Reflections of the Oldman Watershed

From a majestic mountain lake in Waterton, to a modest irrigation canal near Coaldale—the diverse vistas of the Oldman watershed have inspired generations of southern Alberta artists.

In the summer of 1936 Lethbridge-based painters Anna McKenzie and P.J. Collins met at the Banff School of Fine Arts. They formed the Lethbridge Sketch Club (now Lethbridge Artists Club) that year, and were joined by like-minded artists such as Jessie Ursenbach, Michael Pisko, and Dora Trew. The small but active group met regularly in members’ homes or at the Lethbridge Public Library, where they would push tables aside to make space for sketching sessions. The club hosted annual exhibitions in whatever venue was available—the library, the Eaton’s furniture department, or automotive showrooms.

Lethbridge artists benefited from the expertise of local instructors such as Edith F. Kirk and Frederick G. Cross. The sketch club also hosted an annual summer school in landscape painting, taught by H. G. Glyde and Walter J. Phillips from the University of Alberta’s Department of Extension. Members would venture out on foot, with campstools and sketching kits in hand, to paint outdoors. Some of their favourite spots were Henderson Lake and the Oldman river valley.

Another important influence for many sketch club members was Group of Seven artist A.Y. Jackson, whose brother Ernest was a Lethbridge resident. During informal gatherings at Ernest’s home or on sketching trips to the coulees, A.Y. shared his techniques and philosophies with local artists. Michael Pisko often credited the Group of Seven painter with shaping his own impressionistic style.

The dramatic landscapes of the Oldman watershed inspired a distinctive southern Alberta artistic tradition in the 1930s and 1940s, just as they continue to inspire members of the Lethbridge Artists Club today.

Some Oldman-watershed inspired paintings are part of the exhibit Water in a Dry Land now open at the Galt Museum and Archives in the Main Gallery. Admission fees apply. Exhibit admission is free to annual pass holders.