Project Description


Marion Nicoll wasn’t qualified. Her would-be painting instructor, A.C. Leighton, announced the verdict when she applied for third-year painting courses at the Provincial Institute of Technology and Art (now ACAD) in 1929. Never mind that she had been painting as long as she could remember and had already formally studied for two years at the Ontario College of Art before illness forced her to return to Calgary. None of that mattered. What did matter, said Leighton, was that Marion did not understand colour and so he could not admit her to the third year courses. Her choice, he said, was to give up or start again from scratch. Marion, then 20, did what she needed to do. She enrolled in first-year studies and not only completed the course load, but prepared for the Royal Drawing Society of London examinations at the same time, demonstrating her remarkable talent, which would evolve over the years. “You paint because you have to,” she said of her art. An artistic shapeshifter, over the course of her long career she demonstrated her willingness and ability to move between styles. Early on she painted landscapes that captured young Alberta communities. In the mid-1940s she explored automatic painting, a surrealist approach to art current in Europe at the time, before emerging as one of Alberta’s preeminent abstract artists over the course of the 1950s and 60s. At the same time, she was the first (and for more than three decades, the only) permanent female instructor at what is today, ACAD, mentoring and teaching thousands of art students in craft, design and painting.The life of an abstract artist in conservative 1950s Calgary posed its share of challenges, all the more so for a Marion, a woman and her family’s main breadwinner, facing the inevitable headwinds of society’s expectations of her. Undaunted, she forged a remarkable artistic career and influenced generations of artists. “Marion Nicoll is at the root of everything art is today in Calgary,” says artist Katie Ohe