Tribute to a "Most Impactful" Painting Instructor

by Karyn Sandlos
January 18, 2021

Christopher Eamon, 2020

"My most impactful painting instructor was murdered in his office at U of T. Stabbed to death in his sixth floor office. Nobody was ever arrested for that back in 2001.

I share this painting I made on a train in his memory, David Buller."

Christopher Eamon

In early July 2020, my friend Sally Lee shared with me a Facebook post by her friend, Christopher Eamon. Chris had studied painting with my uncle, David Buller, in the Visual Studies department at the University of Toronto.

Almost 20-years after his death, this beautiful landscape painting, and Chris's words, are a welcome reminder of David’s ongoing influence on the people who were lucky enough to know him.

David was a serious artist and painter, a gay man, a loyal friend, and a beloved member of our family. He was also a dedicated and passionate art professor. David was murdered in his office in the afternoon, a few hours prior to an evening class he was scheduled to teach. It was unheard of for David to miss a class, and the students waited for him. A few students went looking for David, knocking on the door of his office to see if everything was ok. The students’ memories of what it felt like to wait for their professor, the lingering feeling of unease they describe, is a residue that haunts me to this day.

When David’s students talk about his teaching, they inevitably mention something he would say when they were struggling with an artwork: “More paint, just use more paint on the canvas.” This was David’s way of encouraging students to risk more, get messier, lose themselves in the work, persist.

Today, Jan 18th, 2021, is the 20th anniversary of David’s murder.

We miss David very much, and we still haven’t given up trying to solve the terrible mystery of what happened to him.

Seventeen Years Later
by Karyn Sandlos
January 18, 2018

I often take pleasure in thinking about my late uncle, David Buller. If you knew him, or if you've read about him on this website, then you know that he was a funny, irreverent, and irreplaceable person. Today is the 17th anniversary of the day David was yanked from our lives, and I'm thinking about what that means this many years later. On Jan 18th, 2001, David was the victim of a terrible crime. A brazen crime. He was murdered in his office at 1 Spadina Cr. at the University of Toronto, and the person who took David's life has still not been found.

As an artist, a teacher, a gay man, and all-around decent human being, David had a profound influence on me. He rarely gave advice, but he had the guts to follow his passions in life, and that example was plenty to work with.

The loss of David left a hole in our hearts, and in our family. This week my mom said to me, “It still feels unreal, like a dream. I can’t believe this is happening to us.” When you lose someone, suddenly and traumatically, the experience never moves into the past tense.

Inspired by this poster from the art collective Fierce Pussy, For the Record - Visual AIDS (2014), I could write a hundred “If you were alive today’s…” for David, maybe more.

Fierce Pussy, For the Record - Visual AIDS (2014)

If You Were Alive Today (unfinished)

If you were alive today we would not have to live with the unanswered question. If you were alive today you would know that I live in Chicago now. If you were alive today you’d be cracking your great niece and nephews up with your sarcasm at family get togethers. If you were alive today we would have known each other as adults (I was 32 when you were murdered, with so much growing up to do, as it turns out). If you were alive today I would have so many things to ask you about art and teaching. If you were alive today you would hate being 67 (but of course you would still be handsome and fit). If you were alive today maybe I would tell you all the ways in which you influenced me (I hope you could see it). If you were alive today I would not be fighting tears on the El train while I write these words into my phone. If you were alive today I would not be getting emails from psychics and amateur investigators who think they can solve the case. If you were alive today we would be planning your retirement party from the Visual Art Department at the University of Toronto. If you were alive today I probably wouldn’t appreciate how lucky I was to know you. If you were alive today we would not be finding ways, because you were you, to keep a little hope.

Notes on the Fifteenth Anniversary
by Karyn Sandlos

David Bowie died last week. Of course my uncle, David Buller (1950-2001), was a Bowie fan. For an artistic, gay kid growing up in the suburbs of Toronto in the 1950s and 60s, David Bowie must have been a beacon of the possibilities for a life that lay just ahead: art school at (what was then) the Ontario College of Art (OCA), coming out, traveling across Canada on an Art in the Parks grant, and living for a short but formative time in Paris. Later still, there would be an apartment in Montreal, an MFA in the painting program at Concordia, and teaching in the Fine Arts Department at the University of Toronto.

January 18th, 2016 marks the 15th anniversary of the still unsolved murder of David Buller in his office at 1 Spadina Cr., University of Toronto. The last few years have been busy ones for David’s family and friends. In 2014, there was renewed interest in this story from a TV program, “To Catch a Killer,” where a team of civilians—specialists in different fields—takes a fresh look at unsolved murders.

While the episode didn’t give us any magical answers, it did help us to remain in active conversation with the Toronto Homicide Cold Case Unit, a relatively new department under the leadership of Detective Sergeant Brian Borg. And the episode has also helped to keep an important, albeit difficult, conversation about what may have happened to David alive in Toronto’s queer, arts and academic circles.

A few weeks ago, I found these undated photographs of David tucked inside an envelope in the back of an old family photo album. My mom (David’s sister, Betty-Lou) thinks they were probably taken when David was 15 or 16 years old, around 1965-66. David didn’t actually play the guitar, and as a teenager he probably wouldn’t have been permitted to smoke in my grandparents’ house. But he knew how to strike a pose.

January 18th, 2016

Thank you, Uncle David, for showing us what it could look like.

As our uncle, David rarely handed out advice to my sister Lisa, my brother John, and me. But once in awhile he would say something that stuck in our hearts and minds. Like the time he told us, “Just do something interesting with your time on earth.” This was less a piece of advice and more a provocation.

David Buller: 50 + 15
by John Sandlos
January 18th, 2016

Among the many thoughts that flood inward on the fifteenth anniversary of my uncle's murder, there is this: he would have turned 65 this year. David Buller the senior citizen, distinguished grey, and elder statesman. I wonder how would he have felt about that?

Of course he would not have liked the first hints of muscle sag, the acceleration of the greying process, the extra aches, the wrinkles, the doctor telling him for the umpteenth time to give up alcohol (or become a vegetarian, according to one story he told). I think he would have studiously avoided any attraction or institution (even major art galleries) that offered a senior's discount. He would have rather moved to Kandahar than settle any where designated as a "retirement community." I don't really see him lawn bowing, golfing, or playing bridge, either. Suduko or crosswords were never really his thing.

So what would Dave be doing as he embarked on this new life stage? Certainly, I think, he would still be working. His passion for teaching undiminished, he would have found it difficult to walk away from the classroom at the standard retirement age. I have no doubt he would still be making art, fifteen years further along the evolution that had driven him to include multimedia content in his work.

I have to think that he would be content, no hint of old fartism anywhere despite the occasional gripe about aging. A sense of humour intact, a few more debts paid, excellent health and some opportunities for travel under his belt -- things would be looking up for David as the calendar rolled around to 2016. Most importantly, he could look back on a rich career as an academic and artist with quiet satisfaction.

So often I place David in the present moment, imagining what he might say or do in a particular situation. During the Toronto Blue Jays playoff run this past fall, I could practically imagine him pacing in my living room, then walking out of the room (as he did in 1992) to pour another drink because he couldn't take the suspense any more ("it's just too much," he said). Maybe he would take my own kids to a baseball game as he did with me decades ago now.

Of course, the problem with imagining those we have lost into our present is that they are never really there.

Like Orpheus we try to lead them back to our world, only to find they have slipped away. Which I suppose is a really complicated way of saying that I miss Uncle Dave.

Wedding gift to John and Yolanda from David Buller

Notes on the Thirteenth Anniversary
by Lisa Sandlos
January 16, 2014

Days away from the thirteenth anniversary of the murder of my uncle, David Buller, I have been sifting through my memories and my notes. I came across the script for a short speech I gave at the internment of Uncle Dave’s ashes in 2001 in which I spoke of his presence in and influences on my life. Reflecting on this speech now makes me imagine what I might say to my uncle if I could talk to him now:

I still feel your presence deeply in my life after thirteen years. I know I am not alone in this feeling. More and more over time, I appreciate the positive and lasting imprints you have made on so many people in your roles as teacher, artist, friend, and family member. I, along with numerous others who care and remember your legacies, are doing what we have to do in our continuing process of grieving, memorializing the experiences we shared with you, and hoping for answers. Meanwhile, we miss you profoundly.

Much love, Lisa

Lives Lived column, The Globe and Mail
Wednesday, Oct 10, 2001

Visual artist, professor, much loved son, brother, uncle, and friend.

Born August 10, 1950 in Willowdale, Ontario. Murdered in Toronto, January 18, 2001, aged 50.

There was little in my uncle David's childhood to suggest the innovative painter and charismatic professor that he became in later years. He wasn't interested in school; summer camp was torture. He used to rub snow in his face when sent outside to play so he would have the requisite rosy cheeks his mother insisted upon before allowing him back inside, where he could retreat into the world of I Love Lucy.

He was captivated by drawing and painting from his early teens. A pencil drawing that now hangs on my wall, completed when Dave was only seventeen, shows a young Bob Dylan slyly winking at the viewer, the singer's last name spilling across the page in bright psychedelic colours. Uncle Dave was a 60's hipster; I remember the long wavy hair and bell bottoms he wore when I was very young, and the vastness of his canvasses from my perspective much closer to the ground. I'm taller now, but the paintings that hang in my apartment still seem immense.

David went to the Ontario College of Art from 1969 to 1973, but his career did not really take shape until a group show at the Pollock Gallery in 1979 and solo shows in 1980 and 1981. The paintings from this period are difficult and uncompromising; large, dramatic abstracts overlap regular patterns of lines or shapes with bursting swirls of colour.

A sojourn in Paris and the completion of an MFA at Concordia in 1985 inspired further growth and change in David's work. He began to experiment with three dimensional shapes in a series of oil on paper paintings, and with layering and stratification of colour and texture in his larger canvasses. Meanwhile, he pursued a parallel teaching career, taking part-time teaching appointments at McGill University, Central Technical School, and the AGO. In 1985, he was appointed to a full-time position in the studio program in the University of Toronto Department of Fine Arts studio program.

For him, teaching was inspiration, not obligation. His students gave him exceptional reviews, and it soon became difficult to get into his courses. He was instrumental in developing an innovative interdisciplinary Masters Program in Visual Studies (scheduled to open at the U of T in the Fall of 2002).

Although his teaching schedule was demanding, he remained a prolific artist until his death. Exposure to the creative energy of young artists in classes on postmodernism and the politics of visual culture led to a fertile experimental phase: He began to explore aspects of gay male sexuality, painting on photo portraits of nude males or including photo collages within smaller abstract canvasses. The introduction of phrases such as "grains of truth" or "view on monogamy" reveal a more overt political stance, matched in his personal life through his support of AIDS research and activism.

Toronto's Gay Pride Parade was, for Dave, Christmas in June. The last painting he completed includes the words "history counsels patience,' a quote from the poet W.H. Auden who denounced the Nazi persecution of homosexuals.

An intensely serious artist and teacher, David had an irreverent wit. Glass of scotch in hand, he'd recall the time at the height of his starving artist days when he "borrowed" twenty dollars from the collection plate at the baptism of a friend's child.

My uncle was found stabbed to death in his office last January. His death has profoundly shaken his family and close friends. He is much loved and sorely missed.

Cheers to you, David.