This past spring, Edmonton lost a giant. Sculptor and painter Roy Leadbeater passed away at the age of 89.
Three years ago, I profiled Roy for Avenue. That meant I got to spend a lot of time with a fascinating man, who could spin a tale like the best storyteller you’d ever heard. And, boy, did he have a lot to recount; he and his brother were abandoned by their parents. He made his way from an orphanage to the Merchant Marine – and then to the British-led Palestine police force as Israel was reborn as a nation.
In Canada, his career as one of this country’s most revered abstract artists began.
As part of the research, I toured Edmonton, looking for Roy’s pieces. Those included “Genesis,” the split disc that looks like it came from space and crashed to the Earth, that’s in the Lee Pavilion at the Citadel Theatre; and “Ocean Moon,” located on the patio of the downtown Courtyard by Marriott.
And, in 1975, he was commissioned to create a cross to commemorate the Ukrainians killed in the Second World War. Located in the middle of a roundabout in the centre of the cemetery, it slowly reveals its nuances the more you look at it.
As you approach, you see a mighty cross rising out of the concrete. But, as you get closer, you pick up on the intricate designs and patterns within the cross. In 1975, before the term “Easter Egg” was ever coined, Roy placed a series of smaller pieces within the larger sculpture. Look closely, and you’ll find a lot of agrarian imagery; there’s a bear handling a plough; a series of horseshoes; a bull with a ring through its nose.
Full disclosure: I am anything but a religious person. I consider myself a capital-A atheist, but I am fascinated by religious icons and structures. So, this cross of Roy’s, well, as much as I like his downtown sculptures, it’s the one that’s found on 82nd Street, north of the Yellowhead, that’s my favourite Leadbeater.
Why? Edmonton’s ties to its Ukrainian- immigrant roots remain strong. The cross was commissioned to recognize the fact that Ukrainians suffered horribly during the Second World War, and it was consecrated in 1976 by Patriarch Yosyf Slipyj. According to Ukraine’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “of the 41.7 million people living in Ukrainian Soviet Republic before the war, only 27.4 million were alive in Ukraine in 1945.”
I attended the Celebration of Life for Roy in June. I only got to know him in his later years, near the end of what was an epic life. I only wish I’d got to know him sooner; from his love of speedy motorcycles and sports cars – I heard stories about how many speeding tickets he earned while behind the wheel of his Marcos – to his views on the Middle East to abstract art, there’s material there for more to be written.
This article appears in the September 2017 issue of Avenue Edmonton. Subscribe here.