Greatest Garden

The Paintings of David More

By Agnieszka Matejko

by Mary-Beth Laviolette
University of Calgary Press
2021/$39.99/112 pp.

It was a bleak winter morning when I picked up Greatest Garden: The Paintings of David More, featuring almost 60 works from the nearly 50-year career of this distinguished Alberta artist. Luminous magenta geraniums, turquoise spruce trees and emerald green foliage shone from the pages, transporting me to a fairytale-like place where nature vibrates with life, and daily tribulations cease.

But the first series of paintings featured in this book is not of an imaginary garden; it is inspired by a very real location. The Benhaven garden, as the artist and his photographer spouse, Yvette Brideau, named it, surrounds their house and former Presbyterian church studio on their half-acre property in the hamlet of Benalto in central Alberta. The artist can often be found in this prairie oasis, painting on an easel, plein-air, looking remarkably like Claude Monet—right down to the wide-brimmed white hat both artists have been pictured wearing.

This prairie garden may offer More daily inspiration, but his vision reaches beyond its borders. His travels and work encompass gardens from far-off places such as Rio de Janeiro, India, the temperate rainforest on Vancouver Island and New Brunswick shorelines. To him, the earth and everything that grows from its depths is a garden.

Perhaps that’s why More was one of the first Canadian artists to address environmental issues. In the late 1980s, after seeing the devastating effects of acid rain in eastern Canada, he began work on a series of forest scenes: desiccated, bone-like branches silhouetted against ominous black or orange skies. This work was exhibited in the Forest: Fade to Silent exhibition held in Banff and later toured throughout Canada in the 1990s.

The garden paintings and More’s prescient environmental works are only two of the five series described by the book’s author, Mary-Beth Laviolette. She has curated two of More’s shows, including an exhibition held at the Red Deer Museum + Art Gallery in 2019, featuring some of the artist’s 200 donated works representative of his entire career—a donation Laviolette also helped the museum select. Such intense familiarity with More’s art make her writing reminiscent of traditional Japanese ink painting—the image comes into focus in a few sparse strokes of text, allowing the artwork in the book to take centre stage.

The garden, in the full breadth and depth of the word, surrounds More’s home and permeates his art. It’s no wonder that he refers to Benhaven as his and Brideau’s “ultimate artwork.” It is a place of refuge, a muse and a symbol of life’s passage. As More sums up in the book’s introductory epigraph: “We come and go, guests of this Greatest garden.”

Agnieszka Matejko is an artist and writer in Edmonton.

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