One Montreal artist dies, another is born
Jeanne Pope thought she had her life pretty much figured out eight years ago. Then Pope, a single mom who moved here from London in 2000, happened to be browsing through a secondhand bookshop on the Main. She literally bumped into maverick Montreal sculptor Stanley Lewis.
And so Pope's life was to change in ways she would never have dreamed. Pope, a therapist at a chiropractic clinic, was mesmerized by Lewis, who was almost as renowned for his philosophical views on the universe as he was for his art. Lewis and his work were to consume Pope long past his death in 2006.
Though she had never picked up a camera prior to meeting Lewis, Pope decided she wanted to become a filmmaker and focus on the sculptor. And so she applied and was accepted as a mature student in Concordia University's esteemed film-production program.
Pope, now 50, has just completed a documentary film trilogy devoted to Lewis and his stomping grounds on the Main, where his home/studio was located upstairs from Berson Monuments.
This last chapter, Dust, A Sculptor's Journey, screens Sunday and Monday at the Festival du Nouveau Cinema.
The first in the series, Where's Stanley?, won prizes at film festivals in Los Angeles and elsewhere around the continent. The second, Birth of the Smoked Meat, earned Pope and her co-director Zoe Mapp the Kodak Imaging Award for best new Canadian student director at the 2006 Montreal World Film Festival. The prize also entailed a trip for them to the 2007 Cannes Film Festival, including transportation, accommodation and accreditation to the fest.
Birth of the Smoked Meat, inspired by Lewis's love for deli, follows the beef from lowly brisket to mouthwatering spiced delight. The film's accent is on the meat's preparation and its subsequent devouring by Lewis at the Main Deli on St. Laurent Blvd. And it's no accident that Peter Varvaro, the Deli's boss and Lewis's buddy, is throwing a smoked meat bash for Pope and patrons following the Sunday screening of Dust.
In Dust, Pope laments the end of a great era on the Main, with the passing of Lewis and his hard-luck filmmaker crony Ryan Larkin. But the focus here is more on Lewis's art and turbulent times in the final years of his life.
Dust is a heartfelt and much deserved homage to a most misunderstood man. Complex and complexed on so many levels, Lewis also possessed a childlike innocence - which attracted Pope and so many others. And don't forget that the man also had a way with marble.
In the film, Lewis opens up to Pope. He talks about how his forebears arrived here at the turn of the last century and set down roots not far from Lewis's later digs on the Main. His parents were impoverished, so young Lewis had to find low-cost ways to amuse himself. It began with a piece of wood he found on the street, and a sculptor was born.
And yet another reason why parents shouldn't take too much heed of school aptitude tests: based on the results of the latter, Lewis was advised he'd be better off as a clerk.
Lewis paid no mind. He won art scholarships. He headed off to Italy, home of his hero Michelangelo. He produced prolifically back home. He taught. He developed a cult following.
He also made enemies. He had legal battles. He lost jobs and grants. He lost family. He suffered nervous breakdowns. He retreated to his studio on his spiritual base, the Main.
Ah, the life of an artist. Not always so glam.
In the doc, Pope tries to get Lewis to exhibit again. He resists. He looks so worn - and would make a splendid subject for a sculpture himself. He is dying. He maintains he has found peace in self-exile and sickness. He claims he's at home with the dust in the studio and, of course, dust serves as an apt metaphor for his ultimate destination.
Also fascinating and moving is the interplay between Lewis and Larkin, both headstrong and eccentric artists who refuse to compromise. Larkin was to pass away not long after Lewis. Both are sorely missed, but, thanks to this film (among several others), will at least be remembered.
"When I first met Stanley, he reminded me of my adoptive father, Marius (a noted British journalist)", Pope recalls. "And something just stirred. Then Stan being Stan, a chatterbox and curious, and me being the same, this incredible friendship started."
And so the last eight years of her life have been spent zooming in on the life of Lewis. "There was such sadness in his life. But I do believe he found some happiness in his last few years", says Pope, who still toils as a "natural therapist - a cross between a glorified massage therapist and a kinesiologist" - by day.
"People ask me if I'm ever going to do something else. I tell them we had a pact. But now the final film in the trilogy has been made. I just went to Stanley's grave and put a stone on it, then told him: 'It's over, my friend,. I don't think I can do any more.' " Lewis would surely understand.
Dust did HotDocs in Torontoand is heading off to fests in Ireland and Scotland. "And I've actually been very presumptuous and have entered it into the Sundance Film Festival.. Hey, why not? You never know", says Pope, who will next be working on a doc about mental health.
"It's been a long journey from my first day in film school, where I was mistaken for the teacher. I told the much younger students that I was simply mature and that it's never too late to learn. Little did I know then how true that was."
Bill Brownstein, The Montreal Gazette, October 12, 2011
Review: Dust, A Sculptor's Journey - HotDocs 2011
Dust, A Sculptor's Journey is an intimate portrayal of Canadian artist Stanley Lewis. A prolific stone sculptor whose history has taken him around the world, learning from masters of the craft. Lewis now resides in his dusty, cramped and discombobulated studio in Montreal's "The Main", an area of Boulevard St. Laurent. When he is not working above a tombstone engraving workshop, Stanley cavorts around the neighborhood looking more like a homeless man than an artist. His loyal friend Ryan Larkin, the famous animator, is ever present, clinging to his friend and mentor like a lovesick puppy. Stanley's ill health both mentally and physically begs the question, will Stanley's art ever again see the light of day or will it, and Stanley himself, end up returning to the dust?
The film, directed by Jeanne Pope, has the feel of a home video and less like the polished and high budget documentaries we have come to know recently. Her fascination with Lewis gleams through the grainy monochromatic imagery. She cares deeply about this man, not because of his eccentricities, which probably drew her to him in the first place, but because of his genius. A brilliance that sits covered in dust and filth, like so many of his beautiful sculptures, covered in his dismal studio. Like many eccentric artists, Lewis is a resident in his own microcosm. His only real passion outside of his chiseled work is the corned beef brisket across the street. A passion he felt he needed to showcase in a documentary of its own. A dusty old oddball surrounded by strange characters. His closest friend is the famous Ryan Larkin, the animator and subject of his own film Ryan, which won the academy award in 2005 for best animated short film. Larkin's love for his friend is overwhelming and Lewis' gentle acceptance of that love adds to his charm.
Lewis is a pleasant, grandfatherly soul and although his quirkiness is not enough to make him an instant fan favorite it is his inner passion, gentleness and extraordinary verve for life which win him favour with the viewer. The film has a somber tone and there is a palpable lack of levity required to raise the documentary out of its emotional funk. Lewis is at death's door for the whole film, both literally and figuratively. He refers to the dust that blankets his studio as a reminder of whence he came and where he will return and the workshop below, chiseling tombstones like an ominous summons. The people that know him all talk about him, not with a levity born of being close to someone of brilliance but with concern for one who deserves better than they have and the feeling that there is little time left to achieve those accolades. The documentary teases you with the idea that there will be some vindication for Lewis, whose diminishing faculties tell a different story.
As a sculptor myself, I felt a connection with Lewis and it occurred to me that what I was feeling was the same as everyone else in the film. Wanting so badly for this man to rise above his dank life to a place of reverence reserved for true genius. It soon becomes achingly clear that the chances of this are slim. Dust, A Sculptor's Journey is a film that had to be made. Lewis' art and life are too important and beautiful to allow it to merely fade away. Unfortunately, the film and the story failed to entertain and engage at a level I would have expected from a documentary about such an endearing and confounded man.
Carmen Albano, Toronto Film Scene blog, 2011
Gooey love tale headlines fest
Director Jeanne Pope laments what she feels is the end of a great era on the Main, with the passing of Stanley Lewis and hard-luck filmmaker Ryan Larkin, not to mention all the small family businesses that have fallen by the wayside. Pope was a friend and muse of Lewis's and previously made the docs Where's Stanley? and Birth of the Smoked Meat, both featuring Lewis and the Main. Pope's story could make for quite a film itself.
A single mom, Pope had entered Concordia as a mature student and will be graduating from the film program this year. But she made a pledge to Lewis that she would continue to persevere in the trade. Already in the works - postgrad - is the feature-length documentary Dust, A Sculptor's Journey.
In Up & Down the City Road, Pope has Lewis quoting the Group of Seven's Arthur Lismer: "The only permanent thing in life is change." A sentiment that could apply not only to Pope but also to all the directors featured in this fest. Give them all credit for trying to move forward in a medium that is often on the verge of becoming stagnant.
The Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema Film Fest runs until Wednesday at 7 and 9 pm at the Cinema du Parc, 3575 Park Ave.
Bill Brownstein, The Montreal Gazette, May 4, 2008