An Interview with Leslie Reid
Leslie Reid, Dargis IV (1976), acrylic on canvas, 198 x 198 cm. Collection of the Ottawa Art Gallery. Photo: Richard-Max Tremblay
Canadian painter and printmaker Leslie Reid was born in Ottawa, but moved frequently with her military family. After graduating from Queen’s University with a degree in Art History and Political Science, she moved to London, England, where she studied drawing, painting and printmaking at the Byam Shaw School of Art, Chelsea College of Art, and the Slade School of Fine Art.
In her work, Reid is drawn to capturing light — and the lack thereof — in all its variations, nuances and hues. Family is also a recurring theme in Reid’s work — whether she is retracing her father’s flight paths across the Arctic as an RCAF pilot, depicting her sons at various stages of growth, or evoking the remnants of human settlements on harsh terrain.
Reid was elected to the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts in 1978, and won the Academy’s jury prize for excellence in Visual Arts in 2000. She was also awarded the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal in 2012 for service to the Academy. She taught painting and drawing at the University of Ottawa from 1972 until 2007, and has been named a Professor Emerita, Department of Visual Arts. Now 68, she remains a prolific painter, while also exploring the use of photography and video. Her work has been featured in numerous solo and group exhibitions, both in Canada and abroad, and can be found in many prestigious collections, including the collection of the National Gallery of Canada.
Leslie Reid spoke with NGC Magazine about her ongoing fascination with light and place, new directions her work is taking, and her show at Galerie Laroche/Joncas in Montreal, on view from March 5 to April 11, 2015, as well as at the Founders’ Gallery, The Military Museums, Calgary, next February. Both exhibitions are based on her recent travels in the Canadian North and High Arctic with the Canadian Forces Artists Program.
NGC Magazine: You have painted all your life, despite damage to your eyes at birth. There was also an enforced five-year break, due to a traumatic fall, at a time when you were already an established artist. What were those five years like for you?
Leslie Reid: It was a very difficult period. The double vision resulting from the fall affected my ability to work — among many other things! I could no longer paint with the strong light-dark contrast I had been exploring for some time. Eventually, I was able to work with a more subtle range of images and a looser mark. It was a very slow process of trial and error, but I did manage to do enough work over that period to have a small exhibition. I have continued to adapt to the eye injury, and the effects on my life and work are minimal now.
NGCM: Explain your fascination with light. What is behind that?
LR: I have always been very affected by light, whether in nature or urban spaces, and I am often transfixed by certain qualities of light. I suspect that the early eye problems made me very visually aware of my surroundings, sensitive to everything, including — or perhaps especially — light. The space filled by light always seemed to have a life of its own.
Moving from Canada to England, to go to art school, heightened my awareness of the qualities of light and its effects. The expansive dome of Canadian light was replaced by the close heaviness of the English sky — light held in a bell jar. On my return to Canada, I was immediately struck by the boundlessness of the skies, and by the expressive possibilities of this light. I was strongly affected by my rediscovery of Calumet Island, in the Pontiac, a rural area of West Quebec. It was the home of my maternal grandmother, and the site of many childhood summers, camping on the banks of the Ottawa River. The light there is magical, not only because of childhood memories, but through the convergence of rolling skies, plains and hills, and rapid water. I am still fascinated by it, and the family history that led me there.
Leslie Reid, Cape Pine: The Barrens (2012), oil on canvas, 127 x 183 cm. Collection of Glen Bloom and Deborah Duffy. Photo: Justin Wonnacott
NGCM: The paintings Calumet Island (a series of four), Denny Wood V, and Cape Pine: The Road and Cape Pine: The Cairn are in the National Gallery’s permanent collection. Could you describe how those paintings are different in approach and execution — how your work evolved in the time between these pieces?
LR: The paintings in the NGC permanent collection span more than three decades, and represent, each in its own way, my ongoing fascination with light and place.
These paintings share a physical and perceptual response to the light, space, shapes and patterns of the natural world. The changing light found in these very different places elicits both perceptual and psychological responses to each place.
The earliest works, a series of large paintings, were shown in Some Canadian Women Artists in 1975. They reflect my response to my rediscovery of Calumet Island, and are composed of many layers of high-value colours sprayed on to create a subtle, shifting veil of light.
Denny Wood V emerged from a time I spent back in England, with my husband and children. Denny Wood is a site in the New Forest, where the light is filtered through forest, heath and weather, making for a density of shifting light quite the opposite of what I had worked with on Calumet Island. By this time, I was using my photographic sources in paintings, making the landscape visible, and working with patterns of light and dark.
The Cape Pine paintings were made after a residency of several weeks at the Cape Pine Lighthouse in Newfoundland. It is a very isolated place, and when I arrived I was surrounded by thick fog for several days. The paintings are a response to that immersive sensory experience, but also to the traces of the families who had lived there. The works have a very strong physical presence, and while the tonality is very light, as in the Calumet Island paintings, the surface is built up in very tangible paint layers, and the artifacts of the site, taken from photographs, are very present, evoking a strong sense of place made visible through the enveloping fog.
Leslie Reid, Llewellyn I 59°06'N; 133°57'W (2014), oil on canvas, 81 x 127 cm. Courtesy of Laroche/Joncas, Montreal. Photo: Justin Wonnacott
NGCM: You recently travelled to the Arctic to create a body of work. How did that physical place change your vision of what and how you wanted to paint?
LR: I had long wished to experience the Arctic, for many reasons. Family histories, both my own and those of others, as in Cape Pine, have always been very important to my work. The Arctic had been part of childhood stories through the many years my father, an RCAF pilot, flew there for early photographic mapping. My fascination had remained, but I did not have the opportunity to travel in the North until I found out about the Canadian Forces Artists Program. The residency with the military has been a wonderful gift.
I planned to take aerial photographs of areas flown over by the early flights, and to use the original photographs, now archived in the National Air Photo Library (NAPL), to track visible changes in these environments. The project was driven by my deep concern over climate change, particularly in the North, where the effects of global warming are intensified, and a desire to witness the effects of both climate change and increasing commercial pressures on indigenous communities.
Although I had made many preparations, I could not have imagined how truly extraordinary and altering the experience of the North would be. I travelled in a great arc that took me almost literally to the top of the world. Light, air, water, ground merged into a seemingly endless horizon. I was very excited, and deeply moved by this immersion. I decided to expand my original focus on aerial mapping images, and to absorb as best I could the entirety of it all, on the ground as well as in the air.
It has taken me some time to sort through the enormity of these experiences, and to find a way through the thousands of images. I have been painting from the aerial photographs, working with my habitual search for a perceptual and psychological response to the light and space I found in the North; the paintings have shifted again, and the air between aircraft and earth has become a palpable space of sensation for me.
The scope of the project, titled Mapping Time, has now expanded to include the photographs and video taken during my travels. An installation is planned for the Founders' Gallery at the Military Museums, Calgary, for 2016. In addition to large-format paintings of the aerial mapping sites, this exhibition will involve the creation of photo mosaics from a range of images: aerial images, both my own and archival photographs from the NAPL, photographs on the ground, including the military in their sovereignty operations across the North and interaction with local communities, and video from various sites.
Leslie Reid, Kaskawulsh II 60°41'N; 137°53'W (2014), oil on canvas, 137 x 213 cm. Courtesy of Laroche/Joncas, Montreal. Photo: Justin Wonnacott
NGCM: Who were/are your artistic influences?
LR: There are many! I have always been drawn to a minimalist aesthetic, although my works do not share the intentions of Minimalism. Artists I have turned to over time, not in any particular order: J.M.W.Turner, Caspar David Friedrich, Georges Seurat, David Milne, Mark Rothko, Robert Ryman, Agnes Martin, James Turrell, Gerhard Richter. As well as the writer/psychoanalyst Alice Miller.
NGCM: What is your daily routine in creating art?
LR: Since leaving teaching, my daily routine is centred on the studio. I go there every day: a quick bike ride or long walk downtown. I do like having time now in the morning to reflect on the day ahead, and then head to the studio to see what is there from the day before to spur the day's work. My studio working day starts late morning and ends mid-evening, which is my natural rhythm.
NGCM: You continue to be a very prolific artist. What is the key to that: discipline; finding new places or subjects to paint? What drives you, artistically?
LR: I think it is a combination of curiosity, and caring a lot, and a need to act. I also need a lot of time for quiet, solitary reflection about what I am doing, how and why. That does count as working! I do have great stick-to-it-iveness and determination, forged in childhood.
NGCM: As a former teacher, what were your goals in working with emerging artists?
LR: There is a pressure on students and emerging artists to accept and conform to a set of precepts in order to achieve notice and success. It is hard to resist this, especially given the constant exposure to news and images of current art and successful artists. Emerging artists should always be free and ready to question; they should dig deeply into themselves, find what holds most meaning for them, work with what they find, and do it really well, with feeling.
NGCM: What would you still like to paint, photograph or create? Or is there a medium you would like to explore or expand upon?
LR: I will always be drawn to landscape, for the rich perceptual and emotional response I find there. I would like to return to the Arctic, especially to Resolute, to spend more time in the hamlet there, perhaps doing more video. Painting is the centre of my art practice, but the prospect of integrating photography and video with painting in the upcoming installation in Calgary is a very exciting challenge.