Home and Away:
A Journey with Artist Victoria Lewis
article by Ruth Barrett and photos by Elizabeth Davidson
“I’ve moved house at least 43 times in my life.”
For the last thirteen years, visual artist Victoria Lewis has called Stratford home, living in the oldest house on her street. Built circa 1860, it sits back from the road hidden behind a canopy of trees. Entering through the side gate is like stepping into a remote cottage garden: lush greenery, towering trees and flowers surround the yard and give it the calm feeling of a countryside oasis.
“When I first arrived, there was nothing in the backyard. No fence. No plants.” Victoria’s ongoing labour of love has created a perfect, cloistered garden. You might believe that the view belongs to another place and time. “It’s almost medieval, isn’t it?” Victoria muses. “Very Asian in some ways, with the sloping roofs and chimneys. It’s fabulous out here in the moonlight. And by day I have a lot of chickadees in the garden. They make good companions.”
In the front garden a plaque is half-buried by ivy, telling of the house’s original owner. J.D. Barnett was a master mechanic and manager at the Stratford Grand Trunk Railway repair shops. Much like the home’s present owner, he seems to have had a rich inner life. Barnett amassed a collection of some 40, 000 books and donated it to the University of Western Ontario in 1918, forming the backbone of their library’s Shakespeare section. “The house was practically held up by books!” laughs Victoria.
With its bookish provenance, the house is an appropriate place for this artist to call home. Victoria holds four degrees, including Library Sciences, a B.F.A., a B.A. in Asian Studies (with a special interest in Buddhism and Mysticism), and a Masters of Fine Arts. While there are no longer 40,000 books in residence, the colourful floor-to-ceiling shelves do house an impressive collection of tomes. “The interior of the house was completely ripped out. It was full of cheap shag rugs and ugly 1970s wood panels, and some areas had been boarded over. It’s been opened back up and new flooring put down.”
The revamped space seems just right. Tall ceilings and casement windows form a backdrop for antique furniture scattered about the wooden floors, shelves lined with fascinating objects, mementos and artifacts, and there are punches of colour at every turn. Victoria’s own oversized artwork dominates many of the walls. “The work has its own presence. It inhabits the same space as I do. We co-exist.”
Victoria Lewis has led a peripatetic life that has taken her to the far corners of the world. In the early 1970s, she embarked upon a six-month tour of Europe in a VW camper van. A stay in Morocco seems particularly vivid. “It was like stepping back into Biblical times. It was treacherous, but so colourful. Going out into the desert, you’d see the authentic Bedouin tents erected the way they had been for centuries—not like the staged settlements that exist for the entertainment of today’s tourists. A sea of rich, brown tents flapping in the wind like a kids’ caricature of waves. Fabulous! You’d see the Bedouin appearing out of the mists through the haze. Magical. That’s a lost world: it’s all been taken over as resorts now.”
In the late 1970s, Victoria lived for a time in India with her then-husband—an Indianologist. Traveling by foot, train and scooter, she experienced local life, both in the countryside and in the sprawling cities tightly packed with humanity. “It was an enormous culture shock—a huge contrast to the all-pervasive North American consumer culture back home.”
No doubt the sights, textures and colours of her extensive travels are strong influences in her artwork. But what attracted such a world traveler to settle in Stratford, Ontario? “I first came here from Toronto in search of studio space. I did find a wonderful place: high above what is now Pazzo at the intersection of Ontario and Downie streets. It was a huge, airy open space on top of the city, overlooking the river. I shared it with two other local artists: Glenn Elliot and Kathi Posliff, and the late Robert Ihrig. It was so big, I remember Glenn riding around inside it on his bicycle. It was our fantasyland! But after five years as our studio, it was sold to developers and turned into condominiums. A shame.”
Victoria has always been an artist. “One of my earliest photographs shows me at the age of ten months—clutching a pencil. As a child, I was forever drawing pictures of animals. I remember sitting on my grandmother’s porch drawing while all the other kids played in the street. I have always been an observer.”
For many years, Victoria’s art consisted of black-and-white photography. But a gradual transition saw the introduction of colour. “The natural world comes in with colour, and the meaning becomes less clear—less ‘black-and-white’—reds, browns and golds—the meaning gets subverted.” In her paintings, she once focused upon a still-life theme. But that also underwent a progression: “Instead of the objects on the surface, the focus became a photograph sitting on the table or the window beside it—the outside world as interior images, where before there was no outside world.”
Today, much of her art consists of constructed landscapes. Victoria paints on large, Baltic birch panels using the medium of Sennelier oil sticks—a product originally developed for Pablo Picasso. The sticks are used to apply oil paint in a solid form and are held much like a crayon. The resulting effect is robust and mystical, full of colourful energy and power. Standing before a painting of a white house against a rugged dream-like landscape, Victoria cites the influence of Ontario’s Essex County and rural crofter’s houses in Scotland. “Looking at this house, you can either see it as the perfect place—or believe that something terrible has happened there. It is all a matter of perception and personal association.”
Victoria’s large paintings are best viewed in a gallery setting. Her latest opening of new works, Victoria Lewis: What Journey, takes place on the first weekend of October. Come to Stratford’s Factory163 on Saturday October 3 from 10-5 and Sunday October 4 from 1-5 and enter the magical and esoteric world of Victoria Lewis.