Inside the Squirrel Cage Mind of Legendary Mixed Media Art Icon, Glenn Lewis

Since the 1960s, Vancouver Island-born mixed media artist/originator, Glenn Lewis, has seemingly done it all, from performance to photography and pottery. Last month he took some time out from his holiday schedule – Lewis’ initial email response confesses, “I’ve been very busy for an 82 year old,” – to kick up his slippered feet and chat about future (possibly floral) creative pursuits, past exploits and cat talk versus dog talk…

What neighbourhood do you live in and what makes it home? I live in Sunrise or the East Village. I’m not sure if it actually has two names or if there are two areas. Often when I’m shopping on the street, I think about this and suppose that Sunrise starts at Hastings facing east at the top of the hill at Slocan Street so you can see all the way to Burnaby and the sun rising in the east from there. Going in the opposite direction, I think the East Village extends to around Nanaimo Street. I call the area between Nanaimo and Victoria Drive, Templeton Park.

Dogs or cats? I’m a cat person I think, although I’m very fond of dogs as well, and I usually talk to both, but my cat talk is different from my dog talk.

“No matter what costume I put on, it always turned out to be Queen Elizabeth.”

Coffee or tea? In the morning when I get up, I usually have two cups of strong breakfast tea with milk and sugar, along with a piece of Finnish loaf (from Uprising Bread) toast and marmalade. That’s usually the caffeine for the day, but sometimes I’ll have a cappuccino in a coffee shop as a special treat.

Shoe of choice? Slippers are the best, other than bare feet, but bare is too difficult unless you are in the woods or in deep carpet at my age.

The cliché that you overuse? “Absolutely!”

What keeps you up at night? All the thoughts of the past, starting from the previous day, running around in the squirrel cage of my mind. Amazingly, some things progress, and some get solved sometimes, and some other things are regretted sometimes, and sometimes even, are not processes, they’re just collages, some things here, some there, and some cut up like a TV advertisement. Thankfully, some nights are thoughtless.

Your three role models? My mother: generous, loving and non-judgmental; Gwen Lamont: my teenage art teacher; John Reeve: my friend and fellow potter.

Favourite Vancouver building? The Marine Building – fantastically elegant.

The thing that is bad for you that you will never stop eating? My home made ice cream made with coconut cream and whipping cream, with frozen strawberries or Nutella… or with a spoonful of coconut essence.

The Vancouver restaurant you wish was open 24 hours? I can’t do 24 hours anymore, but I remember in the 60s and 70s a couple of restaurants on Davie that were great all night long after dancing at a gay bar. There was also a place we went for banana cream pie on Granville.

First album that made you love music? Probably the Rolling Stones with their first album, heard on the radio in the Devon countryside in England in 1964.

What was the last live concert you saw? The Doors concert at Dante’s Inferno at 1024 Davie Street in 1967. The following year it was renamed The Retinal Circus.

Your all-time best Halloween costume? No matter what costume I put on, it always turned out to be Queen Elizabeth.

What game did you love as a kid? Jacks.

Describe what art means to you in 10 words or less: My expressive perceptions of life in the community and world.

What was the first piece of art that you made? I think it was when I was in high school in 1952, after my private lessons with Gwen Lamont, I did an oil painting of a woman doing laundry, called La Laundress (I assumed that the French did oil paintings). My father also ran a laundry business in Kelowna. I also made some photographs of Marilyn Monroe in Banff in 1953 during summer work.

“Young artists have to band together and rent work space together.”

In what moment did you know that you wanted to pursue an artistic practice? I did a lot of art in high school, and it seemed natural to continue, so I enrolled at the Vancouver School of Art in 1954 with a small Canadian Legion scholarship my father helped arrange.

What’s the one thing about Vancouver’s art scene that you want to see changed the most? Compared to many cities, Vancouver has a lot fewer commercial art galleries which makes it difficult, particularly for younger artists. Many leave, going to Berlin or Toronto. There are some world-class collectors in Vancouver, but very few, and others don’t seem as confident as in many other cities, which is counter-intuitive because the city is full of unique, world-famous and other very interesting artists. And it has a vibrant art scene.

What’s the biggest change that you’ve seen occur in the Vancouver art scene, over the decades? Real estate and studio rent is becoming so expensive, it’s driving artists out of the city. City Council is aware and trying to help but it’s not working.

Your advice to young artists living and working in the city? This is not new news, but in the very expensive environment of Vancouver, young artists have to band together and rent work space together.

The different career path that you could have gone on? Architecture.

Three films you would gladly watch again? “Playtime”; “The Great Dictator”; and “Brazil”.

Your favourite gallery in YVR? Museum of Anthropology at UBC.

Your most regrettable purchase ever? The 300 shirts I bought at Value Village because I then had to buy 3 large wardrobes from Ikea to house them.

What was the luckiest moment in your life? Surviving being hit by a freighter in English Bay.

What are you the most proud of? At this point, in terms of art, it is probably my sculpture in a pond at UBC, called “Classical Toy Boat”.

Glenn in his Shark Fin Bathing Cap, circa 1972-73

What are you the least proud of? My mechanical know-how.

How do you continue to be inspired over the years? I’m not sure? Perhaps a combination of curiosity and a perception of value in ordinary things.

A medium that you’ve never worked with, but would like to? I once had a sculpture instructor who made life-size sculptures of cows in butter for the Canadian National Expositions in Toronto. I have made many photographs of topiary around the world but never made any topiary myself.

The worst thing about being an artist? Being obsessive and not knowing what you are really doing some of the time.

The best thing about being an artist? I get to make things that people like and perceptually investigate life at the same time.

Three artists in the city that you love? Rebecca Belmore, Gareth Moore, Maggie Boyd.

The first piece of art that you owned? A pot made by Bernard Leach in England.

The last unexpected or weird thing that inspired you? A mantelpiece with a pot on it and a picture on the wall above it.

Something that you collect? Guinomis.

The last performance you saw? The LIVE Performance Festival 2017 in September.

Your dream collaboration? Maybe a collaboration to design a garden.

The thing you are most looking forward to about 2018? If I could build a woodfire kiln somewhere.

The strange talent that you possess? A sense of humour.

The strange talent that you wish you possessed? To wag my tail.

What is the one animal that scares you the most? Maybe a cougar.

If you had a motto, what would it be? Everyone is creative.

Scariest situation you’ve ever been in? On the border of Iran and Afghanistan with photographer Taki Bluesinger. He packed a Playboy magazine on top of his luggage and gave it to the border guard. We didn’t have any problem.

Current trend in art that needs to die? New abstraction that is like old abstraction.

A recent exhibit at the Franc Gallery, featuring three pots made in China paired with photographs

Your favourite curse word? Shit.

Your least favourite word? Beautiful.

The most beautiful place in the world? Storm Bay.

Your favourite piece of artwork ever? Monet’s “Waterlilies”.

Your first memory? My mother hanging a sign around my neck stating, “Don’t feed Glenn”.

What object of no monetary value will you keep dearly until you die? A pair of wooden spoons, hand-carved by Mick Henry. These probably have some monetary value. These days there is probably no object that has no value except those flimsy styrofoam boxes for Chinese takeaway food.

The best way to go, in the very end? Surrounded by friends.

How would you like to be remembered? By my laugh.

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