There’s a lot happening in Grant Leier’s bursting-with-colour paintings.
ARTISTS AND PARTNERS Grant Leier and Nixie Barton live in Nanaimo. Their home on a hill resembles a small castle and certainly holds many treasures. Artwork and wondrous paraphernalia, collected over their 30-year relationship and careers as full-time professional artists, enliven each room. In 2015, the couple received an Excellence in Culture Award from the City of Nanaimo, recognizing their community involvement and national reputations as exhibiting artists in North America. In 2005, The Romance Continues, an illustrated hardcover book by Goody Niosi, featured their art and gardens and offered a wealth of details about the couple’s exceptional artistic journey.
During July and August the public can view a number of Grant Leier’s paintings at Victoria’s West End Gallery. His education in graphic and textile design is evident in these large—five-foot square—cheerful multi-coloured artworks. Colour and texture are woven together in an eye-catching assortment of patterns and shapes, and they each provide an astonishing amount of visual information. “I incorporate imagery from many sources, and then reinvent and reposition,” says Leier.
It’s no wonder Leier’s paintings are enduring favourites with collectors. Look closely at “Quilt” and you might see: a Chinese vase sprouting flowers, a burgundy crow, a pink camel, sparrows on the wing, a baby blue warthog and a polka dot horse. By overlapping the shapes and patterns, Leier creates a sense of depth. Textural interest is added by a variety of detailed brushwork. Long sweeping strokes define the flower petals, meticulous hand-drawn circles radiate outward, and spirals swirl.
Completing a large painting like “Quilt” takes hundreds of hours. “It’s a good thing I love my work,” says Leier. He’s in the studio at 5am each morning, and often paints eight hours a day, six days a week—happily. Always working towards the next deadline, the artist stays on track about delivery dates to galleries. Leier believes that discipline and longevity are important for building a career, noting, “it takes stamina and determination to be a professional artist.” When mentoring emerging artists, he urges them not to be precious about their work, and to keep moving along with new ideas and images. Connecting up with commercial galleries in a small country like Canada is very important. “All the dealers know each other,” he says, “so they’ll know about you.”
"Quilt" by Grant Leier, 60 x 60 inches, acrylic on canvas
"Display Turquoise" by Grant Leier, 48 x 48 inches, acrylic on canvas
"Tulip Koi" by Grant Leier, 30 x 30 inches, acrylic on canvas
For Leier, making a painting has many steps, and demands much patience. Each painting begins with a detailed ink drawing on the canvas. A few coats of liquid acrylic seal the drawing. Shapes and patterns are delineated with undercoatings of acrylic in cool colours. Overpainting involves several layers of opaque paint in warmer tones. “The fun begins when I start positioning colours side by side,” says the artist. “Sometimes the shades clash and I have to repaint.” Leier’s skills as an expert colourist become evident when the pigments start to sing and the canvas comes to life. After all his expended energy, this is a gratifying moment.
But Leier has a variety of styles and subject matter in his repertoire. On his studio wall during my visit is an acrylic painting called “Prince.” “Prince” is a glowing ochre horse resplendent against a gritty distressed background. The horse’s noble head and attentive ears are clearly defined, but more gestural brushwork suggests the body and legs. “Prince” sports an electric blue mane. His flank, muzzle and belly are outlined with single strokes of crimson paint. Drips of paint add an atmosphere of casual disarray, or energy unleashed, whereas the shiny resin surface is all about control and containment. “These paintings only take a couple of hours to complete,” Leier says, “and are a wonderful change of pace.” A new series of animal portraits may be coming soon.
“A small home well filled is better that an empty palace.”
This is Leier’s favourite maxim and it’s evident during our house tour. One room holds a series of red-painted shrines with shiny blue doll faces. The artist’s love affair with shrines goes back many years. He’s intrigued by their role as ritual objects and memory keepers. The shrines offer a creative repository for his vast array of found objects: jewellery, knick-knacks and shiny bobbles. “Junk” is in the eye of the beholder for Leier. He enjoys playing with the idea that a tacky plastic toy, when mounted on a painted surface and placed in a gallery, can morph into “fine art.” The artist extols the “beauty of everyday things” and finds pleasure in the natural world of gardens and growth.
Grant and Nixie downsized in 2014 to their current Nanaimo home from a nine-acre property near Yellow Point, where they had lived and worked since 1994. It’s a big change, but all good. Their former destination property featured an on-site gallery and grounds to wander. Visitors delighted in the whimsical creations, architectural follies, and tangled greenery. They and their garden were even featured on the Guerrilla Gardeners TV show. Two hardcover books (Artists in Their Gardens and Artists in their Studios) also showcased their fantasy retreat.
Though not as large or lavish, their newer home’s backyard garden is a lovely green oasis. A fountain burbles, statuary stands guard and pots overflow with cascading abundance. Off in the distance, Departure Bay gleams. “We like to sit out here,” says Leier. Not having to run a gift gallery or manage extensive gardens means more time to focus on the things they love doing. Like painting.
Leier was born in Lloydminster, a prairie town on the border of Alberta and Saskatchewan, in 1956. His drawing skills were evident and encouraged from a young age. At the Alberta College of Art, he excelled in textile design and illustration. After graduation in 1978 he worked as a commercial artist receiving major commissions for the Calgary Winter Olympics and Expo 86. Leier has an astonishing 36-year connection with the West End Gallery of Victoria and Edmonton. In 1982, the family-run gallery booked shows for him in Edmonton.
In 1984, the artist moved to Victoria. Nixie Barton was an art student at that time and they began to share a studio. This was a formative time for Leier. After 15 years of graphic design (painting smiling women and ducks) he looked over Nixie’s shoulder at her lively brushwork and fell in love. A series of paintings of alley cats and bull terriers evolved, simple shapes to hold the bright colours he arranged on a flat washed background. These paintings became more refined and complex as his skills grew. Thirty years later, it’s a treat to view his more recent dog series on the Barton Leier website. These confident gems of swirling colour and form capture the essence of canine energy with effortless charm. Effortless charm combined with hard work, a winning combination summing up the life and achievements of Grant Leier.
To see more of Grant Leier’s work, go to www.bartonleiergallery.com or visit West End Gallery’s Summer Salon, throughout July and August. 1203 Broad Street, Victoria, www.westendgalleryltd.com, 250-388-0009.
Kate Cino writes about the arts for Victoria publications and her own website, www.artopenings.ca.