Lost & Found

Pamela Masik's quest to honour the missing women of the Downtown Eastside

January 1, 2010

By Michael Harris

The undertaking was hellish. Paint each of the “missing women” who disappeared from the Downtown Eastside. Paint 69 murdered faces three metres tall. Paint their scarred and battered expressions in uncompromising detail when even police had scant evidence of their features. In essence, bear witness to lives that ended because of their very anonymity. Undo 69 oblivions.

Pamela Masik has spent four years completing The Forgotten, a body of work that will garner her more attention than the 10 years of painting that preceded it. Eight portraits will be suspended in the Library Square concourse from January 16 to 26. During the Olympics, much of her magnum opus will be available for viewing on select days at a mammoth, 14,000 square-foot studio space on Second Avenue, behind the Olympic Village. (Masik is negotiating for all 69 works to be shown at a February 2011 exhibit at the Museum of Anthropology; for exhibition details, visit Theforgotten.ca.)

It’s the sort of art that consumes the artist (and, writ so large in violent strokes, shakes the viewer). “I was not able to let it go,” she said recently in her crowded South Main studio, where the faces are stacked against each other on every inch of wall. “I shut my friends out; I’d go to a party and only think of a beheaded woman with her hands stuffed in her skull.” In the fourth year of the project, Masik, who is left-handed, tore her rotator cuff; she started painting with her right hand instead. She lost weight. At one point, she passed out on her studio floor, vomited, woke up trembling.

This summer, Masik wondered whether she could ever put the work behind her. Now, she wrote, “My eyes see differently. My scrambled eggs this morning reminded me of things I dare not write.”

She’s working on a surprise 70th portrait: herself. Why? “When one woman is violated, all women are. It could have been me.” Did she consider painting Robert Pickton, the serial killer charged with 20 of their deaths? She smiled wearily: “He’s already a kind of celebrity. A lot of people want to point the finger at Pickton and say he was the reason this happened. But these women were forgotten before they went missing.”

Visitors often break down at Masik’s studio, perhaps because the work, displayed in a city overrun by Olympic boosterism, is unblinkingly insistent: this, too, happened here. One meaning of “to remember” is to reconstitute that which has been dismembered. Many of Masik’s subjects had limbs severed from their bodies. The attempt to put them back together with paint, to make them whole again, is both wrenching and heroic.

And maybe attitudes are changing. When sex-trade worker Lisa Francis went missing recently, the police didn’t ignore it; they put up a billboard that shows the woman’s face, three metres tall.

[grid: 254|Portraits from The Forgotten]

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