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Leighton Centre Studios Entrance
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Leighton Centre Studios
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Leignton Centre Main House/Gallery
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Leighton Centre Great Room
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Leighton Centre View from Great Room
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A.C.Leighton Painting and Bio
By Portia Priegert
When I spotted the blue Mini, its tail pointed artfully to the sky in the rolling hills southwest of Calgary, I thought it might be the calling card for the Leighton Art Centre. But the car was not an art installation. The stunning juxtaposition of glinting metal against snowy fields and dazzling sky turned out to be an unpremeditated homage to the region’s unpredictable spring weather: The car, now abandoned, had simply slipped off a sharp corner on the icy road.
Galleries West publisher Tom Tait and I were searching for the home of an Alberta art pioneer, Alfred Crocker Leighton, a British-born painter who has slipped into genteel obscurity since his death in 1965. Tom had been driving for some time and while we weren’t lost – a real challenge these days with GPS and smart phones – we weren’t exactly found either. The trip was starting to take on the air of an adventure, particularly when our crawling pace up the side of a steep coulee had me joking that I might have to get out and push.
But as country estates gave way to humbler abodes sporting scattered farm equipment, we came upon a charmingly rustic orange building – a former one-room schoolhouse – along with several outbuildings of similar hue, set amid a grove of poplars brushed with hoarfrost as lush as Dolly Parton’s eyelashes. We tramped about in the snow, puzzled that no one was about, until we realized we were in the Leighton’s studio complex.
Farther down the road we found the main building, a rambling Tudor-themed house designed by Leighton, who had some early training in architecture. It includes a small gallery, which was showing work by Penny Corradine. Her painting of a moose, his sanguine nose held aloft with the air of an aristocrat en route to a private club, caught Tom’s eye. The animal, fittingly, was trotting through Sanctuary, a lyrical installation of 1,000 vertical poles that Alberta artist Peter von Tiesenhausen erected on the centre’s 80-acre spread during a 2012 residency.
The house’s main room, long and narrow like a medieval banquet hall, is preserved as a museum. Leighton’s paintings hang on its thickly plastered walls and various artifacts are on display, including the fringed leather jacket he wore when he headed out on horseback for a week or two to paint in the wilds. But the room’s western-facing view is the undeniable star, with its magnificent vista across the foothills to the Rockies. It is truly a place to sit and marvel.
Our visit was prompted by a talk a few days earlier at the University of Calgary’s Nickle Galleries by the centre’s curator, Stephanie Doll, a young and enthusiastic ambassador for Leighton’s legacy. She told how he was hired in 1929 as the director of the Art Institute of Calgary (a precursor to the Alberta College of Art and Design), a role that allowed him to mentor a younger generation of Alberta artists. Leighton’s wife, Barbara Mary Harvey, was a student who received $10 from Leighton prior to their 1931 marriage, with the suggestion that she spend a dollar on her ring and the rest on a good sleeping bag as he intended to pass their honeymoon painting in the Kananaskis. It rained for most of their sojourn. One of Leighton’s paintings shows his rather sodden bride lugging a saddle through camp.
Leighton is largely dismissed these days as an academic painter whose washed-out palette and precise pictorialism are dull in comparison to the vibrant expressionism of his contemporaries in the Group of Seven. Indeed, Leighton merits only a brief reference in the latest edition of art historian Dennis Reid’s A Concise History of Canadian Painting, which notes his role in starting art camps in Banff in 1935. Still, there’s no questioning Leighton’s affection for the mountain landscape. He later recalled his first encounter with the Rockies, saying “the purity and beauty of the colouring being indescribable, there was no lack of subject, for one could be found at every angle.”
Leighton, born in 1901, first visited Canada in 1924 when he was hired by Canadian Pacific to paint landscapes along the railway. Over the years, he had various exhibitions, including a 1931 show with a more enduring artist, Walter J. Phillips, at the Edmonton Museum of Art. Leighton’s work was also shown at the Vancouver Art Gallery in 1935. But he struggled most of his life with health issues and retired from teaching in 1938, moving with Barbara to British Columbia for a time, before scrawling a cheque on a page from his sketchbook in 1952 to buy this remarkable chunk of land.
Leighton died in 1965, some 20 years before his wife, and was buried in the nearby town of Millarville. It was Barbara who established the art centre in 1974. She exhibited her late husband’s paintings, along with work by other regional artists, and organized workshops, classes and community events. One of the centre’s main goals is to instill a love of art and nature in young people. Programming has outgrown the facility, but supporters are working to raise funds for a new building.
For information on how to get to the Leighton Art Centre, click here.