Don Li-Leger will be remembered fondly on the Semiahmoo Peninsula as a man of rare taste and intelligence, whose mastery of any artistic medium he set his mind to was informed by lively curiosity and a dry, mischievous sense of humour.
The Crescent Heights resident – honoured as a Surrey Civic Treasure in 2015 along with his wife of 43 years, fellow-artist Cora – succumbed to brain cancer at home in the early hours of last Friday (April 26).
He would have been 71 on his next birthday, May 31.
“He was a gentle genius who served his muse, his family and friends, and the community, in a myriad of ways,” a longtime friend, South Surrey playwright, actor and songwriter Harvey Ostroff, told Peace Arch News.
“It’s a great loss.”
The tall, soft-spoken artist, who moved to Surrey in 1987, had studied plant ecology at Simon Fraser University, and painting at the Vancouver School of Art and the Banff Centre School of Fine Art, where he met Cora, marrying her only three weeks later.
He also studied illustration with natural history artist Frank Beebe at the B.C. Provincial Museum in Victoria and printmaking at Okanagan College in Kelowna, where he received a Canadian Nature Artist scholarship award.
He first came to fame for his vivid, meticulously-detailed wildlife paintings, drawings and etchings – including many iconic images of B.C. birds, flora and fauna, such as his masterful 1991 portrait, Great Blue Heron, long part of Surrey Art Gallery’s permanent collection.
In later years, inspired by artists he met on frequent travels to China, he adopted a looser, more meditative and innovative – but just as fascinating – approach to art, which included monoprint-making and larger, evocative pieces that incorporated colour fields, figurative and floral studies, calligraphy and even elements of collage.
He was also a keen videographer, gardener and beekeeper.
Latterly, he and Cora spearheaded the Z-inc Art Collective in shows that challenged conventional perceptions of life and art, and offered commentary on social issues, such as homelessness, as part of the Newton Pop Up Art Walk – near the ‘sharing garden’ they established in that neighbourhood – and at the White Rock Pop Uptown Art Gallery.
Cora said that most recently Li-Leger was “working on some very large, imposing pieces” inspired by their trip to the U.S. southwest a year or so ago to observe the ‘100-year bloom’ in the desert, following exceptional rainfall.
“Don and I had this Volkswagen van, and one of our greatest pleasures was to hop into it and drive off into the sunset and spend time wherever we ended up, just hanging out and painting whatever we saw,” she recalled.
Although it’s just an idea at the moment, she said she and her children – Li-Leger is survived by son Noah and daughter Erica and their partners Christine and Robin, and a granddaughter, Ziya – have been talking about holding an art show featuring the new work, possibly coinciding with his birthday, rather than any conventional memorial service.
“Don absolutely hated memorial services,” she said. “He would make any excuse not to go to them. So that is not happening, but we thought about an art show – although we haven’t set a date yet, because it would take a lot of organizing and going through things.”
But as news of Li-Leger’s passing spread through the Semiahmoo Peninsula arts community – and online – this week, he was already being memorialized, informally, by many who underlined his impact as both an artist and a person.
A Facebook posting on behalf of Surrey Art Gallery says, “Don was a highly skilled painter who challenged the limits of his own practice by experimenting with mediums and art forms such as installation art, video and sound art in recent years…
“While his physical presence will be greatly missed, his spirit and vision will live on in his distinct artwork and the impact he has had on many fellow artists in the community.”
White Rock Gallery owner Dennie Segnitz told PAN: “He was one of the nicest artists I’ve ever known – just a joy to work with. So professional, but also with such a dry sense of humour.”
City of Surrey cultural manager Liane Davison posted on Facebook that Li-Leger was “an irreplaceable member of Surrey’s art community and a friend who will be much missed.”
Artist and printmaker Jennifer Clark, a member of the Z-inc Collective, also posted on Facebook that “our community lost a beautiful human being.”
“He was incredibly caring, he believed in community, art, helping people, watching out for those around him, always,” she wrote.
“He was an amazing husband, father, artist and friend. He loved nature and nurturing nature. He challenged the way people thought, pushed them out of their comfort zone… we all are better because of it.”
In an e-mail to PAN, local artists and friends Penny Tims and Howard Rossmann remembered that Li-Leger was “interested and involved in so many different things from bees, birds, bamboo, bonzais and badminton to gardening, ponds and plants, video and film making, deep listening to music, Mandarin and meditation – oh, yes, and art! Always innovative, always kind and generous with his time.”
Cora said she has been heartened by many cards she has received from people whose lives he touched – including many younger artists who noted the inspiration he provided – and also by a conversation with Louise Hutchinson, who lost her husband, influential South Surrey potter and clay sculptor Don Hutchinson, only last year.
“Don and he were very fond of each other – Don made a video about Don Hutchinson around the time (the latter) was closing down his pottery studio. We’ve been imagining the two Dons sitting somewhere, looking down on us and talking about art.”
She said that Li-Leger’s illness had escalated with almost surreal speed since he first noticed dizziness and difficulty speaking in January.
“He drove himself to emergency on Jan. 25 and he died at one in the morning of April 26 – almost three months to the day later. In just three months he had gone from the Don we all knew, to someone who had lost so much.”
He had been moved home from the hospital after three weeks, she said, and she and the family were able to spend quality time with him, even though he struggled to express himself.
He also enjoyed being near his bees – a keen beekeeper, he was justly proud of the natural honey he collected – and gratified that friends had stepped up to take care of them, while Noah is also becoming increasingly interested in continuing the practice, Cora noted.
Many also remember Li-Leger’s passion for gardening, including growing different collections of irises and poppies, she added.
“He loved aggressive, fast-growing, invasive species – we have lots of bamboo on our property – the kind of plants that fill other gardeners with horror.
“But that’s just the kind of person he was – live life now, to the fullest,” she said.
Even while he was ailing, she said, he took a keen interest in their close friend Kathryn Beattie’s visit to Europe.
“She and I had gone back to school at the same time, her to get a master of arts degree while I was taking art therapy, and Don was so supportive of us both,” she said.
“She’d gone to Europe to give a lecture, and she sent him an art blog every day,” she added.
“He was so proud of anybody who had questions about how one could have a life with art – and if they were somehow able to make it work,” she said.