If you’ve spent time at Esquimalt Lagoon, you may have noticed the driftwood sculptures of animals and birds that line the beach. For Paul Lewis, the artist behind many of those creations, the natural world is both his medium and muse.
A resident of Greater Victoria for 49 years, Lewis takes his inspiration from the outdoors and the creatures we share the coastline with. From kayak encounters with sea lions, to rescuing baby otters, to catching glimpses of bears and orcas, he’s been up close and personal with almost all the iconic animals of the Pacific Northwest.
“That’s what it’s all about. I live on the ocean here. This is my thing,” Lewis said.
Inspiration for the driftwood sculptures struck him in spring of 2018. April 6, to be exact. At the time, Alex Whitcomb’s driftwood sculpture, McGnarly the Beach Ent, already graced the beach. While drinking a coffee and watching the birds at the lagoon, something clicked for Lewis.
He went and grabbed his brother’s screw gun and a handful of screws, and set to work creating an eagle.
“I didn’t know what I was doing. I took white shells to do the head – I must have broken 10 shells for every one that I could actually drill through,” he said. “I was like, ‘never again,’ but people loved it.”
He’s made a number of pieces since then, so many he’s lost count. After the eagle came a raven, an owl, a goose and a heron, to name a few.
“I always love the birds down here. I usually walk the beach, clean up all the garbage that I see. Especially around my birds. I kind of take responsibility for this area.”
This year, when the weather warms up, he plans on revamping the area by taking out seven existing pieces and creating new ones from scratch. His style has progressed quite a bit since those early days.
He’s netted quite a few paying customers, too, including a commission from the City of Colwood to make their driftwood sign at the intersection of Veterans Memorial Parkway and Kelly Road. He’s also the artist behind the huge sasquatch outside the East Sooke grocery store.
Lewis has become a local fixture at Esquimalt Lagoon, soaking up the enjoyment of passersby who marvel at his work.
“I love doing the public stuff for people. Watching so many people come down and take pictures,” he said.
He doesn’t always tell people who he is, even when they ask if he knows the artist.
“I just smile and say, ‘yeah I know who did ‘em,’” he said with a laugh.
He takes a special joy in mentoring children too. He connected with a young autistic boy and his mother at the beach one day. He stayed in touch and went to visit him when he was recovering from an illness.
“The day he got out of the hospital, I went over to his house and spent some time with him. I bought him some Play-Doh, we painted rocks up like ladybugs and bees,” Lewis said.
A year after that he ran into the mother and son again. He found the young boy creating a massive beach art installation of his own, a giant sea turtle made of rocks.
“I was just amazed at his ability to construct this, and have that vision,” Lewis said.
His life hasn’t been all beach sculptures and mentoring children. He spent eight years in prison after a series of armed robberies. He describes that period as a rough time in his life.
“Some of us, it’s a way of learning. And I learned the hard way every time.”
The time in jail came with a mixed blessing. It was there that he really dove into his art practice. It began as a way of filling time and wound up being incredibly therapeutic. On 23-hour lockdowns in his cell, he would pore over drawings, first in pencil, then in black ink.
“I’d save up my pennies … working on the range, sweeping the range, you’d get your $30 every two weeks. My family and stuff would put money in my account so I could buy art supplies. That’s how it all started,” Lewis recalled.
He sees his driftwood sculptures as a labour of love and a way for him to give back to society.
“Everything happens for a reason, too. I had to go through that to become who I am today. I love who I am today. I absolutely love myself now,” he said.
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-by Emily Vance
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