Some years ago, while living in Vancouver, Dawn Stofer reached a crossroads in life. A friend suggested she picture how she would like her life to look.
“My ideal life is just a pipe dream and is probably not attainable,” Dawn replied to her friend. “I'd like to own a house overlooking water on one of the Gulf Islands, and it would incorporate a studio and a gallery for my artwork.”
Her friend replied: “Well, now that you know what the dream looks like, all you have to do is to make it happen!”
A year later, in July 2002, Dawn did just that.
Today, an established artist, she is living her dream in an idyllic setting on Denman Island amidst a community brimming with artists and artisans. Her four-bedroom house, which she describes as a “work in progress,” has had walls knocked out to embody a gallery and studio. Much of the renovation work she did herself.
Her abstract artwork is scattered throughout her home, but much of her work can be found around the world in private collections. She has shown her creations at the Deborah Worsfold Gallery in Vancouver and continues to display her work in her own gallery, which is open to the public year-round. Her gallery also features sculptures by her partner, Michael Dennis.
Distinguishable by a bold use of colour, Dawn’s paintings are drawn from her memories and vivid imagination. They are, “the harvest of elements from my internal archive.”
This internal archive and the journey that led Dawn to Denman Island has been an exciting adventure encompassing many eclectic experiences.
Born in Victoria 50-something years ago into what she describes as “a moderately poor” family, Dawn was the middle child of five. “I had a great deal of personal freedom growing up,” she says. “I somehow managed to travel under the parental radar!”
Her free spirit roamed in her imaginary world. “I once built a horse stall in our basement in Oak Bay until my mother discovered that the bale of straw meant to feed the rabbits had become a large semi-religious manger for my imaginary horse.”
All the children went to Catholic school where Dawn excelled. Most of her after-school time, however, was spent at the beach fishing for bullheads and eels, and generally “scrambling around on the basalt outcroppings of rock” or climbing trees.
She was also passionate about horses, and what little money she could scrape together, she spent at the Victoria Riding Academy mucking out stalls, brushing and feeding the horses and cleaning tack in the barn. “If I was lucky enough to have $2.50, I could even buy an hour’s rental on a horse. Catholic school or not, that barn was my real church!” laughs Dawn.
She discovered her talent for drawing while still at school. In high school, she won an arts scholarship to attend the University of Victoria, where she expanded her artistic talent to include painting, sculpture, photography, music and linguistics. “I don’t think I thrived either artistically or academically though,” she admits. “I didn’t know myself well enough then, but it was a useful training ground.”
Later, she completed an education degree at the University of Calgary before returning to B.C. and was eventually offered a position as full-time tutor for actress Ocean Hellman on the set of the television series *Danger Bay*.
This was Dawn’s introduction into the world of entertainment. When the tutoring job ended, she was hired as a stunt double. It was the beginning of a 13-year diversion into a completely new world.
Dawn was quick to learn, trained by some seasoned performers from Stunts Canada and the timing was fortuitous because the film industry was just taking off in B.C. Dawn’s stature, physical agility and temperament were consummate for this type of work. She was in a lucrative career, which she admits was addictive.
She doubled for stars such as Goldie Hawn, Kirstie Alley, Lindsay Wagner, Shelley Long and Bonnie Hunt.
“There seemed to be a never-ending string of nondescript action sequences requiring someone to be either set on fire, fall down a set of stairs, suffer some kind of violence, or leap from a high window,” says Dawn. “I found myself doing the craziest things such as jumping off a pier into the cold and muddy Fraser River at 4 a.m. one February or being chased off a rock face into Lynn Canyon. I got hit by cars, canoed without a paddle through a churning white-water river, and rode on both a rollercoaster and a motorcycle with Mel Gibson.”
Other stunts included being beaten by actor Kevin Bacon, hauled into a departing plane by John Travolta, trapped in a collapsing house with Robin Williams and chased on horseback by Christopher Reeve. One of her more memorable jobs was rewarding live Bengal tigers with a pouch of raw horsemeat for a scene in the movie *Bird on a Wire*. A terrifying experience!
Dawn values this period of her life and is grateful to have survived it, but today she is reluctant to talk about those years. She spent much of her life at that time in a perpetually nervous state, where she was forced to make quick judgments, while living “on the edge.”
During those years, Dawn was briefly married and lived in Pitt Meadows where she indulged her passion for horses by outfitting a barn and owning a number of thoroughbred and quarter horses and even a pair of Percherons, which she learned how to ride with the help of an old Manitoba farmer. The expense involved taking care of the horses, plus the long gruelling hours on set (a minimum of 12 hours a day) took their toll.
By the mid-1990s, Dawn, realizing she’d become an expendable commodity, decided to escape the “glamourous” movie life.
“I finally got it out of my system, along with my passion for owning horses. It was extremely grounding at the time and seemed to make perfect sense but, finally, I moved on.” She returned once again to painting.
On a trip to Cannes, in 1996, while attending a film and television trade show, she became romantically involved with a writer from London and moved to England. She decided to give free reign to her artistic talents and worked hard to achieve many fine art pieces in her attic studio and even had her own exhibition at a small Chelsea gallery.
“One afternoon, a curious face peered around the doorway of my gallery followed by a cane and the person of Guy Roddin,” smiled Dawn. “He said he particularly liked my Canadian trees.”
Roddin was the oldest living member of the Chelsea Arts Club, a highly prestigious group of artists. As he sat on a stool looking at Dawn’s work while enjoying a glass of wine, the two began what was to become a lasting friendship. Roddin invited Dawn to France to paint. He offered her the benefit of his experience, his critiques, his advice and above all his encouragement. As her mentor, Roddin gave her confidence and a belief in her own talent once again.
Her eight years on Denman Island have also taught her a great deal and brought a new peace into her life. “I make discoveries when I paint,” says Dawn. “Sometimes I look at my paintings as if someone else has made them. My internal archive is like an attic. I never know what I will find there because things seem to emerge on their own.”
One object that constantly emerges is the inanimate chair. She quotes Patrick White by saying “there is perhaps no more complete a reality than a chair and a table.” She believes that chairs are like stand-ins for their people, representing the main actor in his/her absence.
Her strong work ethic means she toils long hours in her studio. “I quit only when I’m tired,” she says. Music playing in the background inspires and transports her to another level.
Her recent piece entitled *Conserve Water* won first prize in a poster competition organized by Islands Trust to help protect the special environment of the Gulf Islands, a subject she’s passionate about.
She also spends time working in her garden. Last winter, she built eight Abbey Warre beehives ideal for raising healthy, happy honeybees in a non-intrusive fashion. Beekeeping is her latest interest and Dawn, with tongue-in-cheek, refers to herself as the Queen Bee.
Stofer Gallery is located at 5305 East Road on Denman Island. Stop by to browse on your next trip to Denman or Hornby Islands. The experience will be well worth while and you undoubtedly will not leave empty-handed! For more info, visit www.stofergallery.com
MAY 2010 SENIOR LIVING MAGAZINE VANCOUVER ISLAND