An exhibit at the Penticton Art Gallery is honouring Cree artist Alvin Elif Constant, also known by many as the Wandering Spirit, who sold his work on the streets of Vancouver and Victoria.
The exhibit, titled In Search of Wandering Spirit, features artworks that have been donated by family, friends and the general public.
Born in the James Smith Cree Nation in Saskatchewan, Constant’s world revolved around art, according to his sister Shirley Constant.
“I used to watch him for hours doing his artwork, he was so at peace,” she said.
Constant died in 2006, after freezing to death on the streets of Calgary.
Shirley remembers her brother as mischievous, curious and generous.
Shirley says he was also given the nickname “Angel” by many who encountered him, because he was always helping people in need.
“When he saw a need arise … people having no shirt, no shoes, no food, he would go out and sell a painting and he would go back to that person and buy them shoes and whatnot,” she said.
The exhibit’s curator, Paul Crawford, says Constant touched the lives of thousands — including his own — while selling art on the streets.
Crawford was around 12 years old, he says, when he first encountered Constant selling his paintings in downtown Vancouver. Watching the artist work, Crawford says he was immediately mesmerized.
While attending the University of Victoria a decade later, Crawford encountered Constant regularly selling his artwork in Victoria, and would often engage in brief conversation.
“I was amazed by this individual and watching him create art,” said Crawford, director and curator at the Penticton Art Gallery.
“He stuck with me all these years, I never forgot the man.”
Constant’s work stuck with Crawford so much that he decided to curate a retrospective of his work.
He reached out to Constant’s family and began crowdsourcing for artworks, with the largest donation coming from a friend of Constant’s, who donated 40 paintings.
Crawford says most street artists will never see their works in a public museum or art gallery — and he says this should change.
“I hope we can shift that narrative of how people look and value the works of all these artists and put them into greater historical context,” he said.
Since the exhibit opened in mid-November, Crawford says many people who have met Constant have reached out, and the gallery has received additional artwork.
“It’s remarkable hearing the peoples’ stories that met him and maybe never thought about him again but walk in the gallery and see the show and have this emotional flood,” he said.
For Shirley, seeing the exhibit full of her brother’s work was humbling and heartwarming.
“My heart was touched,” said Shirley. “My brother is coming out like a shining star.”
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