Ken Kirkby was born in London, England right around the time the German Air Force launched a massive air raid on the city during the Second World War.
“I now at this stage in my life consider it to be an omen for how my life would be,” said the painter who lives now lives in Bowser.
Kirkby was brought up in Portugal, where his father was one of the main driving forces behind the country’s rebuilding, following the war. Rather than go to school, Kirkby was educated by his father’s friends, acquaintances and business partners.
“So I had all these chemists and physicists and opera singers as my teachers,” he said.
But there was one man Kirkby came across himself who would play a monumental role in his future.
He lived in a shack halfway down a cliff, and he couldn’t read or write, but he would become Kirby’s “Merlin” and remains the most unique man Kirkby says he’s ever met.
He was a whaler in the Arctic in his younger days and a commercial fisherman, and Kirkby spent over 10 years learning his philosophies and listening to his stories about the Arctic.
“Those stories so got into me, they never left me,” he said. “And I figured when I get big I know where I’m going.”
Kirkby began painting at a young age and sold his first painting to an architect when he was eight years old.
When he was 17 Kirkby became involved in a revolution in Portugal, where many were killed and few escaped, he said.
Luckily he and the Canadian ambassador to Portugal had become close fly fishing friends and this man would help him find refuge.
He provided him with the necessary documents and he also gave him a map to the best fly fishing spot in the country, the south shore of a place called Nile Creek on Vancouver Island. He had friends there who owned a cabin and Kirkby would be welcome there.
He arrived and immediately fell in love with the place, he said. He promised himself that he’d return and live there.
So he headed off for the Arctic when he was 18 years old, thinking he’d be gone about five or six months. He wouldn’t return to the area until he was 60, after what he calls a lifetime of trying to bring attention to the Inuit.
Kirkby stayed in the Arctic until he was 26. He was adopted by an Inuit grandmother who taught him her language and way of living. She saw to it that he travelled the entire Arctic and asked that he go out and tell her story to the world.
“The story was to listen to the Inuit,” Kirkby explained. “They wished to have a territory that wasn’t just simply the Northwest Territories.
“The word Nunavut means our land,” he said, adding the Inuit no longer wanted to be wards of the state, or have their children taken away from them. They wanted to be in charge of their own destiny, he said.
During his stay in the Arctic, Kirkby discovered Inukshuks, stone structures that he initially mistook for people far off in the distance. His sketches of these, the Arctic landscape and the Inuit people would become extraodinary oil paintings once he retuned to his new home in Vancouver. Kirkby decided to take it to the next level when he created his massive Isumataq, measuring 152 feet long by 12 feet high, which was unveiled in the Parliament buildings in Ottawa in 1992.
Kirkby hoped that this enormous painting would bring attention to the grandmother’s story, and help her get her wish. It worked.
“That magical, crazy, impossible story happened and we walked into parliament,” he said. “It was the most unlikely political story. Nunavut was launched on its way into being.”
Following this project, Kirkby’s paintings of the North became sought-after worldwide.
Finally, when he turned 60 it was time to make the move to the little fishing village he had discovered so many years ago.
Since coming to Bowser, Kirkby has become involved with the Nile Creek Enhancement Society, a non-profit organization recognized nationally for its efforts restoring salmon numbers. This involvement has sparked a series of fish paintings and Kirkby is also working on a collection of paintings about the Salish Sea. This will become an art book with Kirkby’s art and poems written by Manolis. An earlier successful book by the two is called Vespers. A sequel is currently being written to the critically acclaimed book Ken Kirkby: A Painter’s Quest for Canada, and Kirkby is involved in creating a book as well as a major film on the success at the Nile Creek hatchery.
Besides his many projects, Kirkby endeavors to paint all the quiet corners of the Island, having friends fly him to remote places that have been abandoned for years. He continues to work hard on perfecting his craft eight hours a day, most days, he said, and has yet to have any formal training.
“How on earth can you be taught to reveal what it is that’s in your soul?” he asked.
Kirkby’s paintings can be found at the Gallery at Qualicum Art Supply at 102-206 W First Ave in Qualicum Beach, as well as other local galleries like the Englishman River Art Gallery.