An icon in the arts world passed away in Langley last week.
Al Colton, dubbed the Dean of Art, was just a little shy of his 91st birthday when he died in the Marwood extended care wing of Langley Memorial Hospital last Thursday morning.
“I wish he could have stayed a little longer, because Father’s Day is coming up,” his wife Esther told the Langley Advance.
Less than a week earlier, the Langley City lovebirds celebrated their 67th wedding anniversary.
“I wish he had been well enough that I could have taken him out,” Esther said, explaining that Al had been hospitalized for the better part of the past nine months, his health deteriorating after a fall that broke his leg and hip.
Instead of a traditional anniversary celebration, Esther dressed up, carefully wrapped up their wedding photo, and took the party to Al in his hospital bed.
The couple met during wartime. Al was teaching pilots to fly at the base in Boundary Bay, where Esther worked as a Morse code translator.
A short time later, on June 1, 1945, they were married, and Esther said they were still as much in love during their last days together as they were all those decades ago.
“I’d bring him juice every day, or try to do something for him when I got there,” Esther recounted of her daily visits to the hospital. “He would insist that I sit down. ‘Don’t you want anything?’ I’d ask him. He always replied, ‘I just want to look at you.’”
Al was a painter in his later years, but when he was first bit by the arts bug almost 80 years earlier (during the Great Depression), paint was too expensive. He became a master with pencil, selling his first drawing of an administrative building for a whopping $10 (which was a giant windfall in those days).
So launched his career and lifelong passion in the arts that spanned most of his life.
“From then on, I thought I was an artist, foolishly,” Al previously told the Advance. He had joked how he then went on to con his parents, friends, and teachers into believing he was an artist, before earning himself a scholarship to the Ontario College of Art.
He studied art for a few years in Ontario during his late teens, under the tutelage of Group of Seven artists Arthur Lismar and Frank Carmichael, before joining the air force.
Al resumed his art education on the West Coast after the Second World War, and became an art teacher and coordinator in Vancouver’s school district.
But it was his paintings (first acrylic and later oils) that earned him national accolades.
Al is truly a Canadian art icon, said Brenda Alberts, owner of Birthplace of B.C. Gallery and a friend of the Coltons for the past 14 years.
“I still think his work sizzles with biting social commentary and presents more than meets the eye… you don’t always see everything in the first glance,” she said of his portraits, landscapes, street scenes, and still life images.
Al literally created thousands of paintings over the years. Alberts said she’s honoured to represent the icon in her gallery. She’s anxious to keep his work – but more importantly his stories – alive.
“Al truly loved to paint and spent his whole life painting with passion and dedication to the arts,” she said.
“It was 14 years of absolute pleasure,” she said of their relationship, describing him as a “very witty,” compassionate, and kind man who, despite his acknowledged accomplishments as an artist, always turned the spotlight onto others.
“He was an incredible man… he was brilliant,” she said, noting she was frequently in awe of his work and his wisdom – a statement echoed by fellow Langley painter Jack Turpin.
Turpin first met the Coltons a dozen years ago, when he and two other emerging artists hosted a small show in their home. The Coltons attended and – both being artists – offered comments and encouragement before purchasing a painting from each member of the trio.
The support demonstrated by Al and Esther that first day was just the beginning, and Turpin said it was so indicative of Al, whom he described as a “real gentleman with a good sense of humour and a very outgoing personality… he was always such a positive influence on everyone.”
“He was an immense talent, and will be missed,” Turpin added, envious of not only Al’s artistic ability and dedication, but also of his diligence to his craft.
In fact, Al kept up with his art until the end.
As if going back to his artistic roots, Al returned to sketching during his final months in hospital, while he always longed to get back home – not just to his loving wife and the basement-floor studio space they shared, but to his easel and paints.
Upon his request, there will be no memorial service for Al, Esther explained. They made a promise to each other years ago that there would be no fanfare around their deaths.
“Please, nothing…” Colton told his wife. “I’d like to be put away as quietly as possible.”
Instead, their daughter Ann Breen – who lives in New Zealand – and son Dave Colton – who resides on Vancouver Island – will come together with Esther at a later date to best determine what to do with his ashes and how best to honour him as a husband, father, and nationally acclaimed artist.