Spacious Simplicity: The Art of Don Li-Leger

A Vancouver artist brings his canvas to life with Asian and Buddhist imagery.
Story Kate Coulson

Set within a geometric canvas of coloured rectangular panels and square inlays lie rich, warm colours and strong images of nature. Large sections of complementary colours highlight the finely detailed brushwork. Bamboo stalks and delicate leaves line the edges of a deep crimson and burnt orange backdrop. Blue and yellow irises breathe with depth and movement.

British Columbian artist Don Li-Leger’s paintings are an expression of his love for nature, and his interest in spirituality and Asian culture.

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The artist at work: Don Li-Leger creating in his South Surrey home studio.

Li-Leger’s South Surrey home and studio are surrounded by a peaceful Asian garden that runs the length of the newly built house. Floor to ceiling windows line the south side of the unique house, creating a natural frame for the garden. There is a small grove of bamboo shedding its elegant leaves into a tranquil koi pond, and giant gunneras edge the back of the garden.

Li-Leger’s art studio is separate from the house, at the side of the property. The studio’s skylights and large windows offer glimpses into the garden from which he draws much of his inspiration. “Geometric patterns in nature become the blueprints that make up this seemingly chaotic environment,” Li-Leger observes. Nature has always played a prominent role in his work. “When I was six or even younger, I drew some trees that seemed so real to me. They had something about them, some aura that inspired me.” The evolution of Li-Leger’s art is charted in the works that hang on the walls of his studio: early abstract paintings, wildlife paintings and prints, monoprinting, etchings, and more recent works.

“Colour is relative to whatever it’s put next to; colours in their balance speak volumes. What it’s come down to for me is using colour in a very spontaneous but controlled way.” In addition to being evidence of developments in technique and style, Li-Leger’s art reveals the colours, shapes and influences the artist has collected throughout his life.

Painting Is An Evolving Process

Li-Leger believes the process of painting is cyclical and explorative, and is an ongoing, evolving process. “Art is so much more than decoration,” he says, “It’s the meditative aspect of turning your logical brain off, and responding to what’s there. When you don’t worry about mistakes and you just worry about what’s before you, you can enter a pure state of consciousness and experience a sense of free expression.” Li-Leger paraphrases the Miles Davis quote saying, “There are no mistakes.”

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Tropical Nine Patch II (2004), acrylic on canvas.

Li-Leger started as an abstract painter, but the work that gained him early recognition was his wildlife painting. For over a decade, he travelled in marshes and forests, photographing and painting the BC landscape. The artist studied Ecology and Biology at Simon Fraser University as well. Although plant life and nature continue to play a large role in his art, Li-Leger says he became increasingly frustrated with his watercolours. When he started a painting, he knew how it would finish. There seemed to be no room for personal expression. “At one time I felt I was following a path leading to a specific destination. I pursued wildlife painting, the natural world, and studied plant ecology, trying to understand and define those forms. But when you’re painting, things start to happen, and you let them. You often wind up with a result you couldn’t have predicted, and often, that’s best. If it’s done in a spontaneous and real way, it speaks to who we are as humans.” Li-Leger’s return to an abstract style was a natural evolution, “When I began combining imagery with broad areas of saturated colour, I found that allowing serendipity to direct my path gave me the most satisfying results. When I returned to painting, I attempted to integrate the spontaneity with the liveliness of oriental brushwork that has long inspired and influenced me.”

Art As A Form Of Meditation

Li-Leger has always been drawn to the spacious simplicity and purity of Asian imagery. He studied Mandarin at Simon Fraser University and Chinese painting and calligraphy in Hong Kong. He also studied at the Vancouver School of Art and the Banff School of Fine Arts. It was in Banff where he met his wife Cora Li-Leger, an artist and art therapist. “We are each other’s harshest critics,” he muses.

Art is the meditative aspect of turning your logical brain off.

While Cora was studying art therapy, Don read many of her schoolbooks on art philosophy, the creative process, and art therapy. Books such as Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards and Trust the Process by Shaun McNiff explore the meditative aspect of turning your logical brain off, and responding to what’s there. Many of these books have influenced Li-Leger’s theories about art. “Painting is a form of meditation,” he says. “Time can become non-existent. Worldly concerns are non-existent. It’s not about reward or impressing anyone. It’s about the act of painting, and that to me is an ultimate right-side-of-the-brain experience.”

It is difficult to think of art as a business when the creative and meditative aspects are so obvious. “It’s hard to shift from the right brain creative aspect to the left brain, business aspect,” he comments, “[Painting] is work; you have to put the time in. You never really leave it. Wherever you go, it’s always around you and in you.”

Although Li-Leger worked at various jobs when he was younger, art has always been a driving force in his life. “Wherever I worked, I would constantly be painting,” he recalls.

A Travelling Artist

The artist’s travels have taken him through Taiwan, Japan, China, India, and Southeast Asia. The National Palace Museum in Taipei has been a featured source of inspiration in Li-Leger’s travels. The museum contains many priceless pieces of Chinese art and artifacts from the Sung Dynasty – a period when China’s emperor dispatched his servants throughout the country, ordering them to plunder his subjects’ paintings, sculptures, calligraphy scrolls, and books. All of the country’s treasures were then kept in the palace for the sole viewing pleasure of the royal family. The palace (now the National Palace Museum) still holds the world’s largest collection of Chinese artifacts. Li-Leger drew inspiration from this collection, and many of the images and colours on display in the museum now influence his own work.

There is a warm and inviting depth to Don Li-Leger’s recent paintings. Layers of acrylic paints and gels and the collaging of tissue and photographic images combine to create unique pieces. He paints on linen, canvas, and art board. Calligraphy from ancient Chinese poems, as well as Buddhist sermons and hidden Buddhist sutras, are common elements in his paintings. There is a sense of spirituality in Li-Leger’s art, as he blends East and West – a fusion of Asian and Western philosophy. The artist pulls from aspects of Buddhism and Hinduism; the notions of karma and reincarnation influence his work.

Li-Leger was introduced to Buddhism through his travels and through the influence of his wife. Don and Cora have each embraced Tibetan Buddhism in their own way. Buddhist prayer flags adorn their home, and Buddhist themes are prevalent in the artist’s paintings. Many of Li-Leger’s influences are also derived from his studies in yoga during his travels to India in the 1970s.

There is a warm and inviting depth to Don Li-Leger’s recent paintings.

Although they are avid travellers, the couple and their two children enjoy having a home base within the multi-ethnic culture of the Lower Mainland. Li-Leger enjoys practicing Mandarin and finds that Vancouver is a great location to use his budding language skills while exploring art, design, and food from all over the world. “It’s a melting pot where nothing really melts,” he says, “It’s also very easy to travel to the Orient from Vancouver.”

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The artist’s home reflects his love for Asian culture.

Matt Petley Jones of the Petley Jones Gallery in Vancouver says of Li-Leger,   “[Li-Leger] has a unique personal blend of abstraction and realism – a fusion. There is a wonderful sense of realism with the flowers that he brings into the abstract world. His images are grown through his travels and involvement with Asian culture.”

Li-Leger’s ideas of spirituality, location and travel are all reflected in his work. “On my artistic journey, I don’t know exactly where I’m going to wind up, or what it’s going to look like. I have some ideas, but I am open to discovery and exploration. That’s why I do art in the first place.”