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Winston Leathers
Winston Leathers Work

Winston Leathers/Wayne Foster. Subliminal Landscape, 1989. Cibachrome print, 10/10. 51.0 x 61.5. #02.062. Collection of Gallery One One One, School of Art, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg; Gift of Kathleen and Winston Leathers.

The Hidden Landscape of Winston Leathers and Wayne Foster

Oliver A. I. Botar
Dedicated to the memory of Winston Leathers

I am particularly moved by those aspects of nature that are wild, that seemingly haphazard look that is yet inevitable and complete. Landscape is the initial impetus; it may be a particular place or a composite of many seen and experienced. The idea for a particular work is not consciously sought after, but emerges, or is found in the involvement of working... The problems are to keep the work open – not to be limited by what I’ve seen or what I know, but to go beyond that and re-arrive at nature. (Leathers, 1969)1

What is it about the landscape that awakens the deepest response in us? Surely it is the very unity of existence. The sense of the sublime of something far more deeply infused, whose dwelling is the light of the setting suns, and the round ocean, and the living air, and the blue sky, and the mind of man; a motion and a spirit that impels all thinking things, and objects, and all thoughts, and rolls through all things. We cannot be anything other than related, for every atom that makes up our constantly changing bodily form comes from the same source as the mountain, lake, bird, and fish. These works remain as mute reminders of this intimate connection that I have tried to make with the land. (Leathers 1980)2
These two quotations make clear Leathers’ profound connection to nature and its inspiration in the production of his art. For Winnipeg gallery goers of the past couple of decades, Leathers’ small-scale, dense, layered, calligraphic landscapes have become familiar. With their warm tonalities and gold highlights, they have come to typify his meditative response to his most beloved landscape, the zone where the Canadian Shield meets the prairie. But these works (not included in this exhibition, but on view at a recent show at the Centre Culturel Franco-Manitobain) are only the final stage in the development of Leathers’ artistic response to his experience of nature and our place in it. In 1989, in collaboration with his former student, the photographer Wayne Foster, Leathers produced three remarkable series of cibachrome prints they entitled "Hidden Landscapes" that comment on their response to nature at a smaller scale. In this way, Leathers and Foster have become part of an important, though little-documented tradition of Modernist artistic production of the 20th century, that which the Hungarian art critic Ernö Kállai referred to as Bioromantika or "Bioromanticism" in a series of articles he published during the early 1930s. In these texts Kállai noted a trend in the art of his time which, consciously or not, attempted to express our deep connectedness to nature through abstract art, both geometric and biomorphic.3 In his 1925 book Painting, Photography, Film, meanwhile, Kállai’s friend, the Bauhaus professor László Moholy-Nagy promoted the use of scientific imaging tools such as microscopes, telescopes and close-up lenses for the production of art photography.4 The "new vision" that resulted revolutionized photography during the late 1920s. Moholy and Kállai’s compatriot György Kepes was Moholy’s studio assistant in Berlin, and after he founded the Institute of Design, the "New Bauhaus" in Chicago in 1937, Moholy hired Kepes to head the "light and color" Department there. Kepes went on to become Professor of Visual Design at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 1951 he organized "The New Landscape," an exhibition at MIT of scientific photography and of art photography made with scientific tools. The show was a sensation, and toured the United States, Europe and Japan over the following decade.5 Given that both Moholy-Nagy’s books such as The New Vision and Vision in Motion, and Kepes’ 1956 volume based on the MIT show, The New Landscape in Art and Science, were well distributed in Canada, including the Winnipeg art community, Leathers would have been familiar with them.6 Echoing the views on the development of art first put forward by Moholy-Nagy in Vision in Motion, Leathers wrote in 1983 that "I look forward to the day when there is no such thing as Art, Architecture, Ballet and Music. Then there will be only light, colour, form, sound and movement."7 There is probably no other artist in Winnipeg, or even in Canada, who was as much part of this line of "Bioromantic" development as was Leathers.

Along with Tony Tascona, Bruce Head and Frank Mikuska, Winston Leathers was one of the "Four Musketeers" (as they referred to themselves) of Winnipeg Modernism of the 1950s and ‘60s. Leathers was born in Miami, Manitoba in 1932 and he studied at the University of Manitoba School of Art from 1952 to 1956 with, among others, the mid-Western American Modernist artists William Ashby McCloy, John Kacere, Richard Williams, and perhaps most importantly, Robert Nelson and Richard Bowman. Kathleen Leathers informs me that it was Robert Nelson and Richard Bowman who had impressed Leathers most deeply as a student at the School of Art. Bowman was an Illinoisan trained at the Art Institute of Chicago, the University of Chicago, De Paul University, and the University of Iowa, who was hired to the School of Art in 1950. He had been deeply affected by a meeting with the British Surrealist Gordon Onslow-Ford in Mexico in 1943. Onslow-Ford was profoundly nature-centric and heavily involved in Zen Buddhism and other esoteric practices. He moved to the San Francisco Bay area in 1947, where he spent the rest of his life. Responding to Onslow-Ford’s encouragement, Bowman first moved to the Bay area to join his master in 1949, and returned there after leaving the School of Art in 1954.8

Rather than building on the local Modernist tradition established by Lionel Lemoine Fitzgerald, the "Four Musketeers" and their cohorts such as Don Strange and Takao Tanabe were inspired by the Modernist modes of production -- derived for the most part from Mauricio Lasansky at the University of Iowa and from Onslow-Ford – disseminated by their Americans professors through the School of Art after it joined the University of Manitoba in 1950.9 After graduating, in Onslow-Ford and Bowman’s footsteps, Leathers proceeded to Mexico, where he worked with the Mexican Archaeological Society under Dr. Carmen Cook de Leonard. In 1958 Leathers recognized his calling, and he re-enrolled at the University of Manitoba, graduating from the Manitoba Teachers’ College as an art educator in 1960. He would go on to pursue a forty-year-long pedagogical career, teaching basic design and printmaking first at the Industrial Design Department of the Winnipeg Technical Vocational High School (1958-68) and then in the Environmental Studies Department in the Faculty of Architecture at the University of Manitoba, where he taught from 1969 until his retirement as full Professor in 1993. Leathers was a gifted, dedicated, generous and influential teacher. Among his one-time students are Winnipeg artists such as Louis Bako, Kelly Clark, Wayne Foster, and Bill Lobchuk.

Leathers’ experience working with students in applied fields associated with technical sciences has had a profound effect on his work, which is marked by a fascination with new techniques. But Leathers has never been interested in new technologies for their own sake. This interest has always been modulated by his fascination with Eastern spirituality, particularly Zen Buddhism, the latter which became important to him after he won a Festival of the Arts Scholarship to attend a two-and-a-half-month program for young artists at the University of British Columbia in 1961. Of profound importance for Leathers was his encounter at UBC with the German-American artist, collector and curator Ulfert Wilke (1907-1988), then teaching at the Allen R. Hite Institute of the University of Louisville. A fascinating and strong personality, Wilke was the first Westerner to study Japanese sumi calligraphy, and he affected the work of west-coast American artists such as Mark Tobey and Morris Graves.10 While it is likely that Richard Bowman planted the seeds of this interest, it is through Wilke that Leathers became fascinated with the ancient art of calligraphy; both by the high status it is accorded in Japanese culture, and by its practice as a form of meditation. A Senior Canada Council Fellowship during 1967-68 took him to England, where, by his own account, he became engrossed looking at Chinese and Japanese calligraphic art on display in the British Museum.11 Ever the teacher, in order to spread his interest to others, Leathers organized for Alan Watts (1915-1973), the principle translator of Zen Buddhist culture to the North American public, to lecture at the University of Manitoba on at least a couple of occasions between 1969 and 1973.12

In addition to his intensive teaching activities, throughout his career, Leathers maintained a professional artistic practice. Thus, in addition to more than 30 solo shows, he has shown in about 140 group exhibitions throughout Canada, the United States, Europe, Japan and the Caribbean. His work is found in over 50 public and corporate collections in Canada and elsewhere, including most of the major Canadian collecting institutions. While there has been surprisingly little written about Leathers, the critical acclaim accorded Leathers’ work during the course of his career began – auspiciously enough -- with Clement Greenberg, who, in his 1963 review of Modernist art in Western Canada, noted that Leathers was the only Winnipeg painter whose work "looked aggressively up-to-date."13 But of course Greenberg would never have approved of Leathers’ artistic motivations and inspirations (what good did Greenberg have to say about the work of Onslow-Ford or Tobey?), and subsequent reviewers such as Robert Ayre, Lenore Crawford, Peter Crossley, John Graham, and Ken Saltmarche, have mostly emphasized the excellence of Leathers’ printmaking, and his influence on the education of Winnipeg print makers.14

Leathers’ collaboration with Wayne Foster in the three "Hidden Landscape" series of works is one of the highlights of their careers.15 Leathers’ relationship with Foster extends back to the time when Leathers taught Foster in a basic design course in the Industrial Design Department of Winnipeg Technical Vocational High School in 1964. Leathers encouraged the young man’s budding interest in art and photography, and Foster credits him with guiding him towards a career as an artist specializing in both prairie landscapes and more experimental work. His photographs and serigraphs have been exhibited in Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary, Winnipeg and Chicago. At the time of the production of these series, and still to this day, Foster earns his living as an imaging specialist at the Information Services and Technology unit of the Bannatyne (Medical) campus of the University of Manitoba.

Leathers had been producing fused glass sandwiches as part of his artistic practice during the 1980s, and in 1989 he brought these works to Foster’s lab to document them. According to Leathers’ own account, in these fused glass pieces, the artist wished to attain to a world of "pure" abstraction through a reduction of artistic means to the mineral elements of the periodic table such as carbon, copper, iron, etc. Thus, Leathers first placed samples of unadulterated metals between glass plates (as in a microscope), added fragments of ordinary window screening (the grid-configurations visible in the works), and then fused these glass-metal sandwiches through the application of heat. In the photographic laboratory, Foster set up a specialized copy stand that had a light box for a base as well as a pair of attached lights at 45 degree angles to the horizontal base plane. Such copy stands are used for making slides or copy photographs of transparent images such as chest x-rays, and were ideal for documenting Leathers’ fused glass sandwich works. Foster had been experimenting with cross-polarization, the simultaneous polarization of both light source and lens, and he set up a cross-polarized apparatus. This technique results in the deep colour saturations necessary to the recording of the sandwiches.

This is the point at which the playful elements of their friendship – and the lubrificatory effects of a bottle of Scotch – took over the documentary project and transformed it into a full-fledged artistic collaboration. They experimented with pouring motor oil on the sandwiches that exaggerated the bubbling already in the glass as a result of the application of heat. They intensified the colour elements by slipping polychrome gels (semi-transparent coloured acetate sheets in bright hues) under the sandwiches. The oil gave the images a certain slickness and a biomorphic quality that mimics microscopic imagery. Foster then equipped the Mamiya 6 X 7 cm camera he had set up on the copy stand with a powerful macro lens, and added #1 and a #2 extension tubes to intensify the microscopic effect, resulting in the ability to record extreme close-up views. (The size of the bug-screen fragments in some of these prints give an indication of the degree of magnification.) The views were recorded on a variety of transparency film types, including 64 ISO Kodachrome (colour transparency) film that employs a dye-transfer medium rather than a colour coupler technique, ensuring the sharpest possible image. Foster remembers long and happy hours spent in the lab during which the two artists played with all the elements involved and with a multitude of compositions. "I never could quite give a name to my collaboration with Winston, but it had the sensation of painting, like silk-screening or something," remembers Foster. The transparencies selected from the hundreds produced were then masterfully printed full-frame by Allan Brooks of Lightvisions in Winnipeg, using the archival Cibrachrome process.

The result is three series of abstractions in form and colour that reflect Leathers’ and Foster’s interests in nature, spontaneity, colour and light. They are "landscapes" of an inner or smaller realm than that of the everyday world. Indeed, as W. P. Thomson has pointed out, unlike conventional landscape, all the resulting images "share two fundamental characteristics – they are scaleless and they have no definitive orientation. This is a result of the manipulations being conducted to make colour patterns with no necessary orientation or scale and using photography to change size and focus on parts of the fixed field."16 These are characteristic that the "Hidden Landscape" works share with all forms of scientific imaging that deal with terrain, "landscapes," usually at the microscopic scale, unfamiliar to our everyday perceptual organs. In fact, given what they look like, these works could well have been included in books such as Lewis R. Wolberg’s stunning Micro-Art: Images in a Hidden World.17 As Brian O’Doherty wrote in his Preface to this book, "Through reduction, the intractable resistances of objects are made pliable to thought. The result is a conceptual Utopia where thought and thing are mobilized in one easy and angelic swiftness. Thought suffers no resistance to its flow from the substance of its images, which are no longer detained by real weights and gravities."18 This factor, and the fact that a bottle of Scotch was in play during their production, make it less surprising that Leathers later conflated his interest in the new scanning electron microscope technology then becoming available at the University of Manitoba’s Medical Faculty with the production of these works, claiming that the scanning electron microscope had been employed in their production. In any case, these works are astonishing in their freshness, their chromatic intensity, and their strong graphic characteristics, and the quality of the laser prints on Cibachrome paper is exceptional. They are in the spontaneity and the relative indeterminacy of their production, calligraphic in nature. The swirling colour shapes and tonalities can be seen to be expressions of chi, of the life-force, as strong as any of Leathers’ more openly calligraphic efforts. In a certain sense, in their relative simplicity and directness, they represent his best "calligraphic" work. They are, furthermore, because they represent a rare use of extreme close-up technology in the production of art – to my knowledge – unparalleled in the history of Canadian art, and they fit into a pattern of international practice documented by Moholy-Nagy, Kepes and Wolberg in their books. They document Leathers’ ars poetica that intuition and a commitment to the moment are necessary prerequisites to the production of art.

Winston Leathers quoted in: Margaret (Maggie) Van, ed., "Winston Leathers," Perspective 69/70 (University of Manitoba Faculty of Architecture) (Fall 1969): pagination uncertain. Thanks to Robert Epp, Cliff Eyland, Wayne Foster, Jennifer Gibson, Serena Keshavjee, Kathleen Leathers, Calvin Yarush, and the late Winston Leathers, for generously sharing their knowledge, opinions and resources during the preparation of this article. Thanks also go to my research assistant Rachelle Ross for prompt and efficient help. This article was written with the assistance of a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Grant. My thanks go to the Council for its generous support of my work.

1. Winston Leathers quoted in: Margaret (Maggie) Van, ed., "Winston Leathers," Perspective 69/70 (University of Manitoba Faculty of Architecture) (Fall 1969): pagination uncertain.
2. Winston Leathers, 1980, quoted in W. P. Thomsom, "Collaboration – A Search for the Hidden Landscape," Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Architecture 2 Gallery, 1989.
2. On this topic see Oliver Botar, "Ernö Kállai and the Hidden Face of Nature." The Structurist no. 23/24 (1983/84): 77-82 and Prolegomena to the Study of Biomorphic Modernism: Biocentrism, László Moholy-Nagy’s `New Vision’ and Ernö Kállai’s Bioromantik. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Toronto, 1998. Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research Press, 2001.
4. László Moholy-Nagy, Malerei, Photographie, Film (Munich: Albert Langen, 1925). The English translation is based on the second, 1927 edition of the book: Moholy-Nagy, Painting, Photography, Film. Translated by Janet Seligman. (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1969).
5. On this topic see Oliver Botar, "László Moholy-Nagy’s "New Vision" and the Aestheticization of Scientific Imagery in Weimar Germany," in: Linda D. Henderson, ed., "Modern Art and Science," special issue of Science in Context, 17, no. 4 (2004): 525-556. The history of this exhibition awaits treatment. For documents on it, see the Kepes papers housed in the Archives of American Art.
6. László Moholy-Nagy, The New Vision (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1938) and Vision in Motion (Chicago: Paul Theobald., 1947). György Kepes, The New Landscape in Art and Science (Chicago: Paul Theobald and Co., 1956). According to Kathleen Leathers, Leathers owned copies of these books by Moholy. Interview with Kathleen Leathers, 2 March 2005.
7. Leathers, quoted in Thomson, "Collaboration – A Search for the Hidden Landscape," 2.
8. Further research will have to be conducted on Bowman and (indirectly) Onslow-Ford’s possible effect on Winnipeg abstract artists such as Leathers. On Bowman: The University of Manitoba School of Art Prospectus, 1951-52 (Winnipeg: The University of Manitoba, 1951): unpag.; no author, "Richard Irving Bowman" (, date of visit: 28 January 2005); and no author, "Artists and Mentors: A Tribute to Gordon Onslow-Ford" (, date of visit 28 January 2005). The interview with Kathleen Leathers was conducted on 2 March 2005.
9. On this process, see Ann Cameron, Art in Winnipeg 1955 to 1959 (Winnipeg: Gallery One One One, 1982) and Diane Scoles, "School Setting and Dedicated Staff Inspire 1950s Student Printmakers," an essay written in conjunction with "Printmaking in the 1950s: An Intimate View of Student Prints at the School of Art 1950-59," Winnipeg: Gallery One One One, November 2004 – January 2005.
10. Information from Winston Leathers. See also: Ulfert Wilke, Music to be Seen: A Portfolio of Drawings. Introduction by Mark Tobey (Louisville: Erewhon Press, ca. 1957). The Wilke papers are housed in the Bridwell Art Library of the University of Louisville, and should be examined in the future in relation to his association with Leathers.
11. Serena Keshavjee, interview with Winston Leathers, 2001. Thanks to Keshavjee for conveying this information to me. For a fuller treatment of Leathers’ use of Zen philosophy in the making of his art, see Ann Davis’ "Winston Leathers and Zen," in this publication.
12. Some of the information in this paragraph is from Winston Leathers, "Curriculum Vitae and Historical Resumé" (n.d., collection of the author) and from interviews with the artist.
13. Clement Greenberg, "Clement Greenberg’s View of Art on the Prairies," Canadian Art vol. 20, no. 2 (March/April, 1963).
14. Information courtesy of Jennifer Gibson.
15. Material in this final section of the article is derived from several interviews by the author with Winston Leathers conducted between ca. 1999 and 2003, and with Wayne Foster. The Foster interview took place by telephone in February 2005. See also Thomson, "Collaboration – A Search for the Hidden Landscape."
16. Thomson, "Collaboration – A Search for the Hidden Landscape."
17.Lewis R. Wolberg. Micro-Art: Images in a Hidden World. Preface by Brian O'Doherty. (New York: Abrams, 1978).
18. O’Doherty, Preface to Wohlberg, Micro-Art: Art Images in a Hidden World: xiii.

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Information: Jennifer Gibson, Curator, tel: 204.786.9253

The Winston Leathers: In The Moment CD-ROM is a co-publication of Gallery One One and Gallery 1C03 that includes information about other Gallery One One One projects.

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For information please contact Robert Epp