Margaret Shelton, "My Tent," watercolour on paper, 1965, 9.75" x 15"
MARGARET SHELTON (1915-1984)
Picture an image of a young Margaret Shelton pedaling down the uneven highway from Calgary to Banff, her paint box, sketchbook and camping gear affixed to her bicycle. Eventually she’d pull over to paint something — a grain elevator, a tractor, a mountain, a mine — whatever struck her. “She painted everything,” says Jill Clark, director of The Collector’s Gallery of Art in Calgary, which represents Shelton’s estate.
Shelton was born in Bruce, Alberta near Edmonton in 1915, and was raised in the Drumheller Valley in Rosedale. She showed an early aptitude for art and a wandering spirit that would later earn her the label “Alberta’s Emily Carr.” While studying to become a teacher at the Calgary Normal School in the early 1930s, Shelton enrolled in night classes at the Provincial Institute of Technology and Art. Using scholarship money, she also honed her skills at the Banff School of Fine Arts (now The Banff Centre), under the tutelage of painters like Walter Phillips, A.C. Leighton, H.G. Glyde, and Charles Comfort. Phillips introduced Shelton to woodcut printmaking, a medium that would gain her much wider recognition.
Shelton was a prolific artist who ranged widely through different styles and techniques, working in watercolour, oils, and woodcut and linocut block prints. Her images of Southern Alberta, British Columbia and the Yukon are straightforward, sometimes austere and without romantic flourishes. Like a documentary photographer, she often captured just what she saw with her own eyes. She was equally interested in the world of working people, painting images of social realism not typically considered beautiful — oil refineries, mines, farm equipment, apartment buildings and garages.
Through the late 1950s and 60s, when she and her husband had their only child, daughter Pat, Shelton stopped travelling to sketch and paint, and turned her attention to home and family. From 1958 to 1970 she stopped printmaking entirely, but continued painting.
Today, Shelton is best known for her woodcut and lino prints, and having made hundreds of prints in her lifetime, she is considered one of the region’s most important printmakers. It was a medium she loved, in part for its practicality and accessibility — she could create many prints from one cut and sell them at prices the average person could afford.
In the 1980s, Shelton was diagnosed with throat cancer, an illness, she hypothesized was due to holding oily paintbrushes in her mouth — though she’d been a heavy smoker. As her illness progressed and she was less able to get out to paint, Shelton turned to pastels that showed a darker, moodier side. Her later pastels are charged with emotion and seem to speak to her yearning to be outside again. They contrast sharply with the paintings Shelton composed while travelling the highways in search of everyday inspiration. In 1965, on one of her characteristic field trips, Shelton completed this watercolour painting of her tent set up amongst the trees. A practical woman, she later painted something else on the back of the canvas. The blunt title, My Tent, offers no clue as to the location of the campsite, and though it was found tucked in a stack of other watercolours — some similarly simple, others much more complex and nuanced — for Clark this particular piece speaks to the artist’s character.
Those early painting trips provided Shelton with a huge body of work and hint at her wanderlust and unconventional spirit. “The story goes that once in a while you would see Margaret painting in the nude,” Clark says. “She was a trailblazer.” Shelton spent the latter part of her life in Forest Lawn in Calgary, where she died in 1984.
— Amber Bowerman