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BCD#37

Blind Contour Drawing #37 “Wolfman” Kitty Smith

After several interviews with Kitty Smith, author Julie Cruikshank realized that the best way to connect with Smith was through stories. “To a large extent,” Cruishank observes, Smith’s “evaluation of other people … is based on their storytelling abilities.”

Storytelling is inseparable from Smith’s life and livelihood. She understands her own personal history as intertwined with the history of her communities and the cultural origin stories—tales of wolves, crows, women, and children—that nourished her upbringing. Spoken in her first languages of Tlingit and Athapaskan (Tagish) and—later—in English, these narratives are Smith’s method of talking about people and places.

Born in 1890 near the mouth of the Yukon’s Alsek River, the early years of Smith’s life were dramatically impacted by the Klondike gold rush, which peaked between 1896 and 1898. Her mother’s brother, along with three other Tlingit men, was accused of shooting a white prospector. Smith explains the shooting itself as customary revenge for the poisoning of two Tlingit men by prospectors, but the punishment on her uncle was severe: all four men were tried for murder; her uncle and another man were executed, while the other two died in hospital. Smith’s mother travelled to Marsh Lake, the home of her own mother’s family, rocked by shock and grief. While there, she died of an influenza epidemic.

Left without a mother, Smith was largely raised by her father’s family, who taught Smith to be a skilled trapper as they travelled along Yukon rivers. Raised to a high status through a potlatch ceremony, a strong marriage was secured for her once she finished a lengthy seclusion through puberty. However, Smith was dissatisfied with the marriage; her husband, she claims, was unfaithful and unskilled. She made the decision—shocking for the time—to leave him and to live with her mother’s family, a “Crow” family, according to Tlingit kinship affiliations. Here, she developed close bonds with her grandmother, who eventually secured a better marriage with Billy Smith. The couple had six children, to whom they taught hunting, trapping, fishing, sewing, and other skills.

But Smith never relied on her husband as a means of support. At a time when women were neither primary breadwinners nor carvers, Smith was both, and she was fiercely independent. In the 1930s, she realized how much Canadian soldiers would pay for winter gear, so she used muskrat skins to sew mitts and mukluks. She also began carving small poplar totems of the animals that populated the stories she grew up with. Her husband would sometimes write short pieces to accompany the figures, such as “The Wolf Man,” which she affixed to the bottom of her Wolf Man carving. Later, she published a book of stories, entitled Nindal Kwädindür / I’m Going to Tell You a Story. The collection is as much homage to her reverence for narrative as are her carvings.

Smith died in 1989. At that time, she was one of the last people to remember the impact of the gold rush and the construction of the Alaskan highway on Tlingit and Athapascan people. But although her early life bore the ruptures brought by western economic and environmental intrusions, she remained steadfastly devoted to and defined by the stories and relationships of the multigenerational lines of her family.

 

Born: 1890, Yukon
Died: 1989

Sources:

 

Cruikshank, Julie. Life Lived Like a Story. U of British Columbia P, 1990.

 

“How People Got Fire: Study Guide.” National Film Board of Canada. http://lss.yukonschools.ca/uploads/4/5/5/0/45508033/hpgf_guide.pdf

 

Kwanlin Dün First Nation. Listen to the Stories: A History of the Kwanlin Dün People. A Kwanlin Dün First Nation Publication, 2013.

 

Tukker, Paul. “Flea Market Find Inspires New First Nations Art Exhibition in Yukon.” CBC News, 14 May 2017, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/north/kitty-smith-carving-flea-market-exhibition-whitehorse-1.4113543

 

BCD#36

Blind Contour Drawing #36 “The Kemmel Road, Flanders” Mary Riter Hamilton

Mary Riter Hamilton’s life was marked by both personal and historical tragedies, events that pushed her to produce remarkable paintings while also impacting her health. Shortly after she was born in 1873, Hamilton’s family moved from Ontario to Manitoba, where she spent her childhood. After training as a hat maker in her teens, she followed her employer to Thunder Bay, Ontario, where—at the age of 18—she met and married Charles W. Hamilton. Within four years, both her infant child and her husband had died.

Hamilton never remarried. After her husband’s death, she travelled in search of an art education, having always enjoyed drawing as a child. She studied in Toronto before moving to Europe to train at the Académie Vitti in Paris, only coming home in 1911 when her mother fell ill.

From the time she returned to Canada until the end of the First World War, Hamilton struggled to support herself. She moved to Victoria, BC, setting up shop as a portrait artist and selling her own paintings to survive. When the war began, she begged the Canadian government to send her to Europe as a war artist. But because she was a woman, her request was denied.

It wasn’t until 1919—just after the end of the war—when her opportunity to return to Europe arose. She was hired by the Amputation Club of British Columbia “to paint the battlefields of Europe, a tribute to those who were killed, maimed and wounded in the Great War.” And since she arrived so soon after the end of the war, she was able to capture the sorrow and despair that still populated the terrains she covered—the Somme, Vimy Ridge, Ypres.

For three years, Hamilton endured perilous dangers living in a tin hut with Chinese workers hired to clear the western front of war debris. Unexploded landmines and shells littered the devastated fields she painted. Travelling bands of uprooted criminals and looters—as well as rats and disease—constantly threatened her safety. She frequently had little to eat, while rest and comfort were hard to come by. Yet, she set up her easel on the battlefields, accompanied by her dog, Old Bob. She used whatever materials she could find; when she ran out of canvases, she turned to paper, wood, and even cardboard. In this time, she produced over 350 paintings—the largest collection of Canadian World War I paintings produced by a single artist.

While the European response to Hamilton’s war paintings was reverential and supportive (her pieces were displayed together to large crowds in Paris), “Canada was less enthusiastic and authorities offered little praise.” Indeed, when Hamilton returned home, the public showed little interest in her war paintings, perhaps in a desire to move on from the losses of war. In the end, Hamilton refused to sell any of these pieces, donating the entire collection to the National Archives of Canada.

Her experiences on the battlefields in Europe took a major toll on Hamilton’s health. She spent the rest of her life in Canada in and out of hospitals and psychiatric wards, painting whenever she could in order to support herself. Although her work was admired, it was not until after her death that Hamilton became celebrated as one of the most important Canadian artists of her time.

Born: February 11, 1873, Teeswater, Ontario
Died: 1954, Vancouver

Sources:

 

Gwiazda, Emily. “Mary Riter Hamilton.” The Canadian Encyclopedia, 2018. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/mary-riter-hamilton

 

McLeod, Susanna. “Painting ‘Placed Watered with the Best Blood of Canada.’” The Kingston Whig Standard. 21 July 2015. https://www.thewhig.com/2015/07/21/painting-placed-watered-with-the-best-blood-of-canada/wcm/2891f626-c75e-8f8a-e4bb-502daeb83349

BCD#35

Blind Contour Drawing #35 “Sunday Morning” Helen Parsons Shepherd

In her early days, contemporaries found Helen Parsons Shepherd’s desire to be an artist objectionable not because she was a woman, but because she was a Newfoundlander. Her parents regarded creative activities as hobbies; her father, a poet in his spare time, worked professionally as a lawyer. Before Parsons Shepherd helped transform Newfoundland and Labrador’s cultural landscape, St. John’s had no art scene to speak of—not a single commercial gallery or art school.

Discouraged, therefore, from studying the one interest she had been passionate about since childhood, Parsons Shepherd drifted along various career paths, attending one year at Memorial University College, then studying for four months at a nursing school in Montreal, then clerking for a year in her father’s office. Finally, perceiving the aimlessness of these pursuits, her father relented and, in 1944, paid the tuition for his daughter to attend the Ontario College of Art; she was only the second Newfoundlander to enroll.

At OCA, Parsons Shepherd met fellow student Reginald Shepherd, whom she would marry. Upon graduation, the couple returned to Newfoundland, determined to survive as artists in a province without an established milieu. Despite the risks, they purchased a three-story Victorian house, renovating the lower two floors into the structure that opened in 1949 as the Newfoundland Academy of Art, the province’s first art school. “We had nothing to lose,” Parsons Shepherd asserted in the face of the challenges before them.

Indeed, they gained a great deal. From an enrollment of 21, the school soon expanded to 120 students, aged 8 to 80. Parsons Shepherd taught classes at the school, as well as at four local convents. For eleven years, the academy emboldened the development of the city’s creative community.

However, thanks to the limited financial support offered for art education in Newfoundland, the academy struggled to hire and keep teachers. In 1961, the academy closed. Parsons Shepherd and her husband decided to focus solely on their own art, which had been neglected under the demands of operating their school.

Although Parsons Shepherd is remembered for her remarkable still life paintings and her images of Newfoundland street scenes, she earned a successful livelihood as a portraitist, commissioned to paint so many elite public figures—including Prince Philip in 1976—that she became informally celebrated as St. John’s “Court Painter.” Working from photographs and using notes taken during hour-long conversations with her subjects (who provided locks of hair to ensure Parsons Shepherd’s colour matches), her portraits captured a person’s distinguishing energy. Her biographer Ronald Rompkey remarked, “As a portraitist, she understood the person. She didn’t just paint a picture, she would bring something out.”

Parsons Shepherd remained an artist her entire life, committed to creative exploration till the end. She was an artist with a singular passion, breaking down the barriers of Newfoundland conventions so successfully that her once reluctant father eventually celebrated her paintings in much of his later poetry.

 

Born: 1923, St.John’s, Newfoundland
Died: 2003, St.John’s, Newfoundland

 

 

Sources:

 

“Helen Parsons Shepherd.” Heritage: Newfoundland and Labrador. https://www.heritage.nf.ca/articles/arts/helen-parsons-shepherd.php

 

Rompkey, Ronald. Reginald Shepherd, Helen Parsons Shepherd: A Life Composed. Breakwater Books, 2005.

 

Sullivan, J.M. “The ‘Court Painter’ of Newfoundland Founded the Province’s First Art School.” The Globe and Mail, 4 July 2008.

BCD#34

Blind Contour Drawing #34 “Stained glass installation – Champ-de-Mars metro station in Montreal” Marcelle Ferron

From her earliest years, a resistance to conformity and a determination to bridge the domains of art and life characterized Marcelle Ferron’s life. At age three, repeated hospitalizations due to osseous tuberculosis forced her to internalize an awareness of death and to believe in the urgency of living well, even as the illness left her with a “bad leg” and lifelong struggles with her health. At age seven, her mother died and her father moved Ferron and her siblings to rural Quebec, where they benefited from outdoor activities and his well-stocked library.

Encouraged in her passion for painting, Ferron enrolled in Montreal’s École des Beaux-Arts; within a year, she withdrew over disagreements with the institution’s approach to modern art. Seeking new styles and a mode of artistic engagement with the world, Ferron became associated with the Quebecois group known as the Automatistes, artists who worked to suppress conscious control and let the unconscious mind take over creation.

Through the Automatistes, Ferron joined several avant-garde artists in 1948 to sign the Refus Global, an anarchistic manifesto that called on the Quebec clergy and mainstream society to reject traditional social values. The manifesto shocked the public and left all of its signatories blacklisted, thanks to statements like: “To the devil with holy water sprinklers and the ‘tuque.’” Yet, although the CBC calls the Refus Global “one of the most important and controversial artistic and social documents in modern Quebec society,” it sparked enormous ideological change, eventually leading to the province’s Quiet Revolution.

Ferron’s existentialism and anti-establishment values informed her private life, too. Refusing to submit to social expectations that would have her embrace domestic life, Ferron left her husband in 1953, moving with her three daughters to Paris, where she stayed for thirteen years. During her time in Europe, Ferron became part of the Parisian café scene, where she hobnobbed with well-known artists. Support for her paintings and regular exhibitions in reputable galleries meant that, by the time she returned to Quebec in 1966, she enjoyed international renown.

Never satisfied with mere acknowledgement of her talent, Ferron was determined to reach a wider audience with her art. Her friendship with the painter Paul-Émil Borduas led her to adopt the belief that “the artist’s role was social,” and she persistently searched for ways to transcend the political limitations of a parlor artist. She found a new means to articulate her ideas after finding inspiration in the windows of European cathedrals. She studied stained glass with the Michel Blum in Paris before returning to Montreal to invent “a method that allowed her to build walls of light by inserting sheets of antique glass between two walls of glass, the surfaces between joined by invisible joints that she, herself, perfected.”

Ferron’s glass technique led to tremendous success, and established her as one of the most preeminent public artists in Quebec. Her stained glass dominates several spaces in Montreal, including the Champs-de-Mars and Vendome metro stations.

 

Born: 1924, Louiseville
Died: 2001, Montreal

Sources:

 

“Celebrating Women’s Achievements: Marcelle Ferron.” Library and Archives Canada. https://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/women/030001-1160-e.html

 

Lambton, Gunda. “Marcelle Ferron.” Stealing the Show: Seven Women Artists in Canadian Public Art. McGill-Queens UP, 1994, pp. 15 – 33.

 

“Refus Global: Revolution in the Arts.” CBC Archives. https://www.cbc.ca/archives/topic/le-refus-global-revolution-in-the-arts