God­win re­flects on his Regina (Five) years

Regina Leader-Post - - Weather - By NICK MIL­IOKAS Leader-Post

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.

ROY ANTAL/Leader-Post

Ted God­win’s “Cos­mic Po­tato Bug Ma­chine.”

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