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Born in 1967 from German and Jamaican parentage, Vancouver, BC artist Derek von Essen relocated from Toronto in 1991. While working in photography, painting, graphic design, video and mixed-media art, von Essen has earned his self-taught education through observation, experience and a thirst for knowledge. His D.I.Y. leanings have propelled him to always challenge and extend himself within the creative fields he works in. It's part of his root system, as is the crossover of media he continually combines in projects. His use of found objects has no limitations and finds its place within an ongoing theme of recycling elements, such as using found conversations (dialogue from passersby in public spaces), combining immiscible mediums while painting and creating digital photomontages and video works. His paintings and photography often appear within his design and video work, while all of it merges into new means of expression with his unique mixed-media illustrations.
Arts journalist Nancy Lanthier writes: "Some of the paintings portray von Essen's expansive side; brimming with language, they convey intricate personal treaties, like songs in colour. The artist also can be cooly succinct; one or two-word images are edgy or amusing, or when the text takes on imagistic characteristics, visually ironic. His wordless paintings are architectural abstractions in rich hues, evocative of back alleys and twilight. Diligent and relentlessly inquiring, Derek von Essen has created a significant body of art."
He photo-documented the 1980’s underground music scene at hundreds of club shows in Toronto including touring acts Nirvana, Soundgarden and Mudhoney before they achieved fame. Shot before the digital age, von Essen's photo archive captures images the Vancouver Westender called, “confrontational, kinetic and the result of a keen eye for the perfect moment”. His affected hearing damage deterred a long future as a rock photographer.
As a graphic artist since 1995, von Essen has a specialized client base in fine arts, dance, theatre, music, film and publishing industries. Some of his clients have included Anvil Press, Arts Umbrella, Cormorant Books, Kinesis Dance, Joe Ink Dance, La La La Human Steps, Playwrights Canada Press, Screen Siren Pictures and the Vancouver Folk Music Festival. In addition, he created all design and print materials for over fifty individual dance and theatre advertising campaigns, including the 1999-2006 seasons for Ballet British Columbia and The Playhouse's 2000-2004 seasons. He has designed book covers for authors Jim Christie, Dennis Foon, Darren Greer, Robert Majzels, Jim Oaten and Pamela Stewart. His installation series, Horizons + Intersections (photography and video projection, 2004-2007) exhibited in Toronto at the Bau-Xi Gallery and in Vancouver at the East 3rd Gallery, with screenings in Canada, USA, China, Italy and various international art and film festivals. A Verse Map of Vancouver (Anvil Press, 2009), a 200-page hardback anthology edited by Vancouver's Poet Laureate George McWhirter was designed entirely by von Essen and includes over one hundred of his photographs.
Through the 90’s to present day, von Essen has exhibited in numerous galleries and remains a part of collections across North America and Europe. His work has been published in magazines, exhibition catalogues, media reviews and design books. He was profiled on CBC television, has facilitated artist workshops and presentations and was honoured by the BC Business and Arts Awards.