-Story by Joe Blake Photography by Don Denton
I first met Oak Bay artist Robert Amos more than 40 years ago. He was painting pictures of buildings and sites that were vanishing from the landscape and he told me he was going to be the artist who painted Victoria.
Not long after that, Amos began making pictures of the city’s iconographic images — the Legislative precinct, the Empress Hotel, Chinatown. When he and his wife, artist Sarah Amos, moved to Fairfield to raise their two daughters, Amos began to paint Cook Street Village. Seven years ago, this creative couple moved to Oak Bay and built their current home-studio.
“The late mayor Nils Jensen met me on his bicycle tour one day and said, ‘I want to make Oak Bay the art capital of the Capital Region’,” Amos tells me.
We’re in his studio front room, where he stores his notebooks, diaries and sketchbook archives. There are shelves of them — personal chronicles of his career and development as an artist. There are also a handful of his published books, like last year’s critically acclaimed best-seller E.J. Hughes Paints Vancouver Island.
In October, Amos celebrates the publication of his second volume of Hughes’ biography, and he’s already at work on volume three, the war years.
“I just like the way his paintings look!” Amos exclaims, smiling like a Cheshire cat. “I wrote about him, met him, and got an invitation to spend the day with him.”
Amos then shows me a series of commissioned paintings of a house in Oak Bay documenting a half-century of life for the mother and daughter who live there. It’s another current project, in addition to lectures on Hughes and Emily Carr.
“A close look, of what it’s like to paint,” Amos says dramatically. “Ninety minutes of close observation. We’re going to do some video recording of the lectures, too.”
Born in Belleville, Ontario in 1950, Amos spent his school years in Toronto, followed by two years at Queens University taking English literature courses. Amos got a part-time job lifting crates at an art gallery and that’s when he saw his first art show.
“Heart of London!” he says. “That was the title of the show. I thought…my life could be the subject matter, too — a framed experience, painting. I went to York to study fine art, art history and Japanese art and a professor bought some of my paintings. In my final year, I did nothing but studio work.”
Amos landed at Western Front in Vancouver and a waterfront studio on Carrall Street, near Gastown. He hung out with The Pier Group of artists that included Victoria designer J.C. Scott. Performance art, live co-op radio plays, live music, and dreams of going to Japan — Amos lived a bohemian life and continued it when he came to Victoria with fellow artist Andy Graffiti, setting up shop in Chinatown above Fan Tan Alley.
“The place looks amazing!” he recalls. “That view coming into town over Royal Oak? Beautiful!”
Amos got a job at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, where he stayed for five years. He says he saw a lot of Japanese art, Japanese wood block and German expressionism.
“Then I quit and went to Japan for a year of travel in Japan and Thailand,” Amos says. “I studied Japanese. I met Sarah. We got married. We travelled. We were crossing into Malaysia at Langkawi and I had to declare my occupation, that I was an artist. That was a big moment. I am an artist!”
Amos is probably Victoria’s most public artist. Besides decades of writing about art in his Times Colonist column and Monday Magazine before that, and producing CBC Radio reports on Victoria’s art scene, Amos is at work in Greater Victoria’s neighbourhoods — literally painting the town.
He’s been artist in residence at The Empress and the Oak Bay Beach Hotel, where he also wrote drafts of his E.J. Hughes book during breaks from two months of summer painting in a sunny room across from the David Foster Theatre.
Amos is also a fixture at the annual Bowker Creek Brush Up and at local schools, since his early collaboration with Barb Adams at Monterey. He’s also a member of Oak Bay’s public art advisory committee.
“I think that’s the only organization I’ve ever joined,” Amos grimaces. “I don’t like meetings!”
Every Friday for the last 17 years, Amos has visited Mount St. Mary’s Hospital where he reads to the residents while they paint and draw.
“It’s probably the happiest times of my life,” he says, smiling. “I love painting landscapes, houses and gardens, cars, dogs — anything, but it’s still a struggle to sell a painting. The art business is still a struggle.”
But despite that, and after decades of dedication to his craft, Amos has achieved what he set out to do: he’s painted Victoria. And the paintings and drawings of Oak Bay and other neighbourhoods are his lasting legacy.
Visit Robert Amos’ web site here.