ABOVE: Winston Leathers. Cosmic Variation/From a Summer Order System. 1971. serigraph on paper (11/20), 41.5 x 50.5 cm (unframed). Collection of University of Winnipeg; gift of Winston & Kathleen Leathers.
An Interview with Winston Leathers, April 2004
by Cliff Eyland
(Note: This is an edited transcription of Leathers last interview. Unfortunately, we were unable to continue the interview because of Winstons untimely death. - CE)
Cliff Eyland: You have generously donated your work to Gallery One One One of the University of Manitoba and Gallery 1C03 at the University of Winnipeg, and we are having a two-venue exhibition of some of these works in March 2005. Why have you donated your work to Gallery One One One and Gallery 1C03?
Winston Leathers: I am concerned that the original intent of my donation is lost.
Winston Leathers: We need a new building. My work is part of it but I dont want that to get lost. In the 1950s when you were in a drawing class as a student, the teachers, who were mostly American by the way, encouraged us to trade with our peers. For example Robert Nelson encouraged this. We all built up really good collections of works by our peers. Fifty years later it is time to set up an opportunity for institutions to get these collections. I set up my donations to the Winnipeg Art Gallery, Gallery ICO3 and Gallery One One One so that there were works that I collected by Bruce Head, Frank Mikuska and others to represent what was going on at the time, plus critical pieces of work that I made myself over fifty years.
The School of Art supported printmaking and I want a historical education for todays students. I want to use this approach as a test case for my peers so that the Winnipeg Art Gallery, Gallery One One One and Gallery 1C03 can house this information so that there is a consistency for students. The importance of this work should be recognized and the contribution that we have made should be recognized. My dream is that all this should be documented in terms of a historical file for scholars. Theres the mandate: here is a body of work made over fifty years and I dont want to isolate any part of it.
Because of my 24 years as a teacher in the Faculty of Architecture [at the University of Manitoba] I wanted to make sure that that collection, which includes Bruce Head and Mikuska and others, is preserved. When Dan Meto was here he wanted to establish a collection building were it would come under one roof. Grace Thompson (of Gallery One One One) tried to put it all under one roof. The Winnipeg Art Gallerys Pat Bovey, when she was at the University of Winnipeg, began the process to make a house. The other person who identified with this idea was Sarah McKinnon of the University of Winnipeg.
Cliff Eyland: What do you mean by a "house"?
Winston Leathers: Im talking about chair or a department that gives significance to a subject, like the [University of Manitobas] Icelandic Department. The mandate would be that there would be a chair, by that I mean an academic, who would deal with this work, an academic department or a house that has a mandate from its board of governors, or an art historian or conservator that would only deal with this collection of work. The Winnipeg Art Gallery has not done it, but the Norman McKenzie Art Gallery has done a first class job with a heck of a pile of material [given to the University of Saskatchewan and the Norman MacKenzie Gallery]. Pat Bovey and Sarah McKinnon once had hope that this could happen here at a certain point in our careers, and since then Ive called a moratorium on sending this material outside of Manitoba.
Again, I am using myself as a test case to establish all this before it is too late for my peer group to have a framework for the work so that the work will not leave the province.
Why am I talking to you this way? Its because I dont like the idea of Leathers being singled out. Id like to see the mandate respected so Id like to see some other work by Bruce Head, Frank Mikuska, Wilson, McCloy, Kucera , Bowman, Ken Esler, Roland Wise, Robert Nelson, Tascona -- all the people at the School of Art during the 1950s on show. Thats why I thought that there should be some in fill of work that they did not have.
Cliff Eyland: Lets talk about your work. What about the [Hidden Landscape] series?
Winston Leathers: There was an essay by Dr Bill Thompson of the Faculty of Architecture that talks about that work and all the technology based on the new microscope at the Faculty of Medicine that was used. Its all there. I used a whole sabbatical to work with it.
Cliff Eyland: What about your invention of the collograph technique of printmaking?
Winston Leathers: We invented the collograph technique in Winnipeg. There was a major exhibition of them curated by Elli-Marie Hearth ( her married name is now Hamlyn and she was a curator in Peterborough, Ontario) and that was my first major exhibition of prints. The collographs and plates that were given to the School of Art date are from the 1960s and that was when they were done. That was the start (Esler and I did it together). Now the Nickle [Arts Museum] in Calgary has Eslers work and other works are in the Gallery One One One collection. The work that went to the University of Winnipeg was from the 1970s and the paintings went to the Winnipeg Art Gallery.
Cliff Eyland: You invented the collograph technique?
Winston Leathers: Yes -- Ken Esler and I were given credit by Stanley Hayter, a noted American printmaker, for the invention of collographs.
It started first of all in the 1960s by defining what printmaking is: that it is a transfer process meaning that one can go over the surface or on the surface. This was the period of time that epoxies came into industrial production. We took raw materials like metal, cloth, and chip board and we said lets add on to the surface [of the printmaking plate] with assemblage and collage using epoxies as the glue. With epoxies the hardness can be controlled and also it can be made to absorb or reflect inks. By using epoxy varnishes we could control the absorbency properties of any material, the more lacquer the less absorbency, which in turn gave light and dark or absorption and repelling [qualities], and thick and thin relationships. An added bonus was the embossed surface on the paper. I have all of the documentation about the kinds of inks and papers we used.
Cliff Eyland: Did this break the printmaking presses that you used?
Winston Leathers: No not at all. The work went on tour for two years through Ontario and then (what used to be the Ontario Art Circuit) then they were shown in Montreal at McGill in the seventies and as acknowledgment of the inventiveness of this series I was invited to join the Royal Canadian Academy.
Cliff Eyland: Tell me about the Cosmic Variations series.
Winston Leathers: The Cosmic Variations series was the first breakthrough. It was shown for the first time during the opening of the Winnipeg Art Gallery . They also showed in England and at 1640 Gallery in Montreal. This whole series was made to be viewed under black light. The idea was to deal with pure abstraction from an original point of view. I was part of the Faculty of Architecture and I had a great admiration for the whole Joseph Albers school. In teaching basic design this was the basis of contemporary study. My theories went beyond Albers because he had never illuminated black in pigmentation. As a result there was a communication between us and Claude Tousignant in Montreal. It was also when Day-Glow colors were beginning to be used as silk screen paint in the poster advertising business. It was used in discos. Black light put black back into the pigmentation.
One of the great local innovations was when the Milk Board of Manitoba used Day-Glow in its billboards and posters -- butter came out the ugliest green colour! Posters for disco as well as the establishment of rebel expressions came out of his process. I developed the inks in England. The first exhibition I had of them was in Montreal. On opening day from 2 to 5 o'clock the prints were under normal light but in the evening we had black light on them. The ladies were asked to wear white. We changed all the lighting between 5 p.m. and the evening opening, so when the same people came back for a champagne opening the whole transformation happened and the walls glowed. It looked unbelievable. Then people started to look at the ladies and men dressed in white and all could you see was their underwear... so the party started to roll. When people smiled you could see their teeth and fillings. It got to be a social phenomenon in the early 1970s.
Then it went on to the Cosmic Variations series curated by Ann Davis for the opening of the new Winnipeg Art Gallery. Dr Philip Fry was the curator of contemporary art who instigated it. The series continued when I was asked by the Canadian Society of Printmakers to do the print of the year. I was commissioned by IKOY [the architectural firm] to do a mural-sized version of the work that is now in the Faculty of Architecture collection at the University of Manitobas University Club. That was done on the largest sized asbestos and Fiberglas sheet that was invented for the insulation of the nose cone of the first space flight. It was greatly absorbent. The new technology used three different types of varnish and viscosity of the black light inks. So when you turn the black light on to that print you have brighter and more intense areas. All of a sudden colour could be amplified or controlled by absorbency or reflective qualities of the materials. This goes back to the collograph series and the utilization of contemporary materials.
Cliff Eyland: Why the microscopic photographs?
Winston Leathers: The jump forward fifteen years later had to do with an idea of colour as pure abstraction but using a different vehicle. Thats the link.The human body is made up of pure chemicals. Carbon is black, gold is gold coloured, cobalt is blue. You can fool technology to create colour is documented by the microscope. That is the colour coding system for DNA. Exactly the extension of the Albers colour theory in the utilization of fluorescent ink and the DNA system was an extension of that.
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The Winston Leathers: In The Moment
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