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Sisters honour mom’s legacy at Art Vancouver

Bernice Hetherington work on view at the Vancouver Convention Centre

“Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.”  – Pablo Picasso

Endeavours by Bernice Hetherington, on display at Art Vancouver, April 25-28 at the Vancouver Convention Centre. More info:

The Pink Palace is even more colourful these days.

Inside a residence in the landmark West Vancouver apartment complex a collection of framed faces and vividly decorated scenes plasters the space with a flurry of colour and rich hues.

Sisters Shelley Adams and Clare Hetherington sit together on a plush sofa. They are surrounded by the pieces of art which are propped up next to them as well as scattered throughout the bachelor apartment. Sunlight illuminates the room. The sea air from the adjacent ocean wafts through an open patio door.

The pieces, the sisters say, represent their mom Bernice Hetherington’s life’s work – even though her life’s work, referred to as her “Endeavours,” were only completed in the last few years during a creatively fruitful period for the then 92-year-old.

“We would just bring her your typical art paper and she would get up in the morning … and she would just draw little tiny diagrams all over the sheet,” says Shelley. “She would just put them altogether and she would put a lot of effort into how they were collaged.”

Last year Bernice was delighted to learn that her artwork had been accepted and would be displayed in the upcoming Art Vancouver festival, a multi-day art fair hosted at the Vancouver Convention Centre which aims to showcase the artwork of galleries and artists from Canada and around the world.

“Clare and I put together an application and my husband made a website – which was hilarious, my mom actually has her own website. Who at 92 has a website?” says Shelley.

But then something unexpected happened; Bernice passed away in November last year, six months shy of getting to exhibit her work at the art fair.

“She’d always been interested in art,” explains Clare, adding that their mother didn’t fully delve into her passion until her later years – but when she did, she really went for it. “All of this she produced in the last three years of her life. She was obsessed at the end.”

Determined to see their mom’s final wish fulfilled, Shelley and Clare will be at the Art Vancouver fair later this month representing Bernice and her Endeavours.

“We didn’t have a celebration of life for her. This is our way to honour her legacy,” says Clare, adding the family intends to spread her ashes on Bowen Island the day before the art fair commences. “Mom would have way preferred this to a funeral.”

Bernice was born in Winnipeg, Man. on Sept. 30, 1926. When the Great Depression forced her family to abandon farming and seek new horizons further west, they wound up in B.C., where Bernice would later marry and settle in West Vancouver for the rest of her life.

For the past 16 years, Bernice lived at the West Vancouver Care Centre, the sisters explain, where a lack of mobility and other health concerns kept her housebound and not always in high spirits.

“Often times she couldn’t see any reason to carry on. She couldn’t walk anywhere. … She was frustrated,” admits Shelley, before noting that when Bernice discovered her own artistic voice it “gave her reason to live.”

A few years ago Shelley, who lives in Nelson, B.C, started renting an apartment at The Villa Maris in West Vancouver, also known as The Pink Palace, in order to be closer to her aging mom. Visiting Bernice for one week out of every month, alongside Clare who lives in Coquitlam, the sisters were taken aback by the beautiful artwork their mom starting producing at a rapid-fire pace.

With her Endeavours project, Bernice would draw individual faces and images using pastel or PermaChrome ink, cut them out, and then create three-dimensional collages that represented the many facets, stories and stages of her life, particularly the last three years when she was feeling inspired but remained housebound.

“She would draw little people and then cut them out and put them altogether to create a big piece of art. Most of them have a story,” says Shelley.

Bernice didn’t always have an easy life, the sisters explain. Their mother never knew her own birth mother, and at 19 years old “she had to give up a son.”

And three years ago, Bernice’s other son Chris – Shelley and Clare’s brother – died suddenly.

“She was so sad,” says Shelley, on Chris’s passing.

But both sisters observe that it was through that tragedy that Bernice found her footing artistically, a way to explore the many faces and places in life that she never got to meet or visit, or would never get to encounter again. 

“This was her creative outlet,” says Clare. “She was very resourceful for a person whose life was so difficult, she always managed to find meaning in it.”

Bernice would have more than likely been the oldest exhibiting artist at this year’s art fair, according to Skyla Wayrynen, spokeswoman for Art Vancouver.

“I think that’s great for (Shelley and Clare) to honour her passion and continue it. The purpose of Art Vancouver is to create that culture and community of art,” says Wayrynen.

Both Shelley and Clare hope that visitors to this year’s Art Vancouver will see the same beauty the pair sees in their mom’s work, recounting how elated she was that she’d been accepted as an exhibitor this year. Bernice completed her last piece five days before she died.

Pointing out one piece in particular in her Pink Palace abode, Shelley notes that Clare and her will be walking down a runaway holding the piece during Art Vancouver’s opening ceremonies April 25. The artwork, like many of them, holds a special place in the sisters’ hearts, one that encapsulates many of the themes and concerns present in all Bernice’s Endeavours.

Asked what the name of the piece is, the sisters respond in unison: “Mother and Child.”