A Daughter Remembers Her Father’s Creative Legacy

My father, Geoff Relf, a longtime San Diego advertising and communications figure passed away July 28, 2015, at 85, after battling cancer, surviving his wife, Connie by five years. The couple met at the University of Washington and moved to San Diego in 1956, then to La Jolla in 1959, where they raised four children: Terrie, Robin, Kirk, and Katherine.

He was born in Tacoma, Washington, the son of Henry Clark Relf, an international lumber broker and De Lonto May Kirk, who met at the University of Washington. He was fond of sharing stories of his precocious childhood endeavors and life growing up with his sister Carol on Puget Sound.

My dad was a man of many talents that served him well in a varied career. He attended Stanford as a pre-Med, and later studied at The Cartoonists and Illustrators School in New York City, now SVA, with Burne Hogarth and others. He entered the field of advertising and public relations after graduating from the University of Washington.

Known for his keen intellect, powerhouse creative mind, and sardonic wit, his communications career included several partnerships, including Barnes & Chase, and the PR firm Scripps & Relf. He later formed Relf Communications and Torrey Services.

His advertising campaigns left their mark on San Diego over the years, and his articles and illustrations appeared now and again in many publications. He served as the account executive for Sea World for many years, starting with its opening. Toward the end of his life, it seemed as though he may have sought to upend the stigma of this legacy through laboring over a series of publications that explored environment, ecology and marine life. They remained ‘unfinished,’ and, furthermore, stuck on the hard drive of an Apple computer.

My father learned to pilot seaplanes at a young age and loved to wax poetic about flight — both avian and aircraft. He served as a Naval Aviation Officer, which led to working in the aerospace field for General Dynamic Astronautics and General Atomic supervising advertising. This led to a moment he was proud to be a part of: crafting the announcements to the world that man had landed on the Moon.

He also handled creative campaigns at different times for the San Diego Opera, the Hotel Del Coronado, Tijuana’s Frontón Palacio Jai Alai and the Del Mar Racetrack.

A Scrabble aficionado, my father could be counted on for arcane knowledge of English language usage, which gave him a clear advantage. He loved science and was a closet botanist. He lived to learn and create and helped pass that on to four children and five grandchildren. He will be remembered as tenderhearted as well as a farce to be reckoned with for the strength of his convictions. I meant to say ‘force.’ I think you get the picture.

I traveled to Paris in December of the year he died, inspired by my friend, Belinda Chlouber, a member of the Climate Reality Project. When we first met, she was in the midst of a legacy project painting and using mixed media based on the poetry and other writing of her mother and her grandfather that she had discovered after their deaths. I was writing about artist’s tributes for this site and wrote about Belinda here. I was touched by the way she worked her mother’s creative output into her own. Her mother’s poetry and short stories and her grandfather’s poems had inspired the series of paintings she had dedicated to her family legacy. It was a lyrical and bittersweet instance of posthumous collaboration.

When I heard that she was going to go to Paris to be part of the Place2Be, I thought it was the ideal intersection of many of my previous life adventures with what life had just dealt me with the death of my father. I had lived in Paris three separate times in my life. It was where I had ‘run away to’ when I was only 16 after an intense effort of mastering the language became my teenaged obsession; private lessons with Janette Tihanyi in her home near UCSD led me to the conclusion that yes, Paris would, could, and should be my new and permanent home. Instead, it became a kind of home away from home for me.

As I heard more about what Belinda was planning to do in Paris, I saw how poetic a journey it could be for me. Five years prior I had mourned my mother there, an experience that gave rise to this blog. I could learn more about the growing tribe of environmental activists, many artists, a clan my father might have joined with had he been younger and more capable of going there himself. Although, he might have not recognized their means, the goals of those many born two generations after him, were surely in line with his. In truth, my father was ahead of his times.

He had breathed and lived and written about ecology before the term Greenhouse Effect had become widely known. Then again, we did live in La Jolla, and Roger Revelle was just up the street and an associate of my father’s. My father died leaving me to tend the flame. I am still trying to figure out what the flame is even now.

At the very least, if I could return to the place where every month on the day of my mother’s death, the 18th, I had lit a candle to her memory, I could go light one for my father, too. Everything else was extraneous to what my heart was telling me to do.

To add to that, we had lived in an apartment for a year that was 450 meters from Le Bataclan. I would not be prepared for the shock of seeing all the memorials laid on the sidewalk on which I had walked with my husband and daughter every day.

Because my father’s papers and unfinished creative work were mine to curate, I decided the Place2Be would be a suitable venue for a tribute to him. He had over the years created a set of underwater character illustrations that stemmed from his many years of studying marine life first-hand.

What better tribute than making these underwater characters speak — not like Tony the Tuna spoke, but at a venue called The Creative Factory that was a meet-up and creative brainstorming session at the Place2Be, which was headquarters and lodging for hundreds of do-gooders for the earth and for climate justice. They had taken over St. Christopher’s Inn near la Gare du Nord and made it home for two weeks.

This was a truly trippy introduction for me to the realm of environmental activism. I, a newbie, one who still would not go so far as to call myself ‘an activist.’ Perhaps a green one. I met so many unique and passionate ‘citizens of the world’ and also got a chance to participate in some actions.

Before we left, Belinda’s daughter recorded my father’s poem, Ecology Is. I had planned to create an audiovisual presentation. I had no idea what it would be like to present the work. I ran out of time and had nothing more than some iconography from my father’s archives and the recordings of one of his poems.

My thought was that sharing Ecology Is would be my action. COP21 would allow me to grieve both the sad fate of the sea, the globe and my father all in one. It could also help further one of his aims: to communicate the need for practical action on behalf of marine life. I could pay a tribute to him and further his aims. As a daughter of his, I suppose I was born into this legacy.

The Place2Be had a project coordinated by Forever Hive (a British group focused on communicating about environmental and climate justice) to find a way to collect creative people who could help rewrite the narrative about climate change. Get the word out. Reboot ‘the polar bear on the floating island of ice’ that was an iconic and yet cliched symbol of our planet’s global-scaled challenges.

My contribution would be something along the lines of: My father can no longer lend his voice to environmental causes by talking through his cartoon characters. Here I am in his place. Others, like my close friend, Coleen Marlo, an award winning audiobook narrator with hundreds of titles to her name, lent their voices, too. Coleen recorded the same poem. I went around asking other friends to do the same.

I won’t ever really know how my father might have intended to rework stanzas of his poems. I don’t know that they are something I can commercially publish and, there is ambiguity in this, that’s not what he would have wanted, or at least not toward the end of his life. Ideally, the work, if it ever sees more light of day, should be put to its best use, promoting doing right by all inhabitants that strive to live in and by the watery world, and to teach others to support the common good.

The story of how they came to be and how they came to me is a saga in itself. He had penned the earliest version in the ‘60s. Throughout our lives, he worked and reworked the characters for more than 40 years. Family members did not always understand or care about them as he did. My mother asked him practically on her death bed to continue working at it. This, I understood, was why he did it. It became a way for him to fulfill her wish for him. It became his new reason for living. Yet it had been his obsession all along.

It didn’t matter who he was doing it for. He said it was for her, but it was also for the children of the world. It was perhaps even for Shamu. He had known the black fish personally and professionally.

He continued to mold and form his legacy gift to my mother slash to the world up to his final days, but we have no idea whether he would have ever finished. It was, in my view, a way also for him to go out remembering what had mattered to him over the years from boyhood to manhood: giving form to ideas and making them better.

This quality of never letting go was a testament to both his best and worst qualities. Skilled, erudite, and persistent he was, but also, in a way, like a barnacle that will cling to a tidal shelf because it knows it will never make it far from where it began.

I pictured my father who, despite being in a good deal of pain, a widower, seeing the end of his creative career and his body’s soundness, kept his mind alive with re-crafting his words, reworking his concepts and reframing his story into who knows what shanty song of the sea. I still remain shocked at how he was never satisfied with its ending; the end came to him instead. I suppose it was quite natural how it rose up to meet him.

I suspect that writing and designing the book, reshuffling which illustrations belonged where, must have given him what we all need: a reason to live. Creative types love a project. From my perspective, it seemed that it was playing a vital role. It was keeping this lonely and isolated octogenarian company. After five years of living on his own, it must also have sustained him, giving his brain cells a workout, and reminding him of his boyhood love of marine biology. He used to scoop up water from creeks and from Puget Sound to examine under a microscope the single-celled organisms swimming around.

When he gave himself over to the elements, and we were there to witness the waning resources of his physical if not his spiritual or mental energy stores, he was still quite lucid. My father ‘died’ as he lived: he exhibited stoicism, he laughed at jokes in his last days in Mercy hospital in San Diego. Once, he reminded me that I was talking too much — and, sadly, he put off some family members who loved him. He drifted away without much fanfare and no funeral followed his passing, his ashes, quite suitably, to be sprinkled at a future date from the end of Scripps Pier to mingle with those of my mother, scattered there five years before.

I was often frustrated at how opinionated and stern he could be, yet I loved another side of him, the creative dreamer, Neptunian to his soul. This is how I will always remember him: in his right hand, a pen or an old school Rapidograph, or later, a mouse. Free associating ideas over cup after cup of coffee. Exploring his past. In love almost romantically with nature. Enforcing the rules of grammar even in casual conversation. In his hospital bed, where I got to hold that hand in my own, a feeling I have summoned many times since.

Our basement is full of boxes of images, printing runs of others’ career aspirations and locked on his last Apple computer, the contents of his last creative work. It is itself a container for a lifetime of synthesizing marine biology, Pantheism, Romanticism, and a sea of carefully crafted words and expertly inked pictures.
The time I spent in Paris gave me a brief moment to pay tribute to him; I shared his story and how I had come to do a ‘show and tell’ there as part of a legacy project. I returned from Paris and returned via Skype to share his work with a classroom of students at ISP, Paris’s International School. Belinda Chlouber and I both stayed up past our bedtimes one rainy night to talk to the kids about art activism.

It is now almost four months since the COP21, and my life has taken new routes to the sea. I have collected trash near the onramp to Highway 92 and 280. Belinda invited me to talk about my Dad’s poetry at her daughter’s classroom at a delightful, progressive place called The Peninsula School.

I have now been an adult orphan for eight months and a day. I have not forgotten the monumental task awaiting me. I still plan to take stock of what is there among my father’s papers. Yet, another task awaits me, too. I don’t have my father’s login or passwords. Guess I’m going to stand in line to talk to Apple about how one goes about legally accessing the hard drive of a few machines where I for sure will be embarking on a bittersweet journey. At the same time, I will be diving into a world I know well: my father’s creative mind.

While I ponder diving in to that watery realm it makes me feel an unseaworthy pirate-scavenger, I know I am not yet comfortable in those depths. I will manage to do what I can but maybe for now the first thing is to explore them.

How ironic that the year he died, Sea World made the news again and again — and many celebrated the victories of humans speaking out for the dignity of animals that have no voice of their own.

My father was no activist for animal rights, yet he had a sort of spiritual symbiosis with the sea creatures he adopted. Perhaps he labored over his cartoonish versions of ocean creatures to expiate his guilt. He had always loved being near or even under water. He had made his way into the advertising arena at a time when that career meant developing a proclivity for rendering anthropomorphized animals.

The Golden Age of Americana advertising was marked by a signature penchant for happy, stylized, peppy renditions of the great Web of Life. The entire animal kingdom all came out to help move products. All manner of products were branded by a menagerie worthy of Aesop. Chained beasts of burden at one remove — used to sell products. Like cartoon whales helping ‘sell out’ the shows at Sea World.

I myself first learned to love drawing, I think, by inspecting my father’s anthropomorphized characters and realize that my current obsession with cartoonish animals came out of not only the national obsession with them, but also seeing what came out of my father’s pen, black, like so much squid ink.

I am only beginning this journey into the messy, polluted, choppy, dangerous and murky waters of my father’s creative life and legacy. Come to think of it, these are the same adjectives I’d use to describe the state of the world’s oceans these days. I am optimistic. Many bright and committed people seem to be turning their minds to a new generation of innovative invention, social justice and environmental team work. Many brilliant, alleviating solutions are in need of scaling up; they’re just on the horizon. But our greed must recede, and we must all be cognizant and make adjustments in our style of living.

For now, I feel as though my father is ‘acting spookily at a distance’ as Einstein may have put it. He may still be doing his part from wherever he is. And wherever that is, I will keep remembering how much he labored to bring a set of humorous creatures to life. He nurtured them like children. Now they live on, and he is gone.

And yes, he is no longer with us, but some of his genius still is.

Katherine Relf-Canas

More Articles Written by Katherine

Katherine Relf-Canas splits her time between freelance writing and editorial projects while volunteering for Kids & Art, a nonprofit that provides art workshops and other support for families facing pediatric cancer. She has written for blogs and contributed to print magazines since 1996. Recently she has been writing about the healing power of art for this site and dedicated the project to her mother, Connie Relf, who worked as an artist and died in 2010. In 2000, she received a Masters Certification in Intuition Medicine® from Academy of Intuition Medicine® in Sausalito, California.

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