4 min

Remembering David Buller

Scholarship fund keeps murdered prof's memory alive

Credit: Xtra files

On the afternoon of Jan 18, 2001, David Buller was stabbed repeatedly in his office in the University Of Toronto’s Visual Studies department at 1 Spadina Cres. His body was found early the next morning by a caretaker.

Not long after I received the terrible news about my uncle, the media began reporting that a professor who was “known to the gay community” had been murdered at U of T. Nine days after his death, a memorial was held on campus in Hart House’s Great Hall. As I read a eulogy for David, I felt certain that his murder would be resolved within days. More than three years later, the perpetrator has not been found.

The media paid close attention to the criminal investigation in the months that followed. David’s life was placed under scrutiny. In the absence of answers, there were theories. Because he was a gay man, there was much speculation about the risks David may have taken. There was a tacit assumption that he had been the victim of a hate crime. There were leading questions about his art, as though hints of what had happened to him might be contained in those canvases.

In January of 2001 I believed the perpetrator would emerge quickly and shed light on some part of David’s life that we knew little about: a stranger, a former lover or date. I wanted to imagine this person to have been distantly connected to David’s life, perhaps to hold the experience at some distance from my own life. Three years later, difficult questions remain. Was it someone David knew? Could it have been someone who has shaken my hand and expressed sympathies?

On Jan 18, 2004, a small group of family and friends gathered in the studio where David’s office had once been. A friend had cut together some video footage of the news reports from 2001, followed by footage of David talking with students about their art projects, shot by his friend and colleague the late Colin Campbell. As always, David was articulate, funny and respectful of the students’ artistic concerns. Hearing the sound of his voice while standing in the space where he spent so much time preparing for his classes, it was as though Dave was present. I looked, as I do each year, at the faint outline on the floor, the remains of the walls that concealed a brutal act of violence.

Many times over the past three years I have visited the studio and followed the short corridor down the creaky stairs to the front foyer. There are other sets of stairs that lead to the sides of the building, which I have also walked down. It is a difficult space to navigate if you don’t know it well. The building is old, and the sound of footsteps resonates from one floor to the next.

The shock and aftermath of this kind of loss alters whatever fragile grip one may have on the difference between waking life and the surreal. Over time it has become ordinary, a matter of routine, to look up at the building where David was murdered as I cycle past 1 Spadina Cres on my way to work.

The investigation remains open, and into that void we are pouring our efforts to create a legacy for David at the University Of Toronto. It has been a struggle, because many feel that it is time to put the memory of David in the past.

There have been long stretches of time when I have had to put it all aside – my own thoughts of Dave, my sadness and anger, my efforts to work with the police and the press to maintain their focus on the criminal investigation. But none of us can accept what happened to Dave, even those of us who did not know him. My family has taken every opportunity to keep his memory alive, not only because we loved Dave but also because there is still the possibility that someone’s conscience may be touched and new information about the case will come to light.

The video footage of David is a powerful reminder of how much he cared about his students and how committed he was to teaching young artists. In honour of Dave and his instrumental work in designing the Visual Studies master’s program at U of T, the David Buller Memorial Scholarship was established in 2001 and awarded for the first time this year.

Our goal at this time is to increase the scholarship fund in order to make a significant financial difference to a graduate student annually. Contributions will be matched through the Ontario Student Opportunities Trust Fund. The launch for the fundraising campaign will coincide with an awards ceremony and reception, which will take place on Wed, Mar 31 at U of T. At this ceremony my family will donate one of David’s paintings to be hung in the Visual Studies department.

Once in awhile, at an art opening or event, I am approached by one of David’s former students. Most of these students have graduated and left the Visual Studies department, but their stories of David describe the lingering influence of a teacher who encouraged them to risk “putting more paint on the canvas.” These conversations are strangely intimate, perhaps because the impact David had on his students makes perfect sense to me.

As the months and years accumulate and the criminal investigation remains unresolved, David’s legacy as an artist and art teacher helps me to make some sense of this incomprehensible loss. The David Buller Memorial Scholarship will carry this legacy forward, not to repair the loss but to help all of us live with it.

* Inquiries and donations to the David Buller Memorial Scholarship can be made by contacting Monica Lin at (416) 946-5616.

A $50,000 reward is offered for information leading to an arrest in the murder of David Buller. Please contact Crime Stoppers at 1-800-222-8477 or Det Sgt Ken Taylor at (416) 808-7416.