In self-exile from Canada and its diffident art scene, Leonard Brooks’ career proves that none of us know where our lives will take us. After an eventful early life, including a prolific creative sojourn during World War II, Brooks found himself in the sleepy mountain town of San Miguel de Allende north of Mexico City. Over more than six decades there, he would build a vibrant cultural community that welcomed expat artists from all over the world.
Born in Enfield, England, Brooks and his family emigrated to Canada in 1913, but returned for two years during the First World War while his father was enlisted. Returning to Canada in 1918, Brooks’ formative years were often focused on art — hearing artist Arthur Lismer speak to a group about his work, the teenage Brooks decided he would become a painter.
Brooks’ early work followed the popular sense of Canadian painting — landscapes and wilderness scenes, often in thinned-out watercolours. During the second war, he was commissioned to travel overseas as an official Naval painter, and he spent two years recording the aftermath of London bombing, and the daily lives of Canadian sailors.
Returning to Toronto, he quickly tired of what he perceived to be the elitist and closed-off Canadian art scene. “Early in his career (Brooks’) resentment was aimed at the well-heeled curators running many of the museums and galleries, and the trust-fund artists he would meet who didn’t have to worry about sales,” Philip Fine wrote recently in the Globe and Mail. “Later, it was for art trends lapped up by the public and for those Canadians who preferred frozen wilderness over sun-scorched scenes on their national artists’ canvases.”
Brooks took his veterans’ pay and set off from an indifferent Ontario, settling in San Miguel, which was a quiet, little-known backwater in 1947. Inexpensive and inspiring, the town and its culture fed him as a painter and as a musician (he had been playing violin since he was a child, and began giving lessons and organizing performances in Mexico). His work became saturated with light, and he was quickly won over by the medium of abstract collage.
He and his wife Reva created an informal artists’ colony in Mexico that drew other artists, musicians, and writers, and the town maintains itself today as a magnet for English-speaking expat creative types. And the 60 years of happy exile can be found in Brooks’ work.
This collage, one of his later works from about 2002 called Yellow Moon, is deeply evocative of the colour and vibrancy of Mexico. For Jill Clark of Calgary’s Collectors' Gallery, it’s one of her favourites. The Gallery has been steadily building its collection of Brooks works, some for a show two years ago of work from a Toronto collector, and others (including this one) more recently acquired from the Brooks estate. “I remember in 1978 going to Mexico City to the modern art museum there, and seeing one of Leonard’s collages, and it just stuck in my head,” Clark says. She adds that the collage work is an important element to Brooks collectors, who generally want to own work in each of the artist’s preferred media.
The collages in particular are difficult to pinpoint, in terms of inspiration. Brooks travelled back and forth regularly between Mexico and Canada (in the early years, driving both ways), and he continued to paint Canadian scenes. But for Peterson, the rich colour in his more recent work places it firmly south. Fitting, then that when he died at 100 last November, Brooks was still painting in his beloved Mexico.
— Jill Sawyer