Ken Foster (Gravitas Ventures/Devilworks, NR)

You may not be familiar with the name of Ken Foster (I wasn’t), but he’s well-known in Vancouver as a street artist. He’s also known as a street presence, since he seems to have spent much of his adult life either literally living on the street, or sleeping in cheap rooms but spending much of his time on the street, where he makes his paintings and sells them to passersby, for a negotiable price.

Foster is the subject of Josh Laner’s documentary Ken Foster, which focuses more on Foster’s life and mental state (he is schizophrenic and a crack user) than it does on his work.  The art is often on screen, and we frequently see Foster creating and selling his works, but he doesn’t have much to say about his creative process. In fact, it sometimes seems that he only cares about art because he can make money selling his paintings, and yet he must value his artistic talents because he complained that the drugs he was prescribed for his mental illness made him feel uncreative. That’s a dilemma many artists with mental illness have faced, and perhaps Foster has found the right balance, since he seems to have a fairly stable life during the time this documentary was made. Of course it also helps that he has a steady source of income from selling his paintings through a local art store and frame shop (the owner estimates she’s sold 1,000 of his paintings, and notes that he mentioned that he told her he was glad that business was good enough that he no longer had to do burglaries to get the money to live).

Given his circumstances, it’s not surprising that Foster works fast (sometimes selling his paintings while the paint is still wet) and uses cheap materials (the surfaces he paints on are often scavenged from the trash). Many of his paintings are renditions of Vancouver cityscapes that are recognizable but also slightly off, while others seem to be influenced by Jean-Michel Basquiat. We see him in his element in Art Battle Vancouver, a contest in which artists have 20 minutes to create a new painting, working with acrylic paint and using only simple tools like brushes and palette knives; the winner is chosen by audience vote.

Despite his obvious problems, Foster is articulate about his mental illness and the ups and downs of his life, and his insights are supplemented by interviews with his adoptive mother, his daughter, his sometime girlfriend, and various other people who know him. Ken Foster is a fairly traditional documentary, consisting of lots of interviews and shots of its subject at work, with occasional flourishes like an animated section and speeded-up footage of Foster painting movements (which is like watching the film in fast forward).

I don’t find Foster’s art to be particularly interesting (you can see some of it here), but obviously some people do like it. He clearly has talent, and I wonder what his work would be like if he actually spent some time on it, rather than churning out one painting after another. The strongest aspect of this documentary is the honest portrait it provides of someone coping with mental illness in real time—not surprisingly, sometimes Foster is engaging and sometimes he’s a self-centered jerk. And speaking as an American, I can’t help but feel that Foster is lucky to be a white man and to be living in a tolerant Canadian city, because his story could easily have taken a much more tragic turn. He’s also lucky to live in a country with universal health care, which is always there should he choose to take advantage of it. | Sarah Boslaugh

Ken Foster will be available beginning Sept. 25 on Cable VOD and multiple Digital HD services, including iTunes, Google Play, Comcast, Cox, Verizon Fios, and Dish Network.

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