Vancouver-based artist, hairdresser Preston Buffalo dead at 44

Vancouver-based artist and hairdresser Preston Buffalo, 44, died on June 12, 2024. He is being remembered fondly by family and friends. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC - image credit)
Vancouver-based artist and hairdresser Preston Buffalo, 44, died on June 12, 2024. He is being remembered fondly by family and friends. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC - image credit)

Jim Dreichel remembers Preston Buffalo promoting a performance and club night at a bar in Vancouver in the late 90s.

Dreichel said Buffalo lit up the small, crowded venue with a distinctive charm.

"It was just this trainwreck of gorgeousness," Dreichel said. "He had this completely unabashed, unapologetic gayness."

Buffalo was a two-spirit person and a member of the Samson Cree Nation in Maskwacis, Alta., about 80 kilometres south of Edmonton.

He was a prolific visual artist, talented hairdresser, and for a time, a fixture of Vancouver's nightlife. He died at the age of 44 on June 12.

Friends remember Buffalo as a creative force and talented hairdresser, while family remember him as a beacon of positivity, unequivocally proud of his identity.

"He was beyond eccentric, and so funny," Jessica Buffalo, Preston's sister, said. "When we would hang out, we would be laughing until our stomachs hurt because of how funny he was, and how funny he thought I was."

Preston Buffalo lived in Maskwacis, Alta., before moving to Nanaimo, B.C.
Preston Buffalo lived in Maskwacis, Alta., before moving to Nanaimo, B.C.

Preston Buffalo lived in Maskwacis, Alta., before moving to Nanaimo, B.C. (Submitted by Jordan King)

Support system for siblings

Preston Buffalo was born in Alberta, on Jan. 22, 1980, and lived in a home near Edmonton with his closest siblings, Jessica, Azure and Elijah. He had a large family — Jessica said they also had seven half-siblings, from different mothers.

Buffalo's immediate family moved to Nanaimo, B.C. when he was a teenager. Elijah Buffalo said, as a child, he always looked up to his older brother. Preston was always left in charge, and often looked after his siblings.

"I always copied him, whatever he was doing, even though we were always quite different," Elijah said.

When he was 13, Preston came out as two-spirit. Shortly after, Jessica also came out as two-spirit. She said they became each others' support system.

"There were no other queer kids that we knew of in Nanaimo, so it was really isolating," she said. "It was really nice to have somebody there who knew what you're going through."

Preston Buffalo came out as two-spirit while living in Nanaimo, B.C.
Preston Buffalo came out as two-spirit while living in Nanaimo, B.C.

Preston Buffalo came out as two-spirit while living in Nanaimo, B.C. (Submitted by Jordan King)

In the late 1990s, Jessica and Preston started going to raves, where Jessica said they felt at home among other 2SLGBTQ+ teenagers.

"He was just happy, and he had these pretty funny dance moves," she said.

In Nanaimo, Preston met artist Jordan King. They became fast friends, and moved to Vancouver together in 1998.

Preston Buffalo, student at Emily Carr University, is pictured inside his Vancouver apartment on Tuesday, September 10, 2019.
Preston Buffalo, student at Emily Carr University, is pictured inside his Vancouver apartment on Tuesday, September 10, 2019.

Preston Buffalo is seen in September 2019. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

At night, Buffalo would often head to raves and gay bars as his drag persona, Priska. King said Buffalo would find clothing at thrift stores, and paint and alter them to express himself.

Together, he and King would host and promote parties like the one Dreichel fondly remembers.

Eventually, he landed at Mine Salon, which was owned by Dreichel. When Dreichel and his co-founded Union Salons, Buffalo followed.

"Very few people could touch his skill. He was extremely gifted," Dreichel said, adding that Buffalo would often be fully booked for several months at a time.

Jordan King, left, and Preston Buffalo, right, promoted parties in Vancouver in the late 1990s.
Jordan King, left, and Preston Buffalo, right, promoted parties in Vancouver in the late 1990s.

Jordan King, left, and Preston Buffalo, right, promoted parties in Vancouver in the late 1990s. (Greg Manuel/Submitted by Jordan King )

Focus on visual art

In the mid-2010s, he started focusing on his visual art. In 2017, he participated in a group exhibition of two-spirit artists at Centre Never Apart, in Montreal. In June 2018, Buffalo designed a logo for CBC Arts.

The same year, he started studying at the Emily Carr University of Art and Design. Jessica said that's when his art career "exploded to this creative amazement."

Preston Buffalo's CBC Arts logo for June.
Preston Buffalo's CBC Arts logo for June.

Preston Buffalo's CBC Arts logo for June. (Submitted by Preston Buffalo)

King said Buffalo was a prolific creator, with a massive volume of pieces. He quickly started participating in exhibitions across the country, including in Vancouver, Montreal, and Kingston, Ont.

His work included photography, augmented reality digital art and formline work that drew on traditional Coast Salish artwork.

Preston Buffalo, student at Emily Carr University, looks at paperwork from TD Canada Trust inside his Vancouver apartment on Tuesday, September 10, 2019.
Preston Buffalo, student at Emily Carr University, looks at paperwork from TD Canada Trust inside his Vancouver apartment on Tuesday, September 10, 2019.

Preston Buffalo worked in a number of different art mediums. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Work highlighted Downtown Eastside

Last April, he held an exhibit at the SUM Gallery in Vancouver. It featured a series of images he took of the Downtown Eastside, the community in which he lived. Jessica said he would strike up conversations as he walked through the area, and became an advocate for its people.

"[He] showed the beauty of the Downtown Eastside, and not the pain," she said. "I just thought that was amazing."

Throughout his life, Buffalo used substances. King and Dreichel both said his relationship with drugs was complicated.

"He didn't shy away from it and he didn't try to hide it," King said. Substance use became a theme in his art, most notably through the formline-patterned syringe that became a motif in several pieces.

Much of Preston Buffalo's work focused on his relationship to substance use and his neighbourhood, the Downtown Eastside. This piece of art was posted on his Instagram as he promoted an exhibition at Vancouver's SUM Gallery.
Much of Preston Buffalo's work focused on his relationship to substance use and his neighbourhood, the Downtown Eastside. This piece of art was posted on his Instagram as he promoted an exhibition at Vancouver's SUM Gallery.

Much of Preston Buffalo's work focused on his relationship to substance use and his neighbourhood, the Downtown Eastside. This piece of art was posted on his Instagram as he promoted an exhibition at Vancouver's SUM Gallery. (Preston Buffalo/Instagram)

According to Jessica, Buffalo died from various health complications. She said he's heard an outpouring of support from his former hairdressing clients.

"The hair world really missed him once he left for art, so they began feeling that loss," she said. "It's felt far and wide."

She is fulfilling orders for a book of his art, and digitizing his pieces, so an archive of his work can live on.

Last week, Buffalo's family gathered in Maskwacis to honour his life and follow ancestral traditions to help him on his journey.