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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

 

BCD#33

Blind Contour Drawing #33 “Interior” Molly Lamb Bobak

In her seventies, artist Molly Lamb Bobak recalls Mary Williams with warmth and admiration: “She never kept a lot of baggage with her,” she reminisces, admiring the independence of her mother, who lived with but never married Bobak’s artist father, Harold Mortimer-Lamb—an unconventional arrangement for the 1920s.

Like Mary, Bobak’s later life was filled with gardening and living lightly. She parted with most of her paintings once she’d finished them, so that a 1990s retrospective of her life’s work prompted her delight at being reunited with “old friends.”

Bobak is remarkable for the vibrancy of her attitude as she broke barriers set before female artists of her generation. After graduating from Vancouver’s School of Art in 1941, Bobak registered in the Canadian Women’s Army Corps (CWAC), jokingly called the “Quacks.” For three years, she travelled from training camp to training camp across Canada, at every opportunity begging her commanders to be considered for the position of war artist, a role no Canadian woman had ever held.

During these mid-war years, Bobak kept a most unusual diary, formatted as a mock newspaper and filled with sensational headlines about her daily experiences. Her first caption—“GIRL TAKES DRASTIC STEP!”— about enlisting is followed by years of entries that, on one hand, caricature her attempts to navigate military rules and, on the other hand, critique the institutional norms she was constrained to obey. The light-hearted sketches illustrating these journals are matched by the paintings she produced during this time; on one colourful canvas, she portrays herself skipping with a case of beer through the streets of Toronto.

At last, Bobak’s appeals landed on listening ears; in 1945, she became Canada’s first female war artist, and was sent overseas to document Canadians’ experiences at war. Bobak’s art from this period offers a glimpse of women in the war that no other Canadian artist could provide: images of Canadian servicewomen working as typists, drivers, seamstresses, launderers, dishwashers, and clerks—the only jobs available to women serving in the army.

Along with these portraits of military women, Bobak’s art is remarkable for her emphasis on community and friendship. Her scenes are public: women in the foreground, soldiers gathering in crowds—in bustling city squares, on fields, in gas masks, or at a canteen. These pieces focus on the energy of camaraderie that characterized her military service, as well as much of her life afterwards.

It was during the war that Molly Bobak met her husband, painter Bruno Bobak. Returning to Canada, they both worked as artists in Vancouver, travelling back to Europe for several years before finally settling in Fredericton.

Even in these post-war years, Bobak remained interested in the idea of crowds. She was frequently drawn to flowers, insisting that they were not so different from her earlier subjects: “Poppies are like crowds. They move in the wind. You don’t organize them; you don’t settle them into something. You paint them as they are: blowing or moving or dying or coming to birth. That’s how it is with my crowds.”

After her death at the age of 94 (outliving her husband by only two years), a friend celebrated her life and work, as well as her zeal for friendship and inclination to laughter: Molly’s art, he remarked, “expressed the sheer joy of living in a community.”

Born: 1920, Vancouver
Died: 2014, Fredericton

Sources:

 

Freedman, Adele. “A Loyalist Bastion Bathed in Light.” The Globe and Mail, 1982 April 10.

 

“Molly Lamb: A Retrospective.” CBC Digital Archives. 1993 November 29. https://www.cbc.ca/player/play/2414705964

 

Schaap, Tanya. “‘Girl Takes Drastic Step’: Molly Lamb Bobak’s W110278—The Diary of a CWAC.Working Memory: Women and Work in World War II, eds. Marlene Kadar and Jeanne Perreault, Wilfrid Laurier UP, 2015.

 

Smart, Tom. “An Artistic Duo with Extraordinary Gifts.” Telegraph-Journal, 2018 June 23.

BCD #32

Blind Contour Drawing #32 “Mother Earth Struggles for Survival” 1975
Daphne Odjig

If ever an artist felt grateful for an illness, it was Daphne Odjig. In 1932, at the age of 13, Odjig was hit by rheumatic fever and forced to withdraw from school, dashing her ambitions of becoming a schoolteacher. However, her disappointment quickly gave way to delight; living at home on Manitoulin Island’s Wikwemikong Reserve gave her an opportunity to grow close to her paternal grandfather, an Odawa-Potawatomi stone-carver, and her mother, and Englishwoman who had met Odjig’s father when he was based in England during World War I. Odjig’s adolescence was nourished by her connections with her parents and grandfather, each of whom encouraged Odjig’s creative interests.

 

But Odjig’s grandfather and mother died when she was just 18, and she set out for other parts of Ontario, moving to Toronto during World War II. It was in early adulthood that Odjig first encountered racism, and the shock triggered a withdrawal from her heritage. She spent her years in Toronto visiting art galleries, exploring European paintings and admiring the Cubist styles of painters like Picasso. But she gave herself the last name “Fisher” (an Odawa translation of “Odjig”) and felt, for the first time in her life, isolated.

 

The retreat from her indigenous origins did not last long. After marrying her first husband, Paul Somerville, and moving to British Columbia to raise their two sons, she enrolled in art classes, where she was encouraged to paint “realistic” pieces. While she briefly followed this advice, she soon decided that she wanted to paint how she felt, a decision that catapulted her towards innovative new styles.

 

In 1962, Odjig married her second husband—two years after Paul died in a car crash—and after they relocated to Winnipeg, a new phase in her artistic production and motivation began. Over the next two decades, Odjig’s style grew to amalgamate her First Nations spiritual heritage with the modernist techniques she had admired years before. Her pluralist approach and two-dimensional representations of indigenous mythology, colonial history, and personal and collective memories relied on vibrant colours and a dark “formline” that anchored the works’ meaning in place. On her formline, Odjig remarked: “If you looked at my painting before I got my formline on, you probably wouldn’t distinguish what I’m doing. But by the time I got my formline on, everything is in balance, and it’s there.”

 

Odjig’s art punctured the boundaries separating First Nations art and a broader Western audience. Picasso called her a “remarkable artist,” and she was awarded with every accolade available to artists, including the Order of Canada. She was one of four artists in the world chosen to paint a memorial to Picasso by the Picasso Museum in France, and her pieces have been featured on Canada stamps.

 

Yet, to Odjig, true success was achieved by her activism, which operated as an extension of her role as an artist. In 1974, after serving a six-month artist residency in Gotland, Sweden, she and her husband returned to Winnipeg to open Odjig Indian Prints of Canada, a craft shop and small press that eventually morphed into the New Warehouse Gallery, the first Canadian gallery to exclusively represent First Nations art.

 

As curator, Odjig encouraged young artists by buying and selling their work. She organized the Professional Native Indian Artists Association, more famously known as the “Indian Group of Seven,” and illustrated a range of books, from school readers to a collection of First Nations erotica. Before her breakthroughs, the mainstream art world saw indigenous art as “exotic handicraft or cultural artefact more properly housed in a museum than in a public gallery.” But Odjig’s collaborative intervention with other First Nations artists changed the field of possibilities. “We acknowledged and supported each other as artists when the world of fine art refused us entry,” she explained. “Together we broke down barriers that would have been so much more difficult faced alone.”

 

Perhaps Odjig’s journey as an artist and activist is best captured by Roots, her triptych about the disintegration of identity that occurs as a result of abandoning heritage, and the potential for regrowth upon rediscovering those lost origins. “You find out who you are and are proud. … Only when you discover yourself can you be secure.”

Born: September 11,1919, Wikwemikong Unceded Indian Reserve on Manitoulin Island Ontario
Died: 2016, Kelowna

Sources:

 

“Daphne Odjig.” NativeOnline. http://www.nativeonline.com/daphne_odjig.htm

 

Devine, Bonnie. “Daphne Odjig: 1919 – 2016.” Canadianart, 6 October 2016. https://canadianart.ca/features/daphne-odjig-1919-2016/

 

Fernandes, Andrea. “The Grandmother of Canadian Native Art: Daphne Odjig.” Mental Floss, 28 June 2009. http://mentalfloss.com/article/22099/grandmother-canadian-native-art-daphne-odjig

 

Lahey, Anita. “Odjig’s Lyrical Line.” Vernissage, Fall 2007 (excerpt). https://www.gallery.ca/sites/default/files/documents/news/Biography_Daphne_Odjig.pdf

 

Nathoo, Zulekha. “‘Indian Group of Seven’ Artist Daphne Odjig Dead at 97.” CBC News, 2 October 2016. https://www.cbc.ca/news/entertainment/daphne-odjig-dead-1.3788123