Women in Canadian Art – Celebrating Women’s History Month

For many of us our first mentors are our parents. As our world’s grow and change we look to our teachers, our elders and the heroes and heroines in the stories we read and even see on the movie screens. For me, my first mentor in art was my mother, an artist herself and my grandmother before her. As my interest in the Arts grew, so did my investigation into those who came before me, and those whose work I admire. From that first art teacher in high school to my instructors in college, there were many women who paved the way and nudged me forward into a career as a professional visual artist.

Emily Carr – the first woman artist who captured my attention was Emily Carr. I was born in the city that was the final home of the iconic female painter who was an adventurous and independent spirit. Her home now a museum called ‘Emily Carr House’ on Government Street in Victoria BC. Emily Carr was one of the first painters in Canada to adopt a Modernist painting style, Carr did not receive widespread recognition for her work until late in life. Carr had a very ‘rough’ life and was thought to be somewhat crazy by her Victorian neighbors. I recall my uncle telling a story of walking around the neighborhood and passing Carr’s house, he was just a little boy and recalls how badly she was treated by passersby. She was known to keep a monkey as a pet and would often trade paintings for handiwork around her home. The subject matter of her painting shifted from aboriginal themes to landscapes—forest scenes in particular. As a writer, Carr was one of the earliest chroniclers of life in British Columbia. The Canadian Encyclopedia describes her as a “Canadian icon”. Lawren Harris says of her: “The work of Emily Carr and the circumstances in which it was achieved are unique in Canada. She was a passionate, powerful and creatively determined individual who turned fully to her beloved woods and skies and Native Villages. From the earliest work of her girlhood and on into the work of her last years, in hundreds of paintings and sketches, there unfolds the inner story of a vital adventure, full of intense struggle to achieve and the reward of the living embodiment in paint of her love.” The Indian Church(renamed Church at Yuquot Village in 2018 by the Art Gallery of Ontario) 1929.  Group of Seven artist Lawren Harris bought the painting to showcase it in his dining room, and called it Carr’s best work.

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Prudence Heward – I first enjoyed a Heward original portrait up close and personal at the Winnipeg Art Gallery. I was struck by her provocative depictions of the everyday woman, against soft and idealized backgrounds. Her palette choices were bold as were her strokes. I am drawn to the simplicity and abstract quality of the forms in the background juxtaposed with the more realistic portraits in the foreground. Heward was a frail child and she suffered from asthma her whole life, the frequent attacks forcing her to cease painting for various lengths of time. This part of her story I could relate to very well, as I too suffered with childhood asthma and experienced many hospital visits and sick days for the first 25 years of my life. Perhaps this is one of the reasons I find myself drawn to her brooding portraits. Her work inspired some of my choices when painting the portraits for the People of Canada Portrait Project. She was a member of the Beaver Hall Group and a co-founder of the Canadian Group of Painters and the Contemporary Arts Society. This is ‘Rollande’ painted in 1929 – National Gallery of Canada collection.

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Molly Lamb Bobak – Bobak was a Canadian teacher, writer, printmaker and painter working in oils and watercolours. During World War II, she was the first Canadian woman artist to be sent overseas to document Canada’s war effort, and in particular, the work of the Canadian Women’s Army Corps, as one of Canada’s war artists.  In one of the first generations of Canadian women who earned their livings as artists, Bobak became known for her paintings, drawings, and watercolours. For her role in the Second World War and many other accomplishments she was elected to the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts in 1973 and presented with the Order of Canada. I must admit I was not that familiar with Bobak’s work as Canada’s war arist, Alex Colville eclipsed any other work of the time. Bobak’s work is sublimely feminine and energetic, there is much movement in her work much like the impressionists, looking at her work is more like taking in a film at the cinema than staring at a sedentary 2-dimensional canvas.

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Mary Pratt – Pratt is an icon of Canadian realism. Her paintings of everyday domestic life make you feel like you are in your grandmothers kitchen watching her work. Her hyperealist paintings of fruit are overflowing with juicy realism, ready for plucking and eating right off the canvas. An internationally-recognized Newfoundland-based Canadian artist, Pratt recently passed away at the age of 83. Canadian film maker Kenneth Harvey is currently working on a film about her. The way she captures the light in her paintings, it’s electric and brings feelings of being in my mother’s kitchen watching her bake while waiting patiently to lick the spoon. Pratt attended Mount Allison University, studying Fine Arts under Alex Colville, Ted Pulford, and Lawren P. Harris. Mary Pratt Cherries painting

Myfanwy Pavelic – also hailing from my hometown of Victoria BC, Pavelic was known for her portraiture. Born in Victoria, British Columbia to an upper-class family, her first interests in fine art came after meeting with Emily Carr on Vancouver Island who later gave a brief series of instruction to Pavelic. I recall her portrait of Canadian Prime Minister, Pierre Trudeau, father of our current Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau. A copy of the award-winning portrait hangs in my Giclee print makers shop in Vancouver BC, Zhee Clay Fine Arts. The painting went on to be featured on a Canada Post postage stamp in 2000 after his passing. She was one of the few Canadian artists to be shown at the National Portrait Gallery in London, and her official portrait of Trudeau was unveiled in the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa in 1985.

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A remarkable group of women, from all walks of life, who painted from their distinctly Canadian perspective, they leave quite the legacy for those of us who are working to fill their shoes and lead the next generation of Canadian artists. Here are a few contemporary paintings inspired by women and the Canadian consciousness. ~ Brandy Saturley