As she surveyed a room full of her late husband’s artwork, Cora Li-Leger said it was a very emotional experience to see it gathered for public viewing at Surrey Art Gallery.
Opening Saturday evening (Jan. 25), Counting the Steps of the Sun features a collection of paintings and videos created by Don Li-Leger, a celebrated South Surrey-based artist who succumbed to brain cancer last April 26, just a few weeks shy of his 71st birthday.
Last week, Cora, his wife of 43 years and a fellow artist, got to see the exhibit for the first time, but not exactly.
“It’s touching that this is being shown here because so many people haven’t seen this work at all,” Cora said with a smile. “It’s a premiere in that way, but I suppose the premiere has been in our living room for five people at a time maybe, over the past couple of years.”
The art show brings together work from Don’s final decade of artmaking with selections of video alongside a series of acrylic paintings. With a title adapted from a line in William Blake’s “Sunflower” poem, the exhibit showcases Don’s explorations with flora, fauna and landscapes.
Curator Jordan Strom said he aimed to showcase “the unique eclecticism, persistent curiosity and risk-taking that marked Don’s art practice. These paintings and videos show his ever-present interest in the elemental forces of nature and their relationship to the workings of the mind and perception.”
Don Li-leger grew up in Maple Ridge, studied plant ecology at Simon Fraser University, and painting at Vancouver School of Art and also Banff Centre School of Fine Art. After living for brief periods in Coquitlam and Kelowna, in 1987 Don and Cora moved to Surrey’s Crescent Heights area, where the home they shared became a hub of arts activity and organizing.
Every so often the couple would jump in their Volkswagen van and head somewhere, anywhere – “the more unsigned dirt roads, the better,” Cora said. One such adventure led them to the deserts of Southern California and Arizona in the spring of 2017, on a trip that later inspired Don to paint the “Hundred Year Bloom” series now featured in the gallery at Bear Creek Park.
“Once he got into making videos and that kind of work, he didn’t paint much,” Cora recalled. “But then it was a big burst of painting after that, starting after we went to the desert in 2017. It had rained that season and they were anticipating the biggest bloom of the century because you’d walk in the desert and there would be more flowers – it just boggled the mind,” Cora added. “The desert was green instead of brown, and every single little plant, even the microscopic ones, you’d bend down and there were tiny flowers, and everything was completely covered with flowers. So he came home and did all this,” she said, waving her arm.
Largest among the featured works is a painting Don created on four panels.
“This one,” Cora said, “he was still working on when he got sick, and because of the debility he suffered, he tried to work on it but he wasn’t able to do much on it after the tumour took its grip, which was really sad.”
In a smaller room of the gallery, some of Don’s short videos are shown in a loop. It was in the late-2000s when he “started messing with video,” as Cora put it, leading to the creation of moving images that mix documentary and poetic experimentation. One clip shows glowing honey pots floating on a pond, another the “prayer flags” hung from a tree outside Don’s studio. Yet another brings into a focus a coal-loaded train as it rumbles through South Surrey.
His “Wind Catchers” video resulted from another of Don and Cora’s road trips.
“Don saw this guy tightrope-walking at Crescent Beach one day and convinced him to be filmed, and he’s in this silhouette,” Cora noted, “but most of the imagery here is from Eastern Washington. We found this cemetery – you’ll see, it’s pretty bizarre when it’s revealed, all these flowers that are plastic, all this stuff – pinwheels and flags, Christmas decorations. I’ve never seen so much stuff, this kitsch, in one place.… That’s the kind of places we’d find.”
Closer to home, in Newton a few years ago, Don and Cora explored their love of plants at The Plot community sharing garden.
In 2015, in among “The Grove” of trees near Newton Recreation Centre, Don’s idea led to the creation of “Encyclopedia House,” an art installation made with discarded books. The temporary, log cabin-like structure became a community gathering spot for author readings, a series of tea parties, drawing lessons, a Remembrance Day ceremony, a vigil for those killed by bombs in Paris and Lebanon, and more.
Such projects showed the diverse nature of Don’s work over his five-decade career as an artist. No question, Counting the Steps of the Sun is not a retrospective of his creations.
“Our curatorial team had considered doing something bigger with Don, but we were taken by surprise, like so many, with his passing,” Strom said. “He showed me some of these works in recent years, and so we wanted to do something sooner than later, to kind of capture some of this work. This was appropriate for now, and because of the importance of Don’s work, there will always be a chance to do a bigger sort of frame of his practice.”
For Cora, the current show at Surrey Art Gallery is “an amazing opportunity” for people to see Don’s work.
“All along I’ve been thinking that I hope Don would approve of doing this,” she said. “It’s not like you want to feel he’s going, ‘Oh my god, why are you showing this?,’ right? But no, I think he would have been excited by it. I mean, Don was one of the few artists who actually made a really good living as an artist, and a lot of his earlier work was really driven and helped by the market, but that’s not what this work is about at all. My painter friends have always said this work is like Don unleashed, like Don finally being just Don, and I think he would be really thrilled to see this. It’s amazing, and very emotional, yeah. It looks fabulous in here.”
Until March 22, Counting the Steps of the Sun is showcased at Surrey Art Gallery alongside Susan Point: Spindle Whorl, a touring exhibition from Vancouver Art Gallery. Saturday’s opening reception starts at 7:30 p.m. For details, call 604-501-5566 or visit surrey.ca/artgallery.