Salt Spring Sketches: It Was Always Their House Even When It Wasn’t

She was ready for one more adventure. He wasn’t so certain.

They had, after all, lived comfortably in Calgary for 29 years.  Neither had any inclination to move.  Yet, one morning as she looked out her window at her flourishing and beautiful garden, Liesbeth Leatherbarrow had an epiphany.

“I have always planned on living until 100,” she said. “I loved all that I saw that morning, but the thought of looking at and walking up the same path for the next 45 years struck me as limiting. Everything looked beautiful but I knew in that moment I was ready for one more adventure.”

Her husband of 33 years found her epiphany intriguing but, being a cautious and deliberative man, Bob Leatherbarrow needed time to mull over the idea and do some research.

“I was confident, but Bob had to think,” Liesbeth points out. “It sounded to him like a spontaneous, romantic idea.

In 2007, Bob began checking out various locales—from Provence in France to Nova Scotia, Cowichan, Maple Bay—to see whether any would suit their needs.  There were a few criteria to be met before any decision could be made.

It had to be an amazing place and a garden was a must.  Bob was an established artist working for more than 20 years with kiln-formed glass. His workshops were oversubscribed with eager glass artists from across North America and he was a frequent instructor at national and international workshops. So a studio in a good destination for workshop clients was a must.

And Liesbeth (a Dutch derivation so don’t pronounce the ‘h’) was an avid and respected gardener, having co-authored five gardening books.  She was also writing for a variety of publications and busy as an editor for a publishing company, designing books and handling book publicity. And then there was the quilting she’d been doing for 20 years.

Both Liesbeth and Bob agree there was no reason to leave Calgary. “We loved the city,” Bob says with a smile. “And our lives were full and rewarding.” But then a confluence of circumstances occurred.

In 2005, Bob, a geologist, on the receiving end of a ‘golden handshake’ from his employer continued as a consultant for the next three years as house prices began to climb in Calgary. Daughter Kate, a marine biologist, had relocated to Victoria.  And then there were their island friends and “the house.”

Vic and Lesley Reynolds were close friends who had moved from Calgary to Salt Spring in 2001. The Leatherbarrows visited often found themselves on the
receiving end of some “friendly bludgeoning.”  “They handed us a copy of the booklet with Salt Spring real estate listings as we boarded the ferry after one of our island visits,” Bob quips.  Liesbeth questions his choice of words but agrees the Reynolds were instrumental in their decision to choose Salt Spring as the place to begin their final adventure.

The Leatherbarrows didn’t need to read the listings. They already knew where they wanted to live. “We had visited the island many times and we always drove by one house that we admired and loved from the outside,” explains Bob.

“We began calling it ‘our house,’ always saying that if we ever moved to Salt Spring that would be the place we would choose to call home,” adds Liesbeth. “Initially, we believed Salt Spring wasn’t an option or even a possibility.  I was always a big city girl.” Both, in fact, were born in large cities—he in Montreal and she in Ottawa.

On every visit, they passed a property on Vesuvius Bay Road.  And, on each drive-by, they gazed more longingly at the house and surrounding garden. “We began to call it our home,” explains Liesbeth.

Then, be it synchronicity or alignment of the stars, things began to happen.  Liesbeth was planning a visit to Salt Spring while Bob was teaching in Texas. Four days prior to her leaving, she learned ‘their house’ was on the market.

“I immediately checked it out on the internet,” she recalls. “I loved it. It was everything we wanted. But I still wondered whether I could live on an island.”

She arrived on Salt Spring in February 2008, toured the property, called Bob and quickly went about making an offer. But someone else had the same idea.

“I knew I had to act fast,” she says. “Bob and I have always made decisions together but he was miles away. So I made the offer conditional on Bob’s liking the house.  I was sure I’d be happy but he needed to be equally comfortable. This was life changing.”

The sellers chose the Leatherbarrows’ offer because their purchase of the house had been made under similar circumstances. The studio, built in 1992, had been used to house and sell artists’ prints and was perfect.  Now renovated, it is Bob’s studio, light and airy with pieces of his colourful kiln-formed glass bowls and sculptures interspersed throughout.

Liesbeth returned to Calgary and the couple put their Alberta home on the market. It sold quickly and five months later in July, they were calling Salt Spring home. And the Reynolds were the first to greet and welcome them.

Bob’s grin is wide when he talks about the move. “The island is an amazing contrast after Calgary where the environment was not overly supportive of artists,” he says, leaning back expansively on a sofa in the home they deemed theirs before buying it.  “Here we are surrounded by artists and the creative spirit is held in high esteem. Everyone, it seems, is connected in some way to the arts.”

“It was an impulsive, spontaneous move,” adds Liesbeth. “We came, we were bitten by the island’s beauty and ambiance and we were, and still are, smitten.” They each struggle for the words to describe the island’s magic. But they feel it each time they return. “We happily board the ferry and, during the half hour ride from Swartz Bay we breathe the salt air, gaze at the water and any fears we had about moving to an island disappear,” Liesbeth says as Bob nods in agreement.

Glass Bowls by Bob Leatherbarrow

 Both have fully embraced island life. Bob continues developing unique textures and colour palettes using glass powders. (www.leatherbarrow.ca.) He’s currently writing and editing The Powder Palette, an artists’ catalogue to showcase his talent. And he is a volunteer director of the Salt Spring Arts Council (www.ssartscouncil.com). He continues teaching around the world, most recently in Australia. In March, 2012, two of his works will be featured in the Museum of Northwestern Art show in La Conner, WA.

Liesbeth manages her husband’s business and is still active in the publishing industry with Heritage House. She also continues her quilting with local quilters and she chairs the SSAC committee developing an arts school on the island. Her passion for gardening continues, evidence of which surrounds their Vesuvius home.

"We work as a team, supporting each other in old and new endeavours." Despite their personality differences—Bob is a long-term planner, outgoing and logical in his approach to work and decisions, whereas Liesbeth is spontaneous, risk taking and less outgoing—they describe themselves as “exceptionally compatible.”  His six-foot-five inch frame towers above her (she’s 5’4”) but height aside, these four-year island residents fully compliment each other. Liesbeth says, “It’s good to be reigned in at times.” Bob adds,  “Being taken out of my comfort zone is useful, too. It may take a while for me to engage in new things and places but adjusting to Salt Spring came very easily.”

For this couple that “one more adventure” is now reality.

Pat Preston is a former journalist, journalism instructor and public affairs executive. She has worked and lived in several cities in Canada and the United States. She and her husband, John Tylee, moved to Salt Spring in April 2011. She is now a Board member of the Salt Spring Arts Council and an advisory committee member of the Salt Spring Forum. Contact Pat with your story ideas at saltspringstories@gmail. 

Avatar of Pat Preston

By Pat Preston

I am a recent transplant from Vancouver. Prior to coming to Salt Spring, I had many lives: journalist, freelance writer, communications executive, journalism instructor, volunteer and advocate for women's issues. I love Salt Spring--its people, its beauty, its cultural activities and the opportunity it provides for stimulating and provocative discussion. Currently I serve on the Board of the Salt Spring Arts Council and am writing about the lives behind the faces of Salt Springers you see every day.

September 24, 2011 10:07 PM

  • Margo Zak says:

    Hi
    We have a somewhat similar story and are from calgary as well.
    We purchased land and are currently building not far from you on Quail Crescent.
    I would love to meet you, so will drop by one time soon on a visit to check out our construction.
    Thanks for sharing your interesting story!
    Margo and Dan Zak