Godwin reflects on his Regina (Five) years
he irony is every bit as striking as the artwork itself. Not one of these men was actually born in Regina, and yet they will be remembered forever as the Regina Five.
It was fate, perhaps, that brought Art McKay to this city from Nipawin, Doug Morton from Winnipeg, Ken Lochhead from Ottawa, Ron Bloore from Brampton, and Ted Godwin from Calgary. But, once they had relocated here, it was their talent, their innovation and their spirit of adventure that produced the abstract paintings that have ensured their immortality.
Together, they exploded into prominence in 1961 when the National Gallery of Canada displayed paintings created in Regina and in the fabled workshops at Emma Lake. The show was called “Five Painters from Regina” and they have been the Regina Five ever since.
“They brought international attention to contemporary art in Canada,” says Stuart Reid, the newly installed director of the MacKenzie Art Gallery. “Their works are masterful. They have resonance. They are national treasures.”
What made this possible, Reid says, is the Regina Five’s capacity for “reaching outward” and their awareness of the national and international trends of their day, which is to say the late 1950s through the late 1960s.
It may also have had something to do with the distinctive prairie landscape, “which itself is abstract,” Reid says, “with a horizon that is minimalist. There is a creative purity and a clarity in their work that is emblematic of Western Canadian style.”
McKay, Morton and Lochhead have passed away. The surviving members, Bloore and Godwin, reside in Toronto and Calgary, respectively. Every so often, a curator somewhere in Canada puts together an exhibition that sustains them, be they dead or alive. One such show is “Ted Godwin: The Regina Five Years 1957-1967.” It was curated by Ann Davis for the Nickle Arts Museum in Calgary, and is currently on display at the MacKenzie through the end of August. Ted
Godwin was 28 years old when he joined the Regina Five, if indeed “joined” is the right word. The “young punk” in the group is now 76 and his health is failing — it has been for a long time. He has survived triple-bypass heart surgery, he is diabetic, the circulation in his legs is poor, he suffers from sleep apnea, and he lives a life “assisted by oxygen” that comes from a portable tank.
But if the fire within burns any less intensely than it did all those years ago, you wouldn’t know it from his intellect, his sharp wit, and a mischievous sense of humour that punctuates his speech with profanities and blasphemies, and occasionally, articulate or not, descends
Tinto phrases that are off-colour or politically incorrect, or both. He makes no apologies. This is who he is, take it or leave it. Godwin does not visit Regina nearly as often as he would like, and when he does, he makes a point of staying in one particular downtown hotel. This has less to do with pleasant surroundings, good food, congenial staff and a comfortable bed than it does with the Alcoholics Anonymous meetings that are held there on Sunday mornings. Godwin has been sober for 24 years. “That’s what’s kept me alive,” he says with a smile — and then, because “an alcoholic’s sobriety day is really important,” he gives the date: February 22, 1985.
The turning point came as the result of an incident in his College Avenue studio, where, sitting in his broken barber’s chair, in the company of an assistant, Godwin had been smoking cigarettes and marijuana, and drinking whisky, as he worked. This assistant, who was likewise in dire straits, asked Godwin if he would accompany him to an AA meeting.
Godwin agreed, and although he went merely to listen, a funny thing happened. “The buggers were talking about me,” he says, and so he stood up and introduced himself, in his own inimitable fashion. “I’m Ted,” he said, “and I’m probably an alcoholic.”
Back in the 1960s, for a visual artist, Godwin enjoyed a high profile in this city. No doubt it had something to do with the car he drove — a 1964 Ford convertible, painted in Roughrider green. “I wanted everybody to know who the f--k I was,” he says. But mostly it was because of his personality and the way he conducted himself, for better or worse.
“I absolutely love Regina in the spring. Gosh, it’s so beautiful,” Godwin says. “And there are so many ghosts. I’m the guy who knows where the bodies are buried. For me, in Regina there are ghosts standing on every corner. I have wonderful memories of the way it used to be. When I came to Regina, I didn’t know it, but this was the greatest city in North America.”
Born in Calgary, and educated at a school that is now called the Alberta College of Art and Design, Godwin moved to Regina from Lethbridge in 1958.
He was at first a creator of neon signs — his clients include the Plains Hotel and the Ehrle as well — and eventually he would be added to the faculty of the present-day University of Regina, where he taught from 1964 until 1985, when he returned to Calgary, on disability pension, decades of self-abuse having taken its toll.
“I had destroyed my body to the point where there was nothing left,” Godwin says. “But you wouldn’t want to get to the end of your life and realize you haven’t used up your body.”
Paraphrasing the late comedian, George Carlin, Godwin says: “I want to live my life at full speed, slam on the brakes, and drop into the coffin, thinking, ‘What a great f--kin’ ride’.”
He also quotes the country singer Willie Nelson: “The night life ain’t no good life, but it’s my life.”
Clearly, Godwin has no regrets. Or, if he does, he keeps them to himself.
“I wouldn’t have one drink less. I’d do it all again,” he says. “I wouldn’t change a thing. At the end of the run, the pain simply had to be. Out of the pain came this need — that I need to be loved.”
Godwin will continue paying visits to this city for as long as his health allows it. “I didn’t leave Regina. I was returning home (to Calgary). You never leave Regina. It’s like a rubber band, you know? Pop! It pulls you right back.”
The show that would become “Ted Godwin: The Regina Five Years 1957-1967” was inspired by the contents of a suitcase that was shipped to Godwin in Calgary from the U of R in 2000.
“There were some real gems in that suitcase — pieces that hadn’t been seen in 40 years,” says Ann Davis, the curator who put the exhibition together for the Nickle Arts Museum in Calgary, where it opened last fall. “This was work that had been frozen in time. These were pieces that had been left behind and forgotten and misplaced.”
Upon receiving the parcel, Godwin had contacted Davis to inquire if something could be done with these paintings, and she took it from there. This was a curator’s dream, and there was also the fact that Davis had known Godwin for years and considered him a close friend.
“He’s one of those wonderful off-the-wall people,” Davis says. “He is larger than life. He’s a great big teddy bear — he wants to embrace everybody.”
Godwin is also the personification of something Davis refers to as “the strength and the challenge of the creative process.”
Known as the “young punk” in the group, Godwin was anxious to experiment and willing to take the necessary risks.
“One of the problems for any creative person is to move on from what he did last,” Davis says. “If what he did last was a failure, moving on is no big deal. But if the thing he did last was a success, moving on is very courageous.”
The same, of course, was true of every member of the Regina Five. Individually and as a group “they do, indeed, deserve their place,” Davis says. “Their work absolutely helped advance Canadian art, particularly in Western Canada. They led Saskatchewan out of the dark ages of painting.” Ted
Godwin discovered early in life that he was dyslexic, and that he also had Attention Deficit Disorder, “before there was a name for it,” he says, laughing. His first-grade teacher labelled him The Kid Who Would Do The Art.
“For me,” Godwin says, “the best way of disappearing was making art. That was the only thing I could do that I didn’t get into trouble for. I couldn’t do anything right, and I couldn’t figure it out. Every September, I had to cross enemy territory to get to the other side, which wasn’t until the following June.”
Godwin’s report cards reflected low expectations in the fall, showed modest improvement in the winter, and by the spring they would invariably conclude, as one teacher put it: “With great misgivings, we are passing Ted on.”
In spite of this, or perhaps because of it, the years he spent as an instructor at the U of R produced some of Godwin’s most pleasant memories. He cared deeply about his students, who at one time included the late Bob Boyer, and he had a strong commitment to the subject matter. Not surprisingly, taking the lead from his experiences as an artist, Godwin was an innovator in the teaching profession as well. “I loved it!” he says. “It was a chance to twist young minds.” In Godwin’s view, an art school cannot make a student an artist, but neither will it stop him from becoming one. “It shortens the circuit,” he says, “that’s all.”
No less surprising than his enthusiasm for teaching is the fact that Godwin is a lifelong aficionado of jazz, a devotion sustained by a feeling of kinship with musicians who have at least one thing in common with visual artists. “We live on the edge,” Godwin says. “We take risks.” Jazz music, Godwin says, “guided my brush, it informed my work.” Recently, Godwin sponsored a CD that features Tommy Banks and four other musicians — Al Muirhead, Campbell Ryga, George Koller and Blaine Wikjord. Godwin wrote the liner notes, and his voice is heard on the CD itself, reciting lyrics from “For All We Know.”
The CD is titled All the Stars Aren’t in the Sky, and the back cover shows a photograph of Ted and Phyllis Godwin on their wedding day in 1955.
Phyllis and Ted have two adult daughters — Teddi, who is taking pottery classes in Spain and learning the language there, and Tammi, a ceramist in Calgary. “My wife,” Godwin says, “has been the wind beneath my wings for my entire life.” In
2001, Mark Wihak, a filmmaker and instructor at the U of R, released a documentary called A World Away: Stories From the Regina Five. It was four years in the making, and it is arguably the definitive piece on this subject.
“They were great — a delight to work with. Of course, they had probably mellowed quite a bit by then,” says Wihak, who took his inspiration from “Flat Side of the Landscape,” an exhibition that originated at the Mendel Art Gallery in Saskatoon and was later shown at the MacKenzie as well.
“They were working in a small city, but they had great ambition,” Wihak says. “They were determined to be taken seriously everywhere. At the time, that level of ambition was new to artists here. The Regina Five raised the bar for every artist who followed them.”
Interestingly, Wihak was left with the impression that, while the five men considered themselves peers and drew benefits from their collectivity as a support group, there were times of competition when they acted as rivals and perhaps went as far as to resent the fact that the art world thought of them as a single entity, not as individuals — even while suspecting that not one of them would have had the success they enjoyed together.
“Their styles and their paintings,” Wihak says, “are as different as these five artists were as individuals.”
Of this much, Wihak is certain: “The Regina Five will never go away.” In
the late 1950s and through the 1960s, the Regina Five stared down the status quo; they played a game of chicken with conservatism, and refused to blink. They rejected what they believed was out of date, and replaced it with something new.
“All of that is true,” Godwin says, “but the Young Turks in their time become the Old Turkeys.”
So the question remains: Has the art world — indeed, the world at large — done these five men justice?
“We were given the gift of being able to make the works, and the works hold up. That is justice enough in itself,” Godwin says, and then he quotes a patron who once told him: “Don’t pray for justice, Ted. Try to get a better deal than that.”
Ted Godwin poses in front of his “Red Attack.” Ted Godwin designed the neon sign for the Plains Hotel.
Ted Godwin’s “Cosmic Potato Bug Machine.”