In early September a new exhibition of work by June Leaf opened at the Inverness County Centre for the Arts (ICCA). Curated by Emily Falencki, founder and director of The Blue Building Gallery (TBB) in Halifax, June Leaf in Mabou since 1969 focuses on work the artist created since establishing a residence in Cape Breton with her late husband, photographer Robert Frank. This was my first opportunity to visit Cape Breton and my first introduction to the work of June Leaf. I felt that day as if I had touched another world.
The exhibition includes two- and three-dimensional works, many of which are portraits of individuals local to Mabou and area. Most of the approximately 60 works were pulled from Leaf’s studio and have never been exhibited, being housed in Mabou since their creation. The remainder came off the subject’s walls, or from local collections. Cape Breton’s presence is marked into the works, not only in the content and the artist’s vision, but in the very air molecules, specks of salt and grains of sand that travelled into Leaf’s studio. In Theresa Alec Rory Beaton the portrait is speckled with water spots, which become constellations that spread across the artwork. The graphite lines and watercolour pigment show no signs of having faded under Mother Nature’s contribution.
A selection of pieces act as studies for formal drawings, multiple versions of the same idea blooming across the page. The artist approaches her substrate with a marked economy, maximizing the potential of one surface. This has the effect of creating both a micro and macro perspective in one artwork. Men in Boat (The Eye) epitomizes this approach beautifully. Leaf switches perspectives several times, moving in and out, picturing a long horizon line with a small boat sliding along it to a curious view from above in which the horizon becomes a string pulled taut by fingers and a large blazing sun which becomes a human eye looking out over the scene.
I find this approach compelling, one that demonstrates Leaf’s ability to translate daily occurrences into magical scenes. She invites joy and wonder from the viewer, allowing space to contemplate and simply enjoy the act of looking. The artist also includes a more traditional approach to collage. In House (nd) and Robert Carrying Wood (1975), the rich colours that make up the subject matter are used in combination with a small black and white polaroid photo, likely from one of Frank’s cameras. In the latter, Robert’s visage emerges from the scene, transporting the presence of the giant of photography to the exhibition.
I enjoyed recognizing synchronicities as they emerged in the artworks and the gallery space. Many of the small sculptural works are found within the drawings, the artist working through her vision, the pieces acting as both artwork and artefact. For example, Woman Coming out of the Book (nd) is a drawing in graphite with a muted colour palette that sketches out her idea: a woman reclines within a small opening carved into the pages of a book. A sculpture of the same title is installed nearby on a plinth. In each, the woman clambers free of the pages and words weighing her down, the shape she emerges from oblong and round with softened edges resembling a crevice, a cave or with the feminine body in mind, a vulva. This work is particularly powerful, offering the female figure agency over her body, her movement and her ability to rise up from the weight of language encapsulated within the covers of the book she seemed to have been caught within.
There is an inherent playfulness in Leaf’s treatment of her subject matter, material and medium that is both refreshing and rigorous. She deftly illuminates the many individuals and places that have touched her life during her time in Cape Breton. The scenes and content of the work presents itself as quite simple and straightforward, however it is her treatment of her subject matter that allows the viewer to transcend the simplicity of everyday living into an expansive reading of the world. The simplest of materials are transformed in Leaf’s hands.
The gallery was abuzz with excitement that day as artists, friends and community members travelled from far corners to be at the gallery. I recognized antique shopkeepers and barbers, art students in Céline Dion and Béyonce band shirts, and art friends from near and far; American artists studying and living in Nova Scotia and Cape Breton, Canadian artists whose work I have admired for years and people who have known “June” for decades were also in attendance. One gentleman had met June and Robert when they first came to Cape Breton in 1969. Another young woman, accompanied by her mother, told me she’s named after June as the artist was present when she was born. When the artist arrived at the gallery every visitor stood and applauded, welcoming and honouring her.
Later that afternoon I sat in the sunshine with visitors, among them artist Amanda Trager. “June is an enchantress with mighty powers, and this is for real.,” she said. “You truly enter a realm when you are near her.” Leaf does not merely translate her realm from reality into visual art; something magical occurs in her renderings of her surroundings. It is in her method of capturing existence, conjuring worlds from the simple and everyday, where majesty is revealed from what might otherwise be overlooked.