Doug Biden, "Untitled," mixed media on paper, 2006, 30" x 22.5".
It’s tempting to wonder if B.C. printmaker Doug Biden had subconscious intimations of his illness and early death. A recurring theme in his work is the visceral anatomy of the human body — skeletons, musculature and organ systems. Certainly, those works took on new poignancy following his death at 50 from pancreatic cancer, particularly as Biden had always lived life to the fullest, cheerfully boyish and ready to play, even in the hallways of UBC Okanagan, where he taught for a decade. He was extremely popular, both with colleagues and students. Indeed, Bob Belton, dean of the Faculty of Creative and Critical Studies, remembers Biden as “a great bon-vivant”.
Diagnosed in 2005, Biden underwent several surgeries and rallied in a remission that had friends convinced that he would beat the disease’s dire odds. But it was not to be. When it became clear that the cancer again had the upper hand, Biden moved back to his home in Gibsons, on the west coast of B.C. with his family — wife Ingrid and children Hilary and Nicholas — dying there peacefully on March 26, 2007.
Among Biden’s last creations was this untitled mixed-media work that articulated his long-standing interest in the human body. It was included in Visceral Allegories, a 2007 posthumous exhibition curated by Darrin Martens at the Burnaby Art Gallery that will be shown again this spring at the Nanaimo Art Gallery. Biden used a lithograph from his archives as a substrate, reworking the surface with charcoal and other media to create what Martens calls a “more visually intriguing, more self-reflective artwork.” Biden refers to his earlier work by adding a large circle, along with interconnecting lines and other symbols.
“Biden then expressively connected images of skulls, interior systems and drawn organic forms,” Martens writes. “The effect is somber, and reflects Biden’s state of being at the time, as he struggled with his illness … His interest in systems — human and inorganic — is chronicled through the subject matter, which also emphasizes Biden’s conviction that everything about us as human beings is interconnected.”
As Martens observes, Biden was not a star. But as a master printmaker he contributed to the development of the medium through his work and by passing his passion to others through teaching. He attended the Vancouver School of Art, traveled for a time after graduating and then began to exhibit and teach printmaking workshops throughout the province. He went on to earn a Master’s degree at Concordia University in Montreal. After returning to the Lower Mainland, he taught at the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design, the University College of the Fraser Valley, and Capilano College. In 1996, he accepted an associate professorship at Okanagan University College, later to become UBC Okanagan.
Biden’s exhibitions were mainly in smaller B.C. galleries, although residencies were also an important part of his artistic journey. He made two visits to St. Michael’s Printshop in St. John’s, Nfld., and two to the Graphic Studio in Dublin. His work at times combined different non-traditional techniques and he enjoyed collaborating with other artists. While visceral imagery was a mainstay, he was also interested in contemporary issues and used political, pop culture and mass media references in his work. Some prints featured images of war or critiqued the cult of celebrity, while others drew attention to violence against women. Vancouver artist Deborah Koenker notes Biden’s rare capacity to combine deeply felt social and political critiques with an aesthetic that included rich colour and sensual line. Concludes Koenker: “Full of life and mischief, Doug lived his politics with verve.”