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From armed robbery to sculpting birds: A life changed by art

Paul Lewis has transformed Esquimalt Lagoon into an art gallery. Over the past six weeks, thousands of people have come to admire and photograph his driftwood bird sculptures. The 16 sculptures delight.

Paul Lewis has transformed Esquimalt Lagoon into an art gallery. Over the past six weeks, thousands of people have come to admire and photograph his driftwood bird sculptures.

The 16 sculptures delight. An osprey chick sits on a nest of seaweed, white pipecleaner feathers blowing in the wind. A great horned owl stands guard over the ocean, while a flinty-eyed raven croaks over the large stone eggs in her nest.

One day this week found Lewis creating a steller's jay from wood he has gathered on the beach. Snow-peaked mountains formed the backdrop, sunlight glimmering on the waves in the foreground.

Miro Bartol strolled up to chat with Lewis.

“I just can’t believe how good you are at this,” the Langford man says. “And you’re doing it for free for people. It’s so cool. You’ve created a niche for yourself. I look forward to seeing more.”

“I love it,” Lewis says. “It’s amazing.”

What’s really is amazing is how far Lewis has come.

Nineteen years ago, wearing a ghoulish disguise of orange coveralls, a hard hat, and a gas mask, Lewis pointed a loaded, sawed-off shotgun at the clerk of the Four Mile House Cold Beer and Wine Store in View Royal and demanded money. A scuffle ensued.

The gun went off.

Fortunately, it didn’t fire properly and the clerk escaped with a grazed leg. Other employees came running and pinned Lewis to the floor. In February 2000, he pleaded guilty to six counts of armed robbery. He was sentenced to eight years in prison.

“Best thing that ever happened to me,” Lewis says. “It turned my life around. Really, it did. I wouldn’t be where I am today. There’s no way. I’d be dead. Absolutely.”

In 1999, Lewis was heavily into cocaine and running up debts.

“Everyone was doing it. All my friends were doing it. I just did it to excess. I do everything to excess. I’m just that way, I guess. High energy and excess. I’m good at everything I do. Unfortunately, armed robbery, I was good at that too.” He grimaces at the memory.

“It was zero to 60 and 100 miles running. But I kept it on the lowdown. Nobody knew. None of my family knew. It took a lot of people by surprise. I hurt a lot of people and I didn’t like who that person was.”

Lewis says he did the Four Mile robbery — and several others — to feed his addiction and because he himself had been ripped off in a drug deal gone bad and owed money because of that.

“Basically, a gun was put in my face. That’s the history behind the last of it. I was just doing someone a favour and got robbed. I wasn’t a drug dealer. Never was. I just did cocaine.”

Looking back, the 46-year-old scaffolder says he just didn’t know what he was doing and he didn’t care.

“I was so callous back then. I didn’t care about anyone, anything. I had no purpose in life. Out of control.”

Focusing on art changed his life. Lewis started doing pencil drawings in jail, then sketches for other inmates who wanted portraits of their families. He started drawing wildlife. It freed him from the monotony of prison life.

“I was bored in jail,” Lewis says. “My grandma would send me in pictures of owls and whales. She’d write: ‘I thought you might like these.’ She’s ripping them out of all her magazines and sends them in to me. I’d just sit there and draw. I have big sketchbooks at my house of all the old stuff.”

Lewis was transferred to William Head in Metchosin to be close to his family. He did well in the system.

“The guards liked me and the inmates liked me. I was stand-up. My word was good. I was solid. Everybody liked hanging out with me. I just got along … The guards used to say: ‘Lewis, you don’t fit in here.’ And I’d say: ‘I realize that. Thank you. Now let’s get me out of here.’ ”

If he’d been sent to prison in Mission, he might have gone down a different path, he says. Instead, he was fast-tracked into a violent-offender program, sailed through the system, and got out.

“They chose well. I love the parole board for what they did for me.”

The prison cell is a long way from Esquimalt Lagoon.

“Are you the artist?” Alicia Corsiglia looks at the chunky steller jay.

Lewis, shirtless in long camouflage shorts, nods his head.

“It’s beautiful,” she says. “My kids love them, too. I really like the osprey nest and all the local birds. I love oyster catchers.”

“I love them too,” Lewis says. “They’re so loud.”

“It’s really lovely to have public art that’s just available and accessible,” Corsiglia says. “It’s great because art is undervalued. It’s a good reminder to have inspired art in a public place that everyone can enjoy.”

Lewis was inspired to make his own driftwood creations when he saw Alex Witcombe’s beach sculptures, a pair of mammoths at Royal Bay and McGnarly the Beach Ent at the lagoon.

How did Lewis start? He was dating a girl who was “pretty artsy” and they decided to do a sculpture of an eagle on the beach. Lewis borrowed a screw gun and screws from his brother for the date, which didn’t go well. He ended up creating the bald eagle on its own.

“I’m kind of hoping she’s crying now in the dark, cause look what I did,” he says with a laugh.

Each sculpture gets more refined, more detailed as he learns his craft.

Like shapes in the clouds, Lewis sees birds in the twisted driftwood and helps them take flight.

“Almost every piece I pick up goes right in place. I know what I’m looking for.”

Some of the sculptures have been damaged by children climbing on them or by teenagers who should have known better. He simply repairs them.

“Swan had his face ripped in half. And both Canada geese had their heads ripped off.” Lewis shrugs. “It’s going to happen. Wait until the first big storm comes along. I’m probably going to lose three-quarters of them.”

As more and more people come to see the sculptures, Lewis has been enjoying minor celebrity status on the beach. Someone arrived with the gift of a two-volume set of Fenwick Lansdowne’s bird paintings. He also got a free oil change.

Lewis doesn’t want people to be wary of him when they learn of his past.

“I’m doing good things now and lots of good things are happening to me. I’m glad I’m not there anymore. I’m glad I’m where I am now. I’ve learned a lot. I’ve grown up and I want to become an artist full time.”

He’s already an artist in the eyes of his fans.

“I came all the way from Medicine Hat to see the sculptures,” Lorna Walker says. “I saw the photos on Facebook and it was on my list of things to see. I love them. I was born and raised in Victoria and I’ve never been to the Esquimalt Lagoon.”

“We love them,” Judy Garner says.

“It brightens up the beach,” adds her husband, Earl. “You look down here and people are chatting. Colwood is a sleepy community. I think this is going to be good for it.”

“It’s amazing what people can create,” says Bo Lelewski, who brought her visiting sister to see the sculptures. “The children will never forget these birds. It’s an amazing idea.”