Pain in the faces

An artist works to capture the life experience and emotion behind the photographs of women missing from the Downtown Eastside

Lori Culbert
Vancouver Sun

Saturday, November 11, 2006

In the enormous portrait of the haunted-looking woman, her brown hair is carefully tucked behind her left ear, exposing a bare earlobe.

MELISSA GIDNEY/SPECIAL TO THE VANCOUVER SUN. Artist Pamela Masik works on one of the portraits she is painting of the women who have vanished from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside since 1978.

The artist, Pamela Masik, would like to paint an earring in that spot. But she doesn't know exactly what the earring looks like.

She can't ask the subject of her eight-by-10-foot painting. That's because Mona Wilson is dead, one of 26 women Port Coquitlam pig farmer Robert (Willy) Pickton is accused of murdering.

Shortly after Pickton's arrest in February 2002, Ada Wilson told a reporter she had bought a ruby heart pendant necklace with matching earrings for her younger sister for Christmas in 2001. But Ada was unable to exchange presents with her sister, who vanished without a trace in November of that year.

Now Masik would like to paint Mona Wilson wearing the jewelry she never got to open.

"The idea about Mona and the earrings is really important to me because I think that would be important to the person looking at the painting; there would be an emotional connection," said Masik, a Vancouver multi-media artist who paints, sculpts, sings, writes, produces videos, and designs clothing and jewelry.

"I would eventually like to get her sister to help me with that."

Masik has undertaken an extraordinary project, one she said she was driven to do through a sense of social responsibility.

She said she plans to paint portraits of all 69 women who police have identified as vanishing from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside since 1978, including the 26 women Pickton is accused of killing. (Over the last year, three of the women on the police poster have been found alive, but Masik still wants to include them in her "Forgotten Faces" collection.)

Masik started painting last winter, and has 22 of the portraits started.

They are not small paintings that could be tucked away in the corner of a room and easily overlooked. They are so massive that Masik had the ceiling ripped out of her Yaletown studio to make it two storeys high, and had a pulley system installed so the portraits can be raised or lowered as she works on them.


 Artist Pamela Masik wants the women who were forgotten in life to be
 celebrated and remembered in death.

The images of the eight women who, like Wilson, disappeared in 2001 will be 2.4 metres wide by three metres tall (eight feet by 10 feet). The others will be slightly smaller to illustrate the length of time since they faded away from the public.

Masik wants the women to be seen and celebrated in death. In life, she argued, they were judged for their drug use and reliance on the sex trade, and worked in a marginalized area that many people avoided.

"They were forgotten before they were even gone," Masik said. "[To many people] they didn't have a name or a face, they didn't exist, they were just a druggie or a prostitute on the street that didn't matter."


Artist Pamela Masik works on one of her portraits of the women who have vanished from
the Downtown Eastside since 1978.

Masik has been painting professionally for six years, and has put on energetic performance art shows locally and internationally -- once locking herself in a sensory deprivation box for five days to enhance her creativity when she emerged.

She has not been commissioned to do the missing women portraits, and knows such a project could elicit many emotions, some potentially negative from families or others who may argue that painting the women continues to exploit them.

But Masik, who hopes her series of paintings will be shown in a gallery one day, says she is trying to confront the larger societal issue of the poor treatment of marginalized women in high-risk areas.

"Because Pickton is so much a part of the public eye through the media," Masik said, "it is as if we have a place for blame when [how the women allegedly died] is not the only issue. It is time to look at what has happened in the past and create change in a positive way."

They’re not small paintings.

The eight women who disappeared in 2001 will be eight feet wide (2.4 metres) by 10 feet (2 metres) tall. The nine women who vanished in 1999 and 2000 will be slightly smaller, measuring eight feet wide (2.3 metres) by 9.5 feet (2.9). The 24 women who went missing in 1997 and 1998 will be slightly smaller to illustrate the length of time since they faded away from the public. The remaining 28 pictures will be smaller.

Very few people have seen the unfinished portraits, but The Sun brought Sandra Gagnon, sister of missing woman Janet Henry, to Masik's studio to have a look.

Her sister's portrait towers over Gagnon. Bold red splashes of colour frame Henry's black hair, in stark contrast to her pale face. His lips are cherry red, curled slightly upwards in a reserved grin.

"Wow, that looks just like her," Gagnon said.

At first surprised by the size and intensity of some of the portraits, Gagnon told Masik that she supports efforts to remember the women.

Gagnon, like many relatives of the missing women, felt police weren't doing enough in the summer of 1997 to find her sister, so she walked the streets of the Downtown Eastside distributing posters of Henry and talking to strangers for any clues about her whereabouts.

Henry, who was 36 when she vanished, was the youngest of 12 siblings born to her Alert Bay family. She finished high school, got married, had a daughter Debra and owned a house.

But that all fell apart following her divorce, and a drug addiction consumed her life.

Grief haunted Gagnon in her search for her sister; it's an emotion she has felt for much of her life. Only three of her siblings are alive today, and most of the nine deaths were at the hands of violence or drugs and alcohol.

"Janet, before she ever ended up downtown, she owned a house in Maple Ridge, she had a big wedding," Gagnon told Masik. "She had a life, she was a person."

Over the years Gagnon has received some clues about Henry's last days. One woman told her in September that she was drinking with her sister in a Downtown Eastside hotel when Henry left with a man.

"Janet said [to her friend], 'Why don't you come with us? Gagnon said.

The friend declined to go. It was the last time she saw Henry, Gagnon said.

Pickton has not been charged in the Henry case.

"I think it's good that you take an interest in the missing women, because many people don't," Gagnon told Masik. "I think it's good when people take to heart that they were family members and had lives."

Dr. Andrew Buczkowski, a Vancouver General Hospital surgeon with an appreciation for art, first contacted The Sun about Masik's project because he believes positive attention should be drawn to the women, as opposed to the sensation of the crime, which will dominate headlines when Pickton's trial on six of the murder charges starts Jan. 8.

Buczkowski, who was trained in the St. Paul's and VGH emergency wards, often treated people from the Downtown Eastside.

He argued that instead of an impassioned outcry, society gave a collective shrug to the disappearance of these women from a poor neighbourhood. He believes initiatives like the paintings are a way for the community to confront past indifferences, and possibly create change for future generations.

The project, Masik said, is not a commercial endeavour, but as an altruistic one. The single mother of a ten-year-old boy is financing the portraits through the sale of her landscape paintings, and is holding an invitation-only fundraiser at her studio next month.

Masik said she started forming the idea of a "Forgotten Faces" series about two years ago, while commuting to her former studio in Gastown. She recognized an old friend working on a street corner, a woman she had last seen several years ago using hard drugs at a party.

"When I saw the woman on the street, and because I had a past relationship of knowing her, I thought, 'Wow, just a couple of different choices and anyone can be there. I could be her,'" she recalled.

Masik's paintings, which are full of texture, begin with several base coats in white to preserve the canvases and to almost sculpt the under-layers in preparation for the portrait.

"I know where there is going to be a cheekbone, I know where there is going to be an inset of the eye, where the hair is. I follow that with my fingers, and I build that up over a period of time," she said. "So there are so many layers of depth in each painting to convey: The depth of the story, the depth of the woman, the importance."

Masik is basing her towering portraits on the tiny photographs from the police missing persons poster so they will be recognizable to the public, but is then adding her own interpretation of what she sees in each woman's expression.

She tried to capture the "sexual vulnerability" she saw in Jennifer Furminger's photo, her attractive face framed by beautiful dark hair as she tilted her head for the camera with a slight grin. (Furminger disappeared in December 1999 and Pickton has been charged with her death.)

Masik focused on the look of determination on the face of Catherine Knight -- who disappeared in April 1995 and whose whereabouts remain unknown -- as she held her head high in the photo. "She really speaks to me. I see that anger. I see that: 'I give up, but I'm still a strong woman, I'm still here.'"

Tanya Holyk's bright eyes stare out from the canvas, as she flashes a white smile in stark contrast to her black, curly hair. "I see sort of like an innocent girl still, but I see a scared quality in her too," said Masik of Holyk, who disappeared in October 1996 and is another of Pickton's alleged victims.

Words like "mother" and "daughter" are subtly woven into the texture of some of the portraits, while others will have collages of newspaper clippings underneath the paint or symbols from native bands within the artwork, to illustrate something personal about each woman.

While all the portraits started by Masik have presented emotional challenges for various reasons, painting Wendy Allen -- one of the earliest disappearances on the long list -- was especially trying. With her trademark 1970's short haircut, Allen gazes innocently from the black-and-white photo on the poster, which indicates she vanished in 1979 and remains missing.

"I was in tears the entire time because I felt like that was my mother," Masik recalled.

But one of Masik's strongest ties to the portraits may be to the first one she said she intuitively chose to paint: Mona Wilson, the most recent disappearance on the police list.

"This face is determined, sad, angry and strong all at once. And beautiful," Masik said.

All she needs now is an earring to complete the painting.

For more information about the project, visit


- The eight women who disappeared in 2001 will be eight feet wide (2.4 metres) by 10 feet (3 metres) tall.

- The nine women who vanished in 1999 and 2000 will be slightly smaller, measuring eight feet wide (2.4 metres) by 9.5 feet (2.9 metres).

- The 24 women who went missing in 1997 and 1998 will be slightly smaller to illustrate the length of time since they faded away from the public.

- The remaining 28 pictures will be smaller.

Ran with fact box "They're Not Small Paintings", which has been appended to the end of the story.

© The Vancouver Sun 2006

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Courtesy of The Vancouver Sun
Original Article

Sketches express softer side of missing women



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Updated: August 21, 2016