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Photographer's Drive Project captures East Van personalities

Portrait exhibit at the Cultch opens with live performances
Photographer Frank Vena's portraits of East Van "personalties," including singer-songwriter Veda Hille, will be on display at the Cultch until Nov. 6.

Frank Vena hadn't worked for six months by mid 2009. The economy had tanked and firms that previously hired commercial photographers were doing more of the work in-house.

"It was like if I do something photographically, I'm going to feel like I'm not even a photographer anymore," Vena said.

So he resuscitated an idea he'd had when he moved to Commercial Drive in 2001 of shooting East Van "personalities."

Vena became intrigued by Torsten Muller, the German man who staffed his local video store, who Vena learned had been a well-known jazz musician and a radio host in Europe. Vena decided to collaborate with creative people on more metaphoric than literal portraits that exposed another dimension of their personality.

"More like poetry than prose," Vena said. He captured Muller with his scuffed upright bass backed by sausages and other hanging meat in the smokehouse at JNZ Deli on the Drive. Muller's friends were so enthusiastic about the shot, Vena figured he was on to something and continued.

When he had five strong portraits, he brought them to The Cultch to see if they could be exhibited in the theatre complex's gallery. Again, the favourable response was immediate.

The opening reception for Vena's first phase of The Drive Project opens at the Cultch Oct. 13 with live performances by many of the 10 artists he's shot.

"It started off as a make-work project for me to feel like I am a photographer because, you know, like a lot of artists, if I'm not working I kind of feel like, well, shit, I'm not really what I say I am," Vena said. "It's that everpresent doubt, that kind of nagging oh you're a fake and everybody's going to know it at some point so you may as well give up this idea of being an artist and get a real job."

Now the personal project has evolved into a community-based celebration of artists who populate the city's East Side.

Accordionist and rabble-rouser Geoff Berner, writer Ryan Knighton and filmmaker Guy Bennett are among the artists Vena shot.

Singer-songwriter and composer Veda Hille is portrayed in a morgue holding a seemingly bloodless hand attached to the tattooed arm of a sheet-covered body, the setting her idea, Vena said.

He'd initially wanted to shoot writer Dennis E. Bolen, who's often miscast as a crime writer, in the morgue, but Bolen was weary of posing in gritty settings and instead wanted to be portrayed in a garden.

Muller, Hille, Bolen, accompanied by his partner and soundscape artist Soressa Gardner, singer-songwriter Wyckham Porteous, Berner and actor David Bloom will perform Oct. 13. The photos will be exhibited until Nov. 6.

Vena gave each artist he shot the rights to an image and those performing at the Cultch will do so for free. Vena is paying to rent the historic theatre for the show using a community arts grant from Vancity credit union and donations through PayPal.

Ultimately, Vena wants to re-brand himself as a master of celebrity portraiture and to secure a grant that would allow him to shoot artists of all disciplines, ethnicities, lifestyles, genders, economic means and stages of their careers in major cities across Canada.

"Because artists come in all sizes, shapes and colours," he said. "And when you're pursuing a life of creativity rather than the 9 to 5 get a pay cheque. it's not the easiest life to pursue and it's not just done by a certain type of person or gender or race or colour."

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Twitter: @Cheryl_Rossi