Jim Stokes: The Universe in a Blade of Grass

By Jody Farrell

Jim stokes at work in his studioJim Stokes is excited. He’s motoring around his garageturned- studio, extolling the genius of a recently acquired remote for his dust collector. It allows him to work away on one of his numerous do-ityourself projects, and, instead of constantly having to cross the floor to flick the switch that clears the air, he uses the remote, and continues on, drilling, or sawing, or sanding his work. And move along he does. He apologizes for what he calls a mess, but it’s clear there’s a method happening here amidst the racks and racks of half-finished canvasses, homemade printing presses and framing supports. “It’s out of necessity,” Stokes says with a wave to the wooden lengths, some bought, some found or recycled. “I’m not by nature a good framer.”

I’ve no doubt that by this word, necessity, Stokes is referring, in part, to the grating reality that art doesn’t pay. Not well, at least. And that’s not because he isn’t well-known. He’s represented in Waterton, Calgary, and Edmonton, where, according to Marianne Scott, owner of Scott Gallery, Stokes’ recent solo show “left people clamouring for more.”

Stokes is also among those brave few for whom art is a daily job. He’s finding it a little easier these days, as his parallel role of stay-at-home-Dad has graduated from toilet training into taxi duty. But he keeps such a clipping pace, what with his painting, printmaking, framing, photographing, and ever-evolving knowledge of computers, one gets the notion that his term “necessity” also infers an overabundant need to keep busy.

Landscape Monotype My surprise at such energy in an artist catches me offguard. Stokes’ work reads relaxed, while his personality is anything but. I begin to realize that Jim Stokes, the person, is s u b s t a n t i a l l y different than the solitary, reflective type I imagined back in 1991 when I first moved to Grande Prairie and encountered his landscapes.

The marks Jim Stokes makes on canvas eminate a quiet sense of clarity. The wide-cut expanses of prairie he’s renown for are so fresh, so clearly meditative, it’s easy to imagine they’ve been created by some lotusseated painter whose state of enlightenment produces magnificent horizons, each substantially different in the subtlest way. These works speak to the prairie in all of us; that unobstructed world of possibility. The open, airy, endless sky; the ground, tilled, or dressed in flouncy scrub, and the ribbon of road, all evoke something only prairie people know.

Jim Stokes, the person, required a shift. I reconciled this wired bundle of energy with his peaceful panoramic prairies and came up with a new vision of the artist painting wildly, either in his studio, or out on location, the enlightened yogi coursing through his veins as he channels pure prairie essence onto a canvas.

“People are overjoyed when they see his work,” Scott says. “I think Jim’s paintings open people to their own emotional response to the prairies.” Stokes’ work stays fresh by leaving something to that imagination, she says. “He doesn’t dot all his i’s or cross all his t’s.”Paintbrush

Stokes wasn’t always as enamoured of his prairie roots. The Peace region native, like many young people, had to travel far and wide to discover that even the beautiful and fast-paced cities of Europe and New York can breed loneliness and despair.

“I came home to the everyday things, and found a sense of peace and well-being,” he says now. “I try to communicate that notion of place we all look for.” As he’s saying this, he picks up his little Jack Russell-Bichon dog, whose needs never go unattended to for long. Stokes stops frequently to fetch the toy she’s lost under the couch, or throw her a new one once she’s bored. This reverence for all living things comes through in his smaller prints of that common plant, the Indian paintbrush, whose presence along roadways, for many, represents the ragged and weedy. Stokes invests this prairie flower with a dignity and splendour that garnered its choice as poster image for The Prairie Art Gallery’s 2003 House and Garden Tour, a much-coveted honour for Peace region artists.

Stokes’ gratitude for community support, and his own tireless support for community, also takes energy and passion not available to most. Few artists get half as much accomplished while whittling away in solitude; fewer still, while visiting schools, hosting personal tours of their workspace, mentoring artists and sharing knowledge and computer skills with technology buffs.

Winter Light I wonder aloud if he’s consciously working toward an end, or if he’s just following his passion for interpreting the land. Stokes allows that he plans to include people in his work, because, he says, humanity is that “most important” element. His comment that “you don’t get good at things overnight,” offers up another link between Jim Stokes the person, and Jim Stokes the artist. A merging of the placid, methodical, painstaking creator who turns out quality work, and the ever-active, multi-tasker, who appears to be present to meet others’ needs, is indeed possible, but requires relentless wonder and reverence for the world. And a whole lot of time. There’s lots on his plate, but he’s not about to put it out there until he’s processed it entirely.

Asked to explain his intention in his landscapes, Stokes recalls 19th century American poet Walt Whitman, whose work addressed what Jim calls “the universe within the blade of grass.” His art, he says, seeks to reveal something of that seed of universality in the particular. And when you’re bent on examining the world from that perspective, it’s going to take some time.

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