Michel LeRoux vividly remembers May 20, 1980, as the blessed day his only daughter, Marie-Hélène, came into existence. Moreover, it was the day LeRoux first went out to buy himself oil paints and brushes – the day when the illustrious career of a Quebec artist was also born.
The juxtaposition of those two events is no accident. LeRoux, having grown up in an artistic family and having worked in graphic design and lettering, found himself dealing with such a torrent of emotions after his daughter’s birth that he could think of no other way to express his feelings. “Four hours after her birth, I went out and bought paints and brushes,” recalls LeRoux, who has lived in the South Shore of Montreal for some 40 years. “I had too much emotion and didn’t know how to deal with it.”
Ever since that momentous day 38 years ago, he has painted with the goal of capturing emotions.
His first painting, he says, was terrible. He destroyed it, and many that followed. But then his vision of the natural world began to take shape and his style began to emerge. “Gradually, I began to internalize my subject and I began to paint in a single shot without even taking a step back,” he says.
By 1985, LeRoux had enough paintings for a gallery show. “My career started very fast,” he says. “I sold a lot at that first show and began to have a lot of one-man shows and began to get good reviews.”
Now, his work sells at galleries across Canada and the U.S. for between $3,000 and $5,000, and is held in many prominent Canadian collections.
Some 5,000 sold paintings later, LeRoux, almost 68, knows how fortunate he is. “My father was an artist who couldn’t make a living at it,” he says. “I’ve made a very good life for myself.”
To pay the bills, his father worked as a lettering artist, doing towering billboards along highways and brick buildings in Old Montreal.
For the young LeRoux, who began apprenticing with his father at the age of 12, it was fun to learn an artistic skill. Like his father, however, he strove for something more: a legitimate career as an artist.
While he taught graphic arts and lettering at Collège Ahuntsic and was, he says, one of the last in the province to still do lettering by hand in the early 1990s, at that time the writing was already on the wall, both literally and figuratively in LeRoux’s case.
Despite big contracts for his independent graphic design firm, LeRoux could see that computers were taking over and that his art of hand-lettering was going to vanish in the computer age. “I knew that I wanted to keep a brush in my hand,” he says. “I was happier painting.”
The rest, as they say, is history. Painting filled a void in his life; his paintings explore his symbiotic relationship with nature, which has been his anchor and his inspiration throughout his life.
“Sap, salt water and fresh water flow through my veins,” says LeRoux, who considers himself a man of the forest, sea and rivers. Indeed, his canvases depict scene after scene in those places, each capturing a different mood, emotion, and the changing light.
He finds a spot that inspires him – these days it is mostly by water – and then takes many photographs, which he uses to create his works of art in his studio.
Lately, he is inspired by the beauty of the water in Kamouraska. “My emotions are strong when I stand in front of a canvas,” he says. “Colour, light, movement; I am always studying these things and trying to improve the way I capture them on canvas. I try to express my own feelings as I stand in the forest or at the sea.” It’s not always easy.
With his water series, LeRoux figures he destroyed the first 30 paintings because he wasn’t satisfied with them.
“My influences come from the French lyrical abstraction movement of which Jean-Paul Riopelle was a part and for whom I have much admiration,” he says. “They also come from American expressionism. I am fascinated by their works and even if I paint nature, my evolution gradually brings me to paint works that come out of the canvas and fit in a contemporary context but are inspired by these movements.”
In the same studio for 25 years – a loft in an industrial park on Montreal’s South Shore – LeRoux has worked tirelessly to capture the essence of the natural world around him.
Decades into his art career, his mind still bubbles with ideas, and nature still compels him to paint. “I have no plans to retire,” LeRoux says. “Painting is life to me.
In Toronto, Michel LeRoux is represented by Harbour Gallery, 1697 Lakeshore Rd., Mississauga (905-822-5495). His work can also be viewed on his website here.