Island Lives: Sculptor inspired by world of nature

Douglas Senft best-known locally for Water piece on Blanshard

Traces of Douglas Senft's pursuit of beauty stand in public spaces around Western Canada.

The path of a former creek snakes across the ground outside the Astoria Condominiums on Fairfield Road in Victoria.

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Stainless-steel bars are woven atop a pole by the Maplewood Flats conservation area in North Vancouver, mimicking a twig osprey nest.

And smoke rises gently from a coulee crafted from stainless-steel pipe at the Lethbridge Fire Department Headquarters - a joint project with his partner, Catherine Lavelle.

Art was integral for the Comox Valley sculptor.

"If you'd met, you'd know that he couldn't not do it," said Lavelle. "It was part of his character."

Senft - whom friends and family describe as totally passionate, intellectual and harbouring a dark sense of humour - died in his Royston home Sept. 11 at 62, after being diagnosed with lung cancer last spring.

The natural world around his Comox Valley home was Senft's muse, and the wiry sculptor often blended interpretations of it into urban environments.

"He was totally driven. And totally driven about finding absolute beauty," said longtime friend and fellow sculptor Illarion Gallant.

With a grasp of scale and an ease creating large outdoor pieces, Senft made a living largely from public art projects.

"He liked to play big and public art was really where you could do that," Gallant said.

Born in Vancouver, Senft saw his career take off immediately after he graduated with honours from the Vancouver School of Art (now Emily Carr University of Art and Design) in 1972. He won public commissions in Canada, the United States and Europe - including Arte en la Autopistas, a project where sculptures were installed by international artists along a high-way in Spain.

But sacrificing the advantages of working in a bustling city centre, he opted to move to the more natural environment of Vancouver Island - first to Cumberland, then in 2008 to Royston.

In a letter he wrote in June 1990, he described the romantic pull of his chosen home:

"I moved to the valley quite impulsively in 1979 and in the past, there have been times of indecision and moments of crisis about that choice. However, over the years I've lived and worked here, I've come to realize how rooted I am spiritually to this environment and how this informs my work. In addition to the increased physical space I have to work with, I have also noticed how much psychic space there is here. Less people, less frenzy."

He and his previous partner of 24 years, Anne Goslin, had two children. Leon, a gifted musician according to Senft's friends, is studying computer science at UVic. Emma completed a degree in art from the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design and now lives in Montreal.

"He loved his children and involved his children in the arts as much as he could," said Ken Guenter, who teaches in the fine furniture department at Camosun College and became fast friends with Senft in 1995.

"He felt that it was very important for them to understand what art was all about and how important art was to life in general - both to the community and the person."

His daughter remembers him as someone who always encouraged creativity.

"My father was incredibly supportive of both Leon and I regardless of what we were doing [art or engineering; music or computer science.] 'We want to help you find your bliss' he said to me, when I was trying to decide between academic paths," Emma said in an email.

Over the years, Senft explored different media. In 1990, he began designing and fabricating welded-steel furniture, architectural elements and accessories. He presented them in contemporary showrooms in Vancouver, Calgary and San Francisco, as well as Design House in Victoria.

He also balanced his art work with teaching sculpture at North Island College, where he met Lavelle.

Senft incorporated the attention to detail he used in his furniture into the large-scale sculptures he made. Guenter recalled sitting in a studio with Senft, who would obsess over small details.

"I'd say, 'Douglas, for God's sake, no one's going to see that. It's going to be 30 feet in the air,' " he said.

"He'd say, 'Yeah, but I know it's there,' " he said. "Which is what made his work so amazing to look at."

While the natural landscape was his constant muse, he evolved and changed as a public artist, Gallant said. He played with scale - designing macro-level sculptures inspired by topographic maps 18 years ago, and more recently, focusing on micro-level perspectives, such as stretches of rivers. "What a privilege to be able to let your voice mature - and I think the timbre of his voice was what was really important," said Gallant.

"He believed in form and he believed in the nuance of his sculptural voice and that's what he worked on."

But it wasn't always smooth sailing. As with many publicly commissioned art works, his piece Water revived a public discussion about the value of public art. Senft earned $110,000 for the piece, which features streams of water cut from aluminum outside the Jack Davis Building on Blanshard Street. Senft, who wanted to see more public art in Victoria, found the controversy a bit silly and frustrating, according to Guenter.

"The idea that someone would put out a piece of art and people would write letters to the editor, I think, often confounded him," he said. "Because to him, it was just part of creating the culture of your community - and that culture is in many forms."

Like many Canadian artists, Senft struggled to gain wider recognition for his work, with the added challenge of living in a small community.

"I don't think he got the recognition he should have gotten. He didn't get the kind of recognition that begets that kind of brilliance," Gallant said.

Though art was Senft's primary focus, he was curious about everything, said Lavelle. "Even just walking with him, he was an amazing observer, and the photographs he took in the last days of his life really showed the kind of vision that he had. He loved good food, he loved good wine and he loved travelling. He appreciated esthetics of every kind."

Lavelle, who worked with Senft for the 4 1 /2 years they were together, is completing a final commemorative work called Crossings, to be erected at North Island College.

"It's a memorial sculpture for Douglas that the two of us designed before his death," she said. "It was a privilege to have known him."

asmart@timescolonist.com

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