| An Online Exhibit by The Valemount Museum |
Made possible by generous funding from the
Columbia-Kootenay Cultural Alliance (CKCA)
An aura of mystery surrounds
the name of
Born to diplomat parents in 1907, little is known about his childhood. His father was a diplomat between Bulgaria and England, and his mother between England and the States.
In 1916 he moved to the United States with his parents. Vanslyk claimed on his army records that his highest formal education was grade three, though he schooled in various places until he was 11 or 12. The rest of his education was self-taught from reading and experience. Friends, however, recall that Vanslyk said his parents hired tutors to educate their only child. It is possible that Vanslyk attended school until grade three, and was then taught by hired tutors as his parents moved around. Thus, his schooling would have been in 'various places.' From his artwork, artists deduce that Vanslyk had some formal art training, which would have been provided by his tutors. Vanslyk's letters and speech certainly indicate an education of high quality.
When Vanslyk was about fifteen, his parents moved to New York, to be in the Diplomatic Corps of New York. "It was the turning point in his life. Some phobia seemed to hit him then; he couldn't stand to be around so many people," recounts Bob Beeson, one of Vanslyk's friends in the Valemount area. In 1924, he left home and went to Quebec, where he worked for a surveying outfit. His wonderful handwriting gained him a job doing the 'fancy work'; making maps. There, Vanslyk gained interest in mining and assay work, and followed construction camps.
In the Canadian Army
After coming west, Vanslyk enlisted in the Canadian Army and trained in Vernon. Vanslyk looked like a rough bushman, and even the Army couldn't clean him up. He refused to name next of kin, though he admitted that his parents were dead. He also declared his religion as 'agnostic.' Vanslyk was declared "B-1," unfit for military action because of rheumatism, flat feet, and difficulty breathing through his nose. The Army finally found Vanslyk's talent, and sent him all over BC tracking down 'fire balloons,' which were sent by the Japanese to start forest fires. Vanslyk could continue living in the wilderness, and the Army provided him with food, clothes, and shelter. "He found more of them than all the rest put together. He had a ball doing that, - he was prospecting!" chuckles Beeson.
After WWII, Vanslyk began work for Sinclair Neil McLean at a logging camp in Shelley, B.C. Vanslyk fit into the rustic way of life, a bit more than most. While the typical logger bathed once a week, Vanslyk felt it necessary to wash up only semi-annually for his trek into the Prince George town. McLean tells a story about one of these rare occasions. When the camp reopened for the spring, in the middle of May, "Jimmy had hibernated all winter by himself in one of the smaller bunkhouses and now looked like a real hermit. His clothing consisted of three or maybe four layers of remnants of pants, shirts, and coats, rubber boot on one foot, leather boot on the other. All of this was canopied by long hair and a beard. He announced in an offhand manner that he thought he would like to spruce up a bit, starting with a bath in the icy Fraser River. Once the crew took him seriously they all trouped to the riverbank and formed a semi-circle to watch the performance, adding suggestions where necessary."
"Jimmy casually stripped to his ever-nothings and gingerly, with soap in hand, picked his way over the pebbles in his bare feet and walked into the river, up to his middle. At this point I believe half the crew was gasping on his behalf, but Jimmy bravely proceeded to lather and rinse himself, including a thorough shampoo. Needless to say when he emerged from the water he was shivering vigorously but toweled himself as he quickly made his way to a warm bunkhouse. Jimmy dried himself, dressed in some casual wear and engaged the camp barber to give him a haircut and cut off his beard. After shaving Jimmy proceeded to get dressed. We were totally amazed when he emerged in a three-piece dark blue pinstriped business suit complete with a white shirt, a flashy tie with a gold nugget stickpin and black highly polished oxfords.
The transformation was unbelievable; here standing before us stood a man of means, an executive, a C.E.O., a V.I.P. He didn't always dress so elegantly before going to town but he did on occasion and this was one of those times; it was enlightening for all of us." When Vanslyk went into town he would use his artwork to barter, however the receiver was expected not to sell or enter the work into a competition. On one visit into town Vanslyk discovered that the dentist he bartered with had entered Vanslyk's art into a competition, receiving a prize. Vanslyk quickly aquainted the dentist with his short temper
Vanslyk came to Valemount after Shelley, and lived in old barns or shacks. His first residence in the valley was a barn left at an old mill site-but it had no front! Imagine a cold winter in the Canadian Rockies with no insulation, sleeping in a bear hide, for Vanslyk said it wasn't healthy to sleep on a mattress. One fall Ralph Lebans and Bob Beeson started up a logging camp, and needed a watchman so they hired Vanslyk. When the camp moved though, Vanslyk didn't continue. Beeson explains why Vanslyk left. "He said life was too soft with warm bunkhouses and he couldn't stand people around him." Though Vanslyk chose to live alone, he was very amiable, and loved to talk. Another of Vanslyk's residences was a dugout down the Canoe River. It was pretty much a hole in the ground, and Vanslyk sewed pieces of mica together to make windows. Vanslyk's tough life made a tough man, and he could carry farther than many men. All his adult life Vanslyk suffered from severe migraines, and people speculate that he died of a brain tumour. Vanslyk passed away in 1961, at the age of 55, in the McBride Hospital. He is buried in the Valemount Cemetery.
Sources: Yellowhead Pass and Its People, Army Records, and the Eulogy by S.N. McLean & Valemount Archives