be gentrified, Strathcona’s slightly dilapidated turn-of-the-century homes sit on the edge of the infamous Lower Eastside. As we talk, bums cruise the back lane checking out the garbage cans for recyclable treasures. Johnny watches me watching the bums. He smiles. Traditionally an enclave of working class folk, Strathcona has morphed into something of an artist’s hangout over the last decade. But however it’s considered now, it’s still a long way (physically, socially, emotionally) from the Burgess family home on Whistler’s Westside road.
“I was always fascinated by the city,” he explains. “Since I can remember. Coming to Vancouver was illustrious. I’d get so excited. I used to just walk around and explore things. I mean, Whistler is so young, it has very little history. In contrast, Vancouver has a long and interesting story. And I was pretty keen to find the city’s hidden treasures.” He pauses for a moment. Smiles again. “That excitement has worn off a little now — I know the city too well. Still…”
It was on such an exploratory trip that Johnny “discovered” Strathcona. “I first came here to visit a friend,” he recounts, “and I was blown away by the vibrancy of the neighbourhood — the colour and texture of the houses even. I was also attracted to the crowd that was living here at the time. They were a little older than me, but they seemed to share my interests — art, skateboarding, living creatively. I felt comfortable here right away.”
He laughs. “It’s pretty strange doing the back and forth thing between Whistler and Strathcona,” he says. “You get used to something so quickly. And then you go home and realize just how different your life has become. You know, like going from an inner city neighbourhood with all its mix of people and styles to a place…” He hesitates. Laughs again. “To a place where everyone is so good-looking.”
So what about Whistler? Born and raised here, educated in the local schools, Burgess is another shining example of what the local lifestyle can produce — another young ambassador for this young community. But will he ever come back here to live? “I’m not sure where I’m going to eventually end up,” he says. “Maybe Vancouver, maybe not. But I don’t think I’ll end up in Whistler.”
He sighs. “I don’t want to come across like I don’t like Whistler or anything,” he says. “I mean, I invited 15 of my city friends up a few weekends ago and we had a great time. But frankly, I don’t feel all that comfortable in Whistler anymore.” He searches for an apt metaphor — and hits on one that is both compelling and heartbreaking at the same time. “You know, it’s kind of like the childhood home where you grew up and now other people live there. You go back and you’re shocked by the way they’ve transformed it. And you can’t help but wonder: ‘What the heck are these people doing to my home?’”
He considers himself a true Vancouverite now, to the point, he says, where he feels more like a tourist than a local when he’s in Whistler. “My parents see it,” he explains. “I come up to visit and I don’t even leave the house. Every now and then I get a little pang of guilt — like I should be going up the mountain or something. But mostly I just hibernate at home — at most, I might go skateboarding at Creekside.”
“Look,” he says. “Everyone knows just how much Whistler has changed in the last few years. Things like going to the beach. It’s just not how it used to be. Cops patrolling, 10,000 tourists, way more restrictions on what you can and can’t do — I mean, in the old days this was a pretty mellow place.” He smiles — if just a bit sadly. “In a way, me and my generation are the bridge between the old Whistler hippyville and the new Whistler theme park…
But it’s not like his memories of the place are negative. Au contraire. “I had a great time growing up at Whistler,” he says. “Our high school class was particularly tight. It was just an amazing group — great energy, loads of fun.” He stops speaking. Frowns. “You know, I realize now how much we took our lifestyle for granted in those years. I mean, we got to live something at Whistler that other people have to really work hard for. I guess we were a little spoiled. But I don’t think any of us thought of it in those terms. I remember when I first moved to the city and people would tell me. ‘Wow. You grew up at Whistler. Must be nice…’ And I really didn’t understand.”
He laughs. “The first time I rode at Mount Seymour,” he says, “I thought: ‘This is a joke. People can’t be serious about charging money for this…’ That’s when I first began to realize just how much of a dream destination Whistler was for most riders and skiers…”
Burgess grew up snowboarding. “That was my sport,” he says. “That’s where I put a lot of my energy when I was a kid.” A member of Rob Piccard’s groundbreaking Whistler Valley Snowboard Club, Johnny tells me that he knew from an early age that he’d never make it really big in the sport. “But I kept the dream alive longer than I needed to,” he says with a self-deprecating chuckle. “I didn’t give it up until I was 18 or 19.”
It was also during his years with the WVSC that he began to understand the difference between his Whistler friends and the city kids who’d come up to train on the weekends. “Three-quarters of the club was made up of Vancouver kids,” he explains. “And they were all good riders — and totally committed to the sport. I mean, we were the kids who could take a bus to the mountain. So we could kind of take it or leave it. But for the city kids, they really had to want it.”
Another long pause. “It’s funny, you know. Now I go snowboarding a few times a year. And each time I’m blown away by the effort it takes to get to the mountains. You have to make a plan. You have to get organized. Only now do I appreciate just how lucky we were to have such an amazing mountain in our own backyard…”
With one final year to complete before he gets his fine arts degree from Emily Carr, Johnny tells me that he is keeping his options open for the future. “I’d like to take a year off after school,” he says, “and travel a bit. Beyond that, I’m not sure.”
And what about his art? “I’d like to put it on hold for a year or so after I graduate,” he says. “After all, you can’t really be an artist if you’re travelling the world. But after that, I definitely want to come back and establish myself in the Vancouver arts scene.” He stops speaking. Smiles. “That would be pretty cool,” he says.