By Heath McCoy, Calgary Herald June 10, 2012
A beaten up old bicycle, at least 75 years old, painted an ugly, vaguely rusty looking orange, sits in the middle of the Collectors’ Gallery of Art, surrounded by paintings, linocuts and block prints depicting the peaceful serenity of the Alberta landscape.
The beauty on the walls is the work of the late, much-loved Alberta artist Margaret Shelton and the clunky bike with its wiry front basket was hers.
At first glance one might think the bike, which she cutely painted orange to discourage anyone from stealing it, stands out like a blemish on the face of this otherwise lovely exhibition, Margaret Shelton: The Early Years (1935 to 1960), which opens today. But the moment you learn of Shelton’s history you realize how central this artifact really is to the presentation.
Throughout the 1930s and ’40s, in her formative years as an artist, Shelton rode that bike all across Alberta, passionately investigating the province she so deftly documented. “She sketched from her bicycle for many years,” says Shelton’s daughter, Pat Marcellus. “She would get on the bike in the spring ... load it up with her sketch pads and her painting gear ... and ride the gravel roads from her parents’ home in Rosedale, in the Drumheller Valley, all the way to Banff. She’d pitch her canvas pup tent in the Tunnel Mountain campground, with laundry lines running between the trees and she’d live in it all summer ... using it as her base of operations.”
Riding that stiff, one-speed bicycle up steep mountain trails and rough, fire roads Shelton lovingly captured her surroundings: Cascade Mountain and Mount Edith Cavell among the giants; the mountainside barns and the campgrounds she’d come across in the valleys; boys fishing from their canoes on the shimmering Bow River.
On one particularly ambitious trip she took her bicycle on the train to Vancouver and endeavoured to ride it back home, documenting her journey along the way. She travelled through the Fraser Valley, says her daughter, picking fruit and doing odd jobs to get by. Shelton made it as far as Revelstoke where, on her way into town, she was struck by a truck.
Somehow she survived.
Her precious bike was shattered, however (look closely at the base and you can see where Shelton later welded it back together) and her back was hurt badly enough that it dogged her for the rest of her life. The young artist either hitchhiked or took the train back home, her daughter’s not sure which, but Marcellus stresses: “She never let it get in her way. … She was tough!”
Raised in the mining town of Rosedale, Shelton felt a kinship with working class people and scenes, which was a major factor in her art.
Witnessing first-hand the hardships faced by the miners, as well as the segregation in her town — with immigrants often mistreated, none more so than the Chinese people, whose families had helped build the railroad — Shelton also developed a burning sense of social injustice.
She often contributed her art to labour projects and, for a time, she even lent her support to the Communist movement.
Some might say that this political unrest is not found in her tranquil scenes, but her daughter would disagree. “Why aren’t her politics reflected in her work? I think they are,” says Marcellus. “She captured the everyday things around her. The places where ordinary people lived and the places they valued. Their homes, churches, schoolyards, neighbourhoods, she captured them honestly and with charity. … She painted the old shacks in(at) the mines.”
Even though she studied under such celebrated artists as A.C. Leighton, H.G. Glyde and Walter J. Phillips, and appeared regularly in Alberta art exhibitions, Shelton never truly rose to prominence until the 1970s.
In part, this was because she wasn’t as productive in the 1950s and ’60s when she was raising her family. Times were particularly tough because her husband suffered a stroke and became disabled. The family lived on welfare throughout Marcellus’s childhood.
Their fortunes turned around thanks to Peter Ohler Sr. at the Masters Gallery who began to heavily promote Shelton’s work.
“That brought her recognition,” says Marcellus. “People began to realize what the quality of her work actually was.”
This was deeply gratifying for Shelton.
“I remember when she was finally making enough money that we could get off welfare,” says Marcellus. “She didn’t brag. She didn’t make a big thing of it. But there was this quiet satisfaction that she was finally able to support us, just on her art. That felt very cool.”
Margaret Shelton passed away in 1984, at the age of 69, but her art is much loved and sought after to this day.
What is it about her work that has stood the test of time?
“Because she loved it (nature) so much,” says Marcellus. “When I look at her stuff, I feel that love. Don’t you?”
Margaret Shelton: The Early Years 1935-1960 opening reception today, noon to 4 p.m., at the Collectors’ Gallery of Art. Exhibition continues through to June 30.
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