Adventurous art lover bequeaths massive collection to University of Lethbridge

Officials are calling it the largest ever donation in the University of Lethbridge's half-century history.

Cliffs Near Petawawa by Tom Thomson worth $1M and it's just one of more than 1,000 pieces

Cliffs near Petawawa by Tom Thomson is worth about $1 million and it's just one of more than 1,000 pieces of art donated to the University of Lethbridge from the estate of Margaret (Marmie) Perkins Hess. The total collection is valued at between $4 million and $5 million. (University of Lethbridge/Alberta Order of Excellence)

One of Alberta's great art lovers and adventurous spirits has bequeathed the largest ever donation in the University of Lethbridge's half-century history.

The University of Lethbridge Art Gallery just unpacked more than 1,000 pieces of art from the estate of Dr. Margaret (Marmie) Perkins Hess, worth between $4 million and $5 million.

It's sprinkled with paintings by Canada's top painters and carvings by renowned Indigenous artists. 

"Marmie had a really good eye and she was ahead of her time with her strong interest in learning from Indigenous people and their art," gallery director Josephine Mills said.

"This collection is an amazing addition for us."

Hess was a well-known art historian and teacher, business person, rancher and philanthropist who was made an Officer of the Order of Canada and awarded the Alberta Order of Excellence and the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee medal, while also receiving several honorary degrees.

She died in 2016 at the age of 100.

"I remember meeting her," Mills said. "She was certainly a very direct person: didn't mince words, really passionate and incredibly knowledgeable about art."

Emily Carr, untitled tree trunk, British Columbia, no date, oil. (University of Lethbridge Art Gallery)

The collection, part of which is on display as of Thursday, includes Cliffs Near Petawawa by Tom Thomson, valued at $1 million, and more than 400 works by Indigenous artists including Alex Janvier, Freda Diesing and Kenojuak Ashevak.

The bequest includes prints by Picasso and Chagall, and pieces by Emily Carr, Lawren Harris, Frederick Varley and  A.Y. Jackson, her friend.

"She was his driver," family friend and filmmaker Peter Raymont said. "He would suggest places they might go and she knew those roads and those back roads, and she'd find him locations to paint."

Hess loved telling stories, spending time on her ranch — once owned by Raymont's father — west of Cochrane and especially bouncing around Alberta in her GMC Jimmy, he said.

When she became too old to drive, he drove for her, taking the jeep through forests and pastures.

"And lo and behold, you'd get somewhere and there'd be a beautiful bench that she'd had placed in this perfect location," Raymont said.

"We'd bring out the famous grouse whiskey she enjoyed and toast my father and toast the Native people and just looked at the Rocky Mountains."

Margaret Shelton, Stolen Church, Windermere, 1977, ink on paper. (University of Lethbridge Art Gallery)

Hess was so engaged in the world yet "hermit-like" with people she didn't know, he said. She kept much of her collection secret while she was alive, as she lived alone.

Earlier in her life, she had befriended a few of the Group of Seven artists, which is how she came to have their artwork lining her walls.

'Personality and perseverance'

She also greatly appreciated Indigenous art and travelled north to Baffin Island, collecting dozens of Inuit carvings.

After she died, they were found lining "every horizontal surface" in the basement of her Calgary home. Above her garage, she filled a room full of Haida masks, baskets and clothing.

"Just through her personality and perseverance," she found herself in the Ranchman's Club before women were permitted, Raymont said, and over the years, became well-connected and respected in Calgary.

  • Hear more about the adventurous life of Margaret Perkins Hess
Peter Raymont tells us about his friend Margaret Hess, the Calgarian who gifted more than 1,000 priceless pieces of art to the University of Lethbridge. 7:02

She later joined the University of Lethbridge senate and visited the city often.

"She loved Alberta. She loved Canada. But she especially loved Alberta and this part of southern Alberta," Raymont said. "So I think she'd be delighted that this collection will be there."

Walter J Phillips, Karlukwees, British Columbia, 1929, ink. (University of Lethbridge Art Gallery)

The exhibit of 112 works that opens Thursday at the University of Lethbridge runs until Sept. 7. The gallery staff hope to open another exhibit at the Alberta College of Art and Design in Calgary in October.

Managing the massive collection has been a challenge. Mills broke the stunning news to her team by offering them slices of rhubarb pie first. She then had five students sign confidentiality agreements.

"The range of the artwork, the quality of the artwork, is amazing," she said.

'Incredible resource'

They've also hired a student to develop a research plan to study the life of Hess and her collection, Mills said, and they're looking forward to increasing gallery space to display more.

"The main focus for her was that, with this bequest, is that it will be shared with people, that it will tie in with teaching and learning and research and community engagement," Mills said.

"It's going to be an incredible resource for students to get professional hands-on experience,... It's just amazing."

The gallery has renamed its main exhibit space as the Dr. Margaret (Marmie) Perkins Hess Gallery.

Read more articles from CBC Calgary and like us on Facebook for the latest updates.

With files from David Bell, the Calgary Eyeopener and the Homestretch.