First Nations artist Edgar Rossetti has lived on and off the streets of Vancouver’s troubled Downtown Eastside for almost a decade.
"It's been a struggle but I've managed to persevere and I'm still here. I'm still creating,” he says.
I sit on a bench while Edgar sits on the ground beside me, his large back resting against a tree. Scattered around him are piles of paintings, blank canvases, cedar chucks and half-finished carvings.
Edgar says he spends up to 14 hours a day working on his art.
“It just centers me. It’s relaxing. I can just pick up a brush and start doodling.”
His paintings are done in the traditional Ksan style of Northwestern British Columbia, yet with his own street flare. And he sells just enough of his work to feed himself.
“Barely. I just do it for the passion. It’s not to get rich. I just stay here to be here.”
How he ended up here is quite the story. Edgar is originally from Prince George but was taken away from his parents to Residential School at a young age. He’s been fighting the haunting memories ever since.
“It didn’t really start affecting me until my thirties,” he recalls. “Mentally and what not.”
“Just like everyone else who went to Residential School I turned to alcohol and drugs. I was married until about eight years ago. Then I fell off the face of the earth and this is where I ended up.”
And he’s not the only one.
It’s hard to say exactly, but estimates suggest there are at least 1,600 homeless people in Vancouver and at least 30 per cent are Aboriginal. It’s a sad number, but Edgar chooses to look on the bright side.
“There’s awesome talent. Boundless,” he says of the Native street artists. “You’ve got carvers from all the way up and down the coast and a variety of styles. Ksan, Coast Salish, Haida.”
“Come on down and have a look.”
Today Edgar has managed to get himself off the streets and into a small hotel room. But he’s still creating art every day to feed his body and his soul.
“It’s all part of my recovery, staying off the drugs.”
And he’s giving back to the community by serving soup at his church to those who are less fortunate than him.
“It makes me feel good in the morning. Everybody else forgets about them and sweeps them under the rug. People like them need it to recognize that their still alive and they’re not forgotten.”
He has some words of advice for youth as well.
“Stay in school. Don’t end up down here. If someone offers you drugs, say no.”
It’s hard to know how much talent, potential and good someone like Edgar has until you sit down and hear their story. As we wrapped up our interview and I pulled out my wallet to buy one of his paintings, I couldn’t help asking one last question: what does he want his legacy to be?
“That I wasn’t a waste of space. That I meant something to the world. That I left something that says “here, this was me. This was my life.”
And it’s a beautiful life at that.
Trevor Jang is a reporter for Roundhouse Radio in Vancouver.
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