By Aaren Madden, December 2014
A new book provides a glimpse into Godfrey Stephens’ remarkable life and art.
As someone who has travelled thousands of kilometres the world over, first by thumb and later in sailboats of his own creation, who has hung with the Beat poets, lived on beaches on Vancouver Island, Jamaica, Greece, Hawaii, and Mexico and a houseboat in Paris (owned by Picasso’s dentist, no less), you would think it might take something spectacular to impress Godfrey Stephens. Rather, it takes something quietly poetic, deeply and personally profound. It’s that the pad of his thumb—the one that took him first to New Orleans, across the USA and through Europe and India—fits perfectly into the upward curve on the wooden handle of the d-adze he holds in his hand. “I never cease to be amazed by it,” he marvels, grasping the tool from which he has sculpted carvings out of massive logs and chunks of driftwood.
“I got [the adze] from Mungo Martin,” he says. “I’ve never let one leave my hand. I’d carry them around the world with me in my bag. Whenever I got somewhere, bam—I’d just start carving something and pretty soon people would gather around me on the beach. I’d spew out all kinds of—‘where I’ve been, where I want to go, and where are you from, and tell me what that means.’ I carved the head of a black man and I said, ‘can I use your eye?’ and I’d carve the eyelid, and ‘you are older, and I want some wrinkles in it.’ So I would borrow from all the people gathered around this crazy guy carving on the beach. That was the Jamaican time,” he regales.
Stephens was born in 1939 and spent his early years with the run of his parents’ organic berry farms, first in Duncan and later at Goldstream. When he was twelve, he began his lifelong friendship with now-Ten Time Chief and renowned First Nations artist Tony Hunt. Under the eye of Hunt’s grandfather, the aforementioned Mungo Martin, the two boys carved small totem poles to sell to tourists at Thunderbird Park. Stephens, who lived with Martin for a time, was granted permission to carve the First Nations forms early on and incorporates them into his work still.
Stephens’ own father was a songwriter, and when he was 16 the family packed up and moved to the other end of the cultural spectrum—in southern California. He always hated school and finally dropped out for good in tenth grade. Soon he hitchhiked to New Orleans, where his path would intersect with the writers and artists of the Beat Generation. From then on, seeking his muse, he literally carved—and/ or painted—out an existence, leaving behind a mural in a Beat café for some cash, trading a carving for sustenance, or early on, painting his trademark cartoon man in a teacup onto the side of a hotrod for the luxury of sleeping in it that night.
His skill did not go unnoticed. Princess Anne was presented with one of his carvings at the dedication of Pacific Rim National Park reserve in 1971; he was living in a teepee on the beach at the time. Some of Stephens’ many wood carvings, reminiscent of First Nations totem poles and Oceanic carvings, yet displaying their own sinuous, biomorphic aesthetic, can be seen in Victoria at Swan’s Pub and at the Times Colonist building on Douglas Street. In 1984 he carved the 21-foot-tall Weeping Cedar Woman to protest clear-cut logging on Meares Island; it stands in Tofino.
Living on land for the past 16 years, but still close to the sea he loves, he now works out of a studio in a home he shares with his wife, Megan, in Esquimalt. Among the paintings, drawings and keepsakes are photos of his two grown daughters, Aija and Tilikum.
His portraits, some dashed off with precise, economical lines, convey likenesses with a moving intimacy. Yet most of his paintings are effusive, abundant spaces packed with lines and images overlaid and intertwined: flora, fauna, boat hulls, nautical themes, portraiture, nude female forms. Swirling colours applied in oil and acrylic, then sanded down to luminous effect, draw the eye from one image to the next. They conjure the marine worlds Stephens sees through the underwater windows he installs in his boats.
Every viewing of these paintings will reveal a new reference: Stained glass, Greek Classical, Northwest Coast First Nations, Cubism, Modigliani, Matisse, and on and on. All with a Byzantine shimmer. Mind you, Stephens eschews categorization. He even balks at the term “artist,” saying, “I’d rather just be me.”
Stephens’ niece, Gurdeep Stephens, describes her uncle as having an “ever-presentness. He takes in everything around him and turns it into something. He lives completely in the present moment.” In December, she released Wood Storms, Wild Canvas, her book about her prolific uncle’s artistic output dating up to this, his 75th year.
It was no small task. “I must have asked over a hundred people to send me things and photos, and then I’d go over and pick the ones that I thought were the most exemplary of Godfrey’s art,” she says. Her cousin (and Godfrey’s daughter) Aija was the principal photographer. The book includes sections on painting, carving and boat-building, giving a mere glimpse into her uncle’s oeuvre. “I feel so honored to be able to tie it all together, to bring together people like Robert Amos and Joe David and Chief Tony Hunt and Peter Grant, and put together all their words,” she enthuses.
At its launch in December at Munro’s Books, both Stephenses expected the book signing to last about an hour. The over four hours they spent there is testament to the many friends, admirers and collectors Godfrey has amassed over the years. Though his peripatetic ways make gallery representation a challenge, his significance to the art history of Victoria and Canada’s West Coast is as undeniable as it is unique.
Recently, Stephens received a gift from the past in the mail from Kay Johnson, a renowned Beat poet he met in New Orleans in 1960. Among the photos, letters, postcards and ephemeral treasures is a chapbook of Stephens’ poetry that Johnson created. It is mimeographed in red ink on red paper, peppered with red doodles of eyes by Stephens. The title of the book is Paper Eyes, and the eponymous poem reads, “I want to be everywhere at once. / I wish I had a million little paper eyes / I could paste up on walls everywhere/ watching everything./ That would be me/ dead or alive/ nothing would be missed/ nothing would be left undone.”
Stephens was 21 when he wrote those words, and as his niece reads them now, he mutters about immaturity and youth. However, with his adze still in hand and energy to spare, that creative yearning he expressed years ago seems undiminished.
Wood Storms, Wild Canvas: The Art of Godfrey Stephens is available at most local bookstores, including the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria. www.woodstormswildcanvas.com; www.godfreysart.com. Author Gurdeep Stephens has created a Facebook page to extend its contents and share more of her uncle’s art and biography: www.facebook.com/godfreystephensart.
Aaren Madden—and many others, she suspects—is looking forward to the day Godfrey Stephens sits down to write a memoir. She expects it will inevitably be a multi-volume endeavour.