COLWOOD, BC — The beach at Esquimalt Lagoon in Colwood, BC, outside Victoria, is quite unique.
Beachgoers can spot white-and-red Fisgard Lighthouse to the east, the oldest lighthouse on Canada’s west coast. Across the Strait of Juan de Fuca, views of the Olympic Mountains catch your breath. Nearby is Esquimalt Lagoon Migratory Bird Sanctuary, a saltwater lagoon and a birder’s paradise. Behind it stands Hatley Castle, which you might recognize from “X-Men.”
But it is the driftwood, common on Pacific Northwest beaches, that is truly extraordinary. It seems to have a mind of its own.
In recent years, pieces of driftwood started appearing, mysteriously reassembled into different creatures. First there was an Ent, a giant, anthropomorphic tree straight out of “Lord of the Rings.” Then there was an eagle, another day a crow, and then an owl on a different part of the beach.
The flock kept growing. And that was just the beginning of the story.
Tani Rhoads, of Vancouver Island, first encountered a crow in a nest while walking her dogs at Esquimalt Lagoon. Further on, she discovered a Steller’s jay. She started bringing her daughters weekly to look for new sculptures. “It kind of became a treasure hunt,” she said. “The girls loved finding them.”
In the spring, eggs and babies appeared. In the winter, birds wore Santa hats.
Martine Dubuc, visiting from Squamish, BC, was brought to the beach by her mom. Dubuc loved the unique personalities of each bird and relished the smiles the sculptures brought to people as they strolled the beach.
This year, sightings of the mysterious feathered driftwood creatures have been reported farther uphill, away from their usual territory.
Kassandra Stafford, on a field trip with her daughter’s kindergarten class, was walking the nearby Garry Oak walking trail at Juan de Fuca Recreation Center when they found a driftwood owl perched on a tree. The children were delighted with the discovery. A little bit farther they found a woodpecker.
“One bird! Two birds! Three birds!” The kindergartners counted out more driftwood sculptures. Then, another unexpected twist: They stumbled upon the artist, up in a tree, creating a large eagle’s nest.
When I spoke with the mystery sculptor, Paul Lewis, he was sitting on another beach in a remote area of Northern British Columbia after a day of work at his day job as a scaffolder. Looking at home on the rugged beach surrounded by coastal wilderness, he pointed out two eagles flying above him and described a fight he had just witnessed between them.
“I had always been good at art,” he said, “and then I had eight years of prison to really focus on it.”
Lewis doesn’t look like the kind of man who, more than 20 years ago, tried to rob a liquor store at gunpoint wearing orange coveralls and a gas mask. Addicted to cocaine, he needed money to feed his fix.
Lewis didn’t like who he was then, out of control and with no purpose. He was arrested, pleaded guilty, and was sentenced to eight years of prison that turned his life around. While incarcerated, he started making pencil drawings and sketches for other inmates. His grandmother tore pictures of owls and whales out from magazines for Lewis to draw. He did well in the system and eventually he was released.
“I became a pretty good artist, kind of like Robert Bateman style, drawing realistic animals,” Lewis said. “Almost looking like a photograph.”
Lewis was relaxing at the Esquimalt Lagoon one day when he saw McGnarly the Beach Ent, created by Alex Witcombe for a Colwood festival. Inspired, Lewis crafted an eagle from driftwood and used white shells to make its head. He laughs, remembering how for every shell he was able to successfully attach, he broke 10. “I will never do that again!”
He said that playing with driftwood was a game changer, since paintings sometimes take years to finish.
“You can’t just rattle off a painting with that kind of detail,” Lewis said. “But with driftwood, a sculpture can be done in one to two days. It’s instant satisfaction being able to get it done that fast.”
Lewis honed his craft, evolving his style and skill, and people loved the driftwood creatures, so he kept making them. He began teaching kids about his craft and got ideas from birds he spotted by day: an osprey, a kingfisher, a heron, Canada geese. All were added to the gallery. Lewis then branched out and started making other creatures — an otter, grizzly bears, squirrels.
Sometimes Lewis’ sculptures get vandalized or hit by waves. When that happens, he fixes or replaces them, picking up the pieces to keep screws from litting the beach when artwork gets destroyed by a storm. Lewis quickly learned to keep his sculptures far above the tide line.
This spring, new driftwood sculptures alighted in Colwood, perched in the trees around the Garry Oak walking trail behind the Juan de Fuca Library, forming a sculpture treasure hunt on the trail. Thirteen driftwood sculptures — different kinds of owls, woodpeckers, northern flicker, a kingfisher and a crow — are playing hide-and-seek along the trail.
And the zoo continues to grow, the project ever more personal to Lewis.
If you go, watch out for the five eagles Lewis is installing, which is especially close to the artist’s heart: a mama eagle, holding a salmon in her claws, rests in a nest with her baby; a juvenile eagle watches from another tree. The young eagles represent Lewis’ sons, Braedon and older brother Jordan. Another eagle, her claws dug into a bright orange rockfish, is Lewis’ mom, in another tree. And flying overhead is a father eagle, his wings spread open, representing Lewis.
Those five were created as a memorial for Braedon, who died this year at age 25. New sculptures represent the aunts, uncles and cousins in the family, as well as the healing, redemptive power of nature.
The trail is wheelchair accessible, meaning the art can be enjoyed by everyone. Lewis loves that it gets people outside, enjoying nature. His art is a celebration of family, nature, wild creatures, love and mystery — a uniquely West Coast art exhibition in a free, natural, open-air gallery that all can enjoy.