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Wood Storms/Wild Canvas: The Art of Godfrey Stephens

By Gurdeep Stephens

Review By Maria Tippett

January 29, 2015

BC Studies no. 186 Summer 2015  | p. 152-53

In the introduction that the art critic Robert Amos has contributed to this pictorial biography, he tells us that Duncan-born Godfrey Stephens is “too busy and too self-centred, to study the influences of art history or current events.” This leaves Amos to conclude that Stephens “designs are unique…” (vii). And yet, as is revealed in the ensuing text of Wood Storms/Wild Canvas: The Art of Godfrey Stephens, authored by Stephens’s niece Gurdeep Stephens, the artist was exposed to a number of styles and genres. For example, he was introduced to Northwest Coast First Nations carving when, as a child in the 1950s, he lived briefly with Chief Mungo Martin in Victoria. After leaving school “at around fourteen years of age,” Stephens lived in Munich, Germany, from where he visited other European cities (2). In later adulthood he travelled to Bangkok and later to Mexico, among other places well beyond Canada’s borders.

Even a cursory look at the beautifully reproduced illustrations in Wood Storms/Wild Canvas, the Art of Godfrey Stephens will demonstrate that Stephens never lived in an artistic cocoon. Indeed, in this reviewer’s mind, the sculptures that he has produced in wood and steel, and from found objects, along with the works on paper and canvas, are far from immune to external influences. For example, the teak carving Bowlfrog (2013) lies stylistically, if not materially, within the classical tradition of the First Nations people. Stephens’ mixed-media drawings and paintings — one is sixteen feet long by six feet high — combine collage with abstract expressionist and psychedelic art movements of the 1960s. And more recently we have the example of the artist’s fifteen-foot high sculpture, Nuka Mas (2005), composed of recycled guns. It reminds us that, four years previously, the Mozambican sculptor Kestler had notably turned weapons into art when he created Throne of Weapons out of guns left over from the Mozambican Civil War.

There is nothing wrong with adapting the styles of other artists, or the traditions of other cultures, to one’s own work. It is only so-called primitive or naïve artists who are generally exempt from such influences. But most artists grow within — or else reject — the traditions or styles within which they have been schooled. This is, in fact, what allows them to distinguish their work from that of other artists, and to claim that what they produce is “unique.” This is not what Stephens has done.

Even so, in the view of First Nations Nuu-chah-nulth carver Joe David, Stephens is “a true artist,” and he goes further in calling him “a cultural and national treasure” (35). The author likewise suggests that Stephens’ “turbulent life,” along with his “massive body of work,” justifies labelling him “our West-Coast Picasso” (4).

There is no doubt that Stephens is a prodigious worker. He has not only produced dozens of carvings and paintings but has also built boats like the twenty-ton, three-mast, junk-rigged schooner S/N Chief Mungo (II). Nor has he failed to participate in social and political causes. Stephens’ eighteen-foot-tall carving titled Weeping Cedar Woman (1984) — his answer, perhaps, to Picasso’s Guernica — supported the protests over the logging of Meares Island. Like Picasso, again, Stephens is a showman. The author tells us that “he once tried to see how many quality works he could produce in an evening over a bottle of wine” (5). He produced twenty-eight works.

But does a Bohemian life style along with the publication of someone’s work in a glossy coffee-table book make him or her an artist? In the end it is the work itself that counts. In this writer’s view the jury is still out on the kind of achievement represented by Godfrey Stephens’ artistic oeuvre.

Wood Storms/Wild Canvas: The Art of Godfrey Stephens
Gurdeep Stephens
Victoria: D & I Enterprises, 2014. 144 pp. $39.95 paper