Well-known local artist Al Colton passed away in his sleep on Thursday, June 7 at Langley Memorial Hospital.
The 90-year-old painter, whose images have hung everywhere from the Langley Centennial Museum to the National Gallery in Ottawa, found much of his inspiration in the history and natural beauty of the region, often painting local heritage buildings and landscapes in his distinctly colourful impressionist style.
And if one wanted to know how the artist felt about a particular subject, they need only flip through one of his many sketch books, where Colton imbued his artwork with social commentary — often, but not always, using humour to make his point.
Colton was a prolific painter, and since 1998 many of his pieces have hung in the Birthplace of B.C. Gallery in Fort Langley, while literally hundreds of others have filled the Langley City home he shared with his wife and fellow artist, Esther.
Colton was introduced to gallery owners Brenda and Kurt Alberts by Langley historian Warren Sommer, who was collaborating with Kurt on a book to commemorate the Township’s 125th anniversary. Several of Colton’s paintings are featured prominently in the soft cover book.
During the time that Langley 125 – A Celebration was being compiled, many of Colton’s paintings were stored in Kurt’s office. “His work was so impressionistic, it took me time to get used to it,” said Kurt. But looking at them every day, the style grew on him. “I ended up falling in love with his paintings. You can always see something new (in them).”
Born in Toronto in 1921, Colton began his career as an artist with his studies at the Ontario College of Art in the mid 1930s. When the war broke out, shortly after his 18th birthday, he joined the air force and spent three years as a flight instructor on the B.C. coast. Working with charcoal on newsprint, he sketched portraits of other servicemen for $5 a piece. It was during this time at Boundary Bay that Colton met Esther.
She and a girlfriend came by for an art lesson, and within a week, he had proposed. They were married for 67 years and had two children. “One thing that came through with Al was his love for Esther,” said Kurt. “They were real love birds.”
After the war, Colton taught art at both the elementary and secondary school levels before taking a job as the art co-ordinator for the city of Vancouver and then finishing up his working life as a postal clerk in Langley.
Sixty years later, Colton’s former students still drop by the Fort Langley gallery occasionally to share memories of their teacher, said Kurt, with one woman even bringing a small drawing the instructor had made to demonstrate use of perspective. “He obviously had quite an impact on his students,” said Kurt.
Colton had been in extended care at LMH for almost a year when he passed away. Even in the last months, he stayed busy drawing in his sketch book. “Painting kept him going. I think he lived longer because of that,” said Kurt.
“He truly lived his whole life to paint,” agreed Brenda Alberts. “His whole life represented a passion for art.” Colton passed that passion on to her and to the other artists who knew him, she said. “He had such a great sense of humour, he was very witty. He taught me a lot about what I do.” “There’s not one more thing that I think he needed to do,” said Brenda. “He made use of every moment.”