A lifetime of art celebrated

Frank Lewis recalls his many works over a long and colourful

Noted muralist Frank Lewis with a few of his paintings in his home in Saanich. His recent donation of a piece to the Royal Jubilee Hospital celebrates his Métis hertitage

“My people will sleep for 100 years, but when they awake, it will be the artists who give their spirit back.”

Louis Riel didn’t know it at the time, but he was talking about Frank Lewis.

Standing six-foot-six, with blue eyes and a full head of white hair, Lewis knows the hardship and joy of being Métis.

On Sept. 20, he presented an elaborate painting portraying that dichotomy to the Royal Jubilee Hospital Patient Care Centre, where it will hang in the All Nations Healing Room.

“This painting represents the culmination of a 65-year career,” Lewis told a crowd at the unveiling.

It is likely to be his last public work in a remarkable career that leaves a legacy across the country in multiple genres, from painting to acting to graphic design.

He graduated from Oak Bay High in 1952 and attended the Vancouver School of Art – now the Emily Carr University of Art and Design – on a scholarship before he moved to Toronto.

He quickly established himself as a skilled graphic designer at CBC television and in some of North America’s biggest advertising studios, winning numerous industry awards between 1957 and 1964.

In the underground music scene in Toronto and Montreal, he befriended the likes of Cannonball Adderley and Chico Hamilton, while designing album artwork and posters for many of the future legends of jazz.

“You could go to the Pilot Tavern (in Toronto), sit down, and for 35 cents a beer, watch Thelonius Monk playing on the stand,” Lewis said.

As the golden years of bebop faded, so too did Lewis’ drive to produce meaningful art.

“It was a lot of fun, but I wasn’t going anywhere,” he said.

He kept painting by undertaking a government-commissioned project to promote Canadian art.

“I painted a boxcar for the B.C. government. It was a silly idea,” he said, recalling his agent’s initial attempt to lobby the federal government on the idea of funding a travelling art train.

“We got a letter back from (then-prime minister Lester) Pearson that said, ‘No self-respecting artist would paint on a boxcar.’”

The B.C. government, led at the time by W.A.C. Bennett, jumped at the chance for publicity and commissioned Lewis after Pearson’s letter was picked up by the national media.

The “silly idea” toured North America for two years and was featured in the New York Times and Maclean’s Magazine, among others.

In 1967, Lewis earned a spot as a young Indian boy on the debut of George Ryga’s play, The Ecstacy of Rita Joe, at the Vancouver Playhouse.

Two years later, the play opened the studio theatre of the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, where Lewis mingled with the country’s elite and artists alike.

“I sat down with Chief Dan George, Jean Chrétien and Pierre Trudeau and talked about the Indian Act,” Lewis said, recalling nights out on the town with Trudeau.

“He took my girlfriend away,” he said, laughing.

In the mid 70s, Lewis landed in Cumberland, B.C., where he briefly worked as editorial cartoonist for the now-defunct Comox Free Press. He recalled cycling through town in the middle of the night to meet the paper’s 3 a.m. print deadlines.

It took a visit from an old Toronto friend in 1982 to reawaken Lewis to his ambitions.

“We had gone to the bar, and on the way home, there was a dog sleeping in the middle of the road,” he said. “So we lay down beside the dog and said, ‘Our careers have come to this.’ I had won the graphic designers award, illustrator of the year, and there we were, laying in the middle of the road with a dog.”

He began accepting commissions for murals, first illustrating Cumberland’s coal mining history on the inside of a local general store in exchange for a small stipend and free groceries.

He then completed a five-by-20-metre mural of the Gumboot Navy for the Vancouver Maritime Museum to much fanfare, solidifying his reputation as a world-class painter.

“I had newspaper headlines and I was thinking, ‘I don’t mind success, but why give me so much so quickly?’ It was really hard to deal with right away,” he said.

He met his current wife, Margaret Parker, at their 40th high school reunion in 1992.

“She was a high school sweetheart, and it was love at first sight,” he said.

Lewis has since produced 20 major public artworks, including the Burnside Gorge Community Mural on the Galloping Goose Trail in 2006.

He and Parker have travelled the world. In Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Lewis completed a mural for the boardroom of the Canadian High Commission, while Parker helped develop an architectural and art school.

They now live in Saanich, their home filled with Lewis’ dearest work. His blue eyes light up as he recalls all that connects him with his Métis heritage.

“We’re everywhere, but not together,” he said. “That spirituality is still in me, and has been all through my career.”

dpalmer@vicnews.com

Just Posted

Oak Bay father tells court he attempted suicide a month before daughters’ murders

Andrew Berry takes stand in his defense for December 2017 deaths of young daughters

UPDATED: Kelly Ellard gets day parole extended for six more months, overnight leave

Ellard was convicted of killing 14-year-old Reena Virk in 1997

Two Victoria storytellers win $50k to create documentaries

Telus Storyhive grants awarded to 30 filmmakers across B.C. and Alberta

Tours showcase sculptures, art demos in final week of Oak Bay’s Arts and Culture Days

Arts and Culture Days ends with community picnic at Carnarvon Park on Aug. 29

Junior Shamrocks drop Minto Cup opener

Rick Stiebel/News Staff Despite a furious third-period rally, the Victoria Junior A… Continue reading

Trudeau vows to stand firm against ‘increasingly assertive’ China

China has accused Canada of meddling in its affairs

Greater Victoria wanted list for the week of Aug. 23

Greater Victoria Crime Stoppers is seeking the public’s help in locating the… Continue reading

POLL: Should there be a ban on gas-powered leaf blowers?

We’ve all heard them, and most likely cursed them under our breath.… Continue reading

B.C. family stranded in Croatia desperate to come home

Funds being raised to bring back mom and two children

$5-million lotto ticket sold in Nanaimo

Someone matched all six numbers in Wednesday’s 6/49 draw

‘Plenty of time for a deal’: Teachers’ union expects kids back in school on Sept. 3

BCTF says class size, composition at the heart of the issue

Province funds new shuttle buses for 13 B.C. senior centres

Activity, socializing helps maintain health, Adrian Dix says

BREAKING: Province approves Surrey police force

Minister of Public Safety Mike Farnworth green-lights city’s municipal police force

Police watchdog investigating two officers after Langley teen’s suspected overdose

According to IIO, two officers were deployed to help Carson Crimeni but did not locate him before he died

Most Read