Beaten bicycle tells the story of beloved Alberta artist Margaret Shelton

 

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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