Take a walk down Main Street, Fallbrook; a sleepy enclave of farms and estates tucked in behind Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base in Southern California. The old section of town is mostly false-fronted buildings with local businesses; an ice-cream shop, hand-crafted gifts and jewelry, a few boutiques, restaurants and sidewalks with benches attesting to the leisurely pace. Here most mornings, in front of Cafe Primo; the local coffee shop, you will notice a man with handsome, sad eyes and bear claw tattoos on his forearms sitting in one of the Adirondack chairs. If you sit down with him, he can tell you tales of art, adventure and a spiritual journey....
On a sunny afternoon at Six Nations Reservation near Toronto, Canada, the man enters a tipi under a completely cloudless sky for his naming ceremony - an honor rarely granted to outsiders. Throughout the ceremony the sky remains clear and bright, except for a single cloud which appears directly over the tipi. Thunder and lightning crash; and then rain begins to fall directly through the opening, like a baptism from the sky, cleansing his spirit. And so his name becomes "Black Thunder Man".
A.K.A. Brett Stokes, the man’s artistic and spiritual journey began in this sleepy little town. He came as a young boy with his family; father, mother and a twin brother named Bron. He was descended from a blend of Scottish Picts and Cherokee; rooted, as most of us were in those days, in the Judeo-Christian philosophy. I knew Brett then. We all hung out, like kids do in sleepy rural towns; spent our days trying to ditch school, going to Bonsall Lake to swing on the rope swing high out over the water, and in the evenings gathering in barns and parks to drink, smoke a little grass and dance to the music of Oakmont Springs, our local cover band.
Fallbrook was full of retired military officers and a bastion of socio-political conservatism. The small town even had its own vigilante squad; the eponymous "Rusty's Raiders" after their founder Rusty Fossatti, a member of the John Birch Society and the owner of a local pub called "Rusty's Ammo Room". Coming of age in this place in the 1970's it felt like a little war and we thought of ourselves as rebels, but even then Brett was a little different; a little more thoughtful; a little more intense; and he was an artist.
Ask anyone and they will remember the empty field beside the main road leading into town. For years there was an old Volkswagen bus laying on its side in the field, decaying, with the roof facing the street. Perhaps no one knows how it came to be there, but one morning the top had been painted; a rural post-modern billboard:
WELCOME TO FUNKBROOK - POP. 8000
7,970 BIRCHY BUMMERS
27 LOVING LIBERALS
1 RUSTY & 2 VIRGINS
It was a declaration of protest from our rebellion and we all loved it! To this day, Bret claims he didn't paint the original sign, but he does admit that it was he who changed it to read: "Welcome to Pear Falls" in response to an article in "Look" magazine about a popular Fallbrook teacher who had been railroaded out of the school district by allegations of child molestation. As reported in the article, it was later proven - after the teacher's career had been destroyed, that the parents of the child had forced him to say that the teacher had molested him. "Look" changed the name of the town to Pear Falls in the article, but still all copies were pulled from the local stores. In protest Bret repainted the sign.
In the mid 1970's while most of us were still thinking we were rebels ( In reality we may have just been partying in order to postpone serious thoughts about our future lives...) Brett joined the evangelical Christian movement. He even attended seminary for a year before he began to feel that Christian teachings were not what he was searching for; not filling the void in his soul.
It is an interesting thing; this convergence between the drive to practice art and spiritual yearning. When someone is practicing art, it’s almost as if they are taking dictation...from God. In my interviews with artists, frequently they describe a feeling that, during the creative process, all thinking shuts down and the work simply overtakes them. Imagine what this must be like; living the life of a human being with all of our imperfection while God whispers thoughts of divinity in your ear. The stronger that voice, the more conflicted the artist seems to be. And if one looks at the lives and behavior of some of the most prolific and creative artists throughout history, there are volumes of stories about aberrant behavior, insanity, alcoholism andspiritual seeking...
Brett spent ten years working as a commercial artist to support himself, but in the end, the call of his art and spirit reasserted themselves; there was a creative and spiritual void in his life and he realized that he must practice his own art, that there was no alternative. And he began to paint.
Looking for something that resonated with the call of his spirit, Brett set out for the southwest in search of his Native American heritage. In Flagstaff he met a Hopi man - quite by chance who invited him to a Katsina dance. Katsina dance is a celebration of life; an invocation of the rain so crucial to the life of southwest farmers and wanderers. Brett describes the ceremony with awe: "What I witnessed I will never forget; 100 dancers in a plaza, dancing; calling for rain and the continuation of life as they have done for centuries." He wandered through their ancient villages built of mud and stone, carved out of cliff walls; their vistas across the desert mesas. He attended the kiva and sat with the Katsinam; the Hopi spirit messengers who send prayers for rain, bountiful harvests, and a prosperous healthy life for humankind.
"They are our friends and visitors who bring gifts and food, as well as messages to teach appropriate behavior and the consequences of unacceptable behavior. Katsinam, of which there are over two hundred and fifty different types, represent various beings, from animals to clouds."
---Hopi Spiritual Lore
Tradition holds that during the ceremonies, the Katsinam assume human shape and join in the ceremonies, mingling with members of the tribe.
During the next 15 years, Brett returned 3-4 times a year for the ceremonies, studied art and searched. And he painted; showing and selling his paintings at galleries all over the southwest; Sedona, Taos, Denver.....
Today, not only do his paintings tell the story, but his body is a canvas, a map of his spiritual journey; the embodiment of his conviction that "whether praying or playing, the spirit or ethereal world is alive; separate, but connected to all things." In Native American lore, because the thunderbirds brought his name, he has the heart of the buffalo which symbolizes giving. Brett feels that his gift has been to share the heart of the Native American in his art. The tattoo over his heart is a buffalo with lightning to remind him of who he is. His spirit clan is the bear and he wears a bear skull with wings of thunder. The snowy owl is the recreation of a vivid dream in which his father came to him in the form of an owl and spoke to him after his passing. On the front of his hands and his left arm are the claws of a bear and his right arm is an homage to the ferocity of the Picts from the Orkney Isles. The bear totem on his chest from a vision he had one night while having sex....
Although Brett found strong resonance in the landscape and culture of the southwest, he believes that; "No one people have all the answers, but” he says, "I loved the adventures and the people I met in those regions. It is still one of my favorite areas."
Traveling in Europe, he fell in love with Paris "because it is a city that loves its art: seen through the eyes of the great artists like Picasso, Monet, D'Orsay, Louvre, Palace Versailles, the mysterious streets and the people..." And of Tahiti he observed "It wasn't only the girls that lured Gaugin. Tahiti is a place of great mana... great power and when it was time to leave I felt a great balance of priorities and immense power." To record this moment of revelation he painted his series of Tahitian canvases.
If you are an art lover and spend time in Arizona, California, Oklahoma, Colorado, you are almost certain to run across Brett's work. His vivid and beautiful paintings have been shown in many galleries across the southwest and have won many awards and competitions. In our hometown of Fallbrook, two of his murals grace the side of buildings; they are valued treasures to its citizens.
Of art, travel and adventure Brett says: " I travel to see god in the eyes of others, the evidence of the great mystery in the landscape, seas and skies beckon and we can only take them in with an open soul."
It's a long journey for a rebel painting a protest sign in a field on a dark night....
Visit FindYourCool.us to see Brett’s gorgeous and inspiring Tahitian series of oil paintings on canvas.