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BCD#27

Blind Contour Homage #27 – “Riding the Sea Goddess” – Jessie Oonark

Environmental and socio-historical calamities combined to produce the conditions from which one of the most celebrated Inuit artists would emerge. Jessie Oonark, born in 1906 in Chantrey Inlet on the Arctic coast, spent the first five decades of her life travelling Nunavut with her nomadic hunter family. She married her husband Qabluunaq when she was quite young, and together they had twelve children. But their difficult living conditions—impacted by the collapse of fur prices in a declining European trade market—became untenable in the 1950s, when the caribou population dwindled. During this time, Oonark lost her husband and four children to illness and starvation.

Responding to the emergency, the Canadian government airlifted the Inuit of Chantrey Inlet to Baker Lake, where Oonark worked various odd jobs, such as cleaning and sewing. It was in Baker Lake that a visiting biologist recognized Oonark’s drawing skills—the story goes that Oonark saw some children’s drawings and, upon announcing that she could do better, accepted the challenge to prove it. The biologist gave her paper and a set of pencils. Over the next couple of years, Oonark would send her drawings to the biologist’s home in Ottawa, and he would send more art supplies. Despite her late start, Oonark quickly gained renown as an outstanding artist within the Baker Lake community, and her work was sent by other residents to the West Baffin Co-operative in Cape Dorset, where her drawings were turned into prints—an essential shift that meant wider distribution, broader recognition, and archival potentials for Oonark’s artwork.

In 1966, the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs provided Oonark with studio space and a small salary, enabling her to continue drawing, as well as to create textile arts (Oonark’s acclaimed untitled tapestry, measuring at over 22 square meters, hangs at the National Arts Centre). She gradually became recognized as among the most important and influential Inuit artists, celebrated by galleries across Canada and inducted into the Order of Canada in 1984, a year before her death in Churchill, Manitoba.

Often drawn as fragmentary forms and shaped into non-linear images, Oonark’s drawings and wall hangings consistently represent stories of shamanism and dreaming. Although Oonark didn’t practice shamanism herself, she had witnessed her father’s work as a shaman, and perhaps she used these memories to fulfill what Josephine Withers describes as the responsibility of shamans and artists “to record and give shape to the personal and collective memories of the community.” A shaman’s role is to summon spirit helpers, such as a bird, bear, walrus, or caribou, and seek guidance in the search for game. Many of Oonark’s drawings—Flight of the Shaman and A Shaman’s Helping Spirits are two examples—represent the shaman’s spiritual work.

Indeed, the significance within Oonark’s pieces is layered and complicated. They suggest multiple meanings and, from different angles, suggest new narratives. Her drawings implicitly acknowledge the mutable nature of the oral stories from which she draws, and which she intentionally alters. For instance, speaking of her piece Big Woman, Oonark notes that she changed the common version of a story about a stone woman: “This woman who is turning into a stone, in Chantrey Inlet. The Stone itself is really colourful because this woman has a fancy parka… She turned into stone… because she never wanted to get married to anybody, not anyone at all. The woman is supposed to be in a kneeling position, but I just drew it in a standing position anyway.” Here, Oonark’s remark reveals how her art resists single interpretations, so that many of her pieces have a shape-shifting quality, with non-linear narrative suggestions indicating ambiguity.

Although it has been over thirty years since Oonark’s death, her work continues to influence Inuit art produced today. All of her eight living children are also artists.

Born: 1906, Chantrey Inlet, Nunavut
Died: 1985, Churchill, Manitoba

 

Sources:

Billson, Janet Mancini and Kyra Mancini. Inuit Women: Their Powerful Spirit in a Century of Change. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2007.

Bonesteel, Sarah. “Canada’s Relationship with Inuit: A History of Policy and Program Development.” Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada. June 2006. https://www.aadnc-aandc.gc.ca/eng/1100100016900/1100100016908#chp2

Fowler Museum at UCLA. “Power of Thought: The Art of Jessie Oonark.” Press Release, February 8, 2004. https://www.fowler.ucla.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/PowerOfThought-release.pdf

“Jessie Oonark.” North American Women Artists of the Twentieth Century: A Biographical Dictionary. Edited by Jules Heller and Nancy G. Heller. Routledge, 1995, pp. 420.

The National, CBC Television. “A Tapestry from the Late Inuit Artist Jessie Oonark Getting New Life.” News Release. April 4, 2014. https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.kpu.ca:2443/docview/1324596840/fulltext/F60F055876C943FEPQ/1?accountid=35875

National Arts Centre. “The National Arts Centre Celebrates the Return of the Magnificent Oonark Tapestry.” News Release, April 4, 2013. https://nac-cna.ca/en/media/newsrelease/6120

Withers, Josephine. “Inuit Women Artists: An Art Essay.” Feminist Studies, 1984, vol. 10, no. 1, pp. 84 – 96.


Visit the events page to see where Marlene’s Blind Contour Homage will be showing.  This is a series of paintings celebrating the work of Canadian female artists.

BCD#29

Blind Contour Homage #29 – “Island of Rocks” – Florence McGillivray

“She was the best.” Tom Thomson on Florence McGillivray

Although relatively unknown now, Florence McGillivray was a leading Canadian artist in her time. Born to a wealthy family (her father was a Scottish immigrant with a well-situated farm in Whitby, Ontario), McGillivray’s early talent as an artist was encouraged through private lessons with esteemed southern Ontarian artists. McGillivray capitalized on this good fortune by charging 25 cents to her friends and classmates for lessons sharing what she had learned. She added to her earnings by selling her paintings in local fairs.

This youthful shrewdness characterized McGillivray’s entire career; talent, good fortune, and keen curiosity ensured that she remained abreast of leading artistic movements, figures, and techniques. Travelling to Europe in 1913, she studied in Paris’s Academie de la Grand Chaumiere, earning admiration when her painting Contentment was exhibited in the prestigious Salon des Beaux-Arts. In Paris, she was mentored and encouraged by Matisse, Simon, and Menard, and she studied “Realist, Nabis and Fauvist palettes and pictorial construction,” which she imported to Canada when she was forced home after the outbreak of World War I. Back in Ontario, she mentored Tom Thomson, who declared McGillivray one of the best painters in Canada. In fact, Katharine Lochnan (McGillivray’s great-great niece) and art historian Sarah Stanners argue that McGillivray had the single greatest influence on Thomson’s work, solving the mystery behind the European styles in Thomson’s work.

Yet, despite her connection with the Group of Seven, McGillivray’s name does not receive the same level of recognition. This oversight is due in part to her family’s wealth; her comfortable lifestyle meant she was not forced to sell her paintings. But she has also been overlooked because of her gender. Art historian Regina Haggo explains that it “was difficult for a Canadian woman to become a professional artist a hundred years ago. Women were supposed to get married, have babies and stay at home. And because McGillivray was female, her work was undervalued by critics and ignored by art historians. … Moreover, taming nature with a brush was a job for a man. Women were deemed to be intellectually incapable of painting landscape. A woman artist was expected to paint pretty images of domestic life.”

But McGillivray rejected expectations for female artists. Instead, she used “the palette knife, masses of colour, and a strong black line around forms” to develop her signature style—a method influenced by her interactions with European artists, but cultivated independently as she experimented throughout her career. Her entire life was spent seeking creative inspiration and education. Just as she painted landscapes of the Gatineau valley, Labrador, and Newfoundland, she also travelled widely abroad—to Trinidad, Jamaica, the Bahamas, Alaska, and beyond—in search of new vistas and styles. When she died in Toronto in 1938, she left behind an enormous body of work. Only in recent years has it been rediscovered and celebrated for its significant contribution to the Canadian modernist movement.

Born: 1864, Whitby, Ontario
Died: 1938, Toronto

Sources:

Allen, W.C. “Following Florence.” Gatineau Valley Historical Society. http://www.gvhs.ca/publications/utga-following-florence.html

The Florence McGillivray Project. “Florence’s Stories.” https://florencemcgillivray.ca

Haggo, Regina. “Florence McGillivray Tamed Nature with a Brush.” Hamilton Spectator, January 7, 2017. https://www.thespec.com/whatson-story/7050268-regina-haggo-florence-mcgillivray-tamed-nature-with-a-brush/

Lochnan, Katharine and Sarah Stanners. “The Group of Eight.” Canadian Art, October 10, 2017. https://canadianart.ca/features/the-group-of-eight/

Murray, Joan. Tom Thomson: Design for a Canadian Hero. Dundern Press, 1998.

Prakash, A.K. Independent Spirit: Early Canadian Women Artists. Firefly Books, 2008.

 


Visit the events page to see where Marlene’s Blind Contour Homage will be showing.  This is a series of paintings celebrating the work of Canadian female artists.

BCD#26

Blind Contour Homage #26 – “Muskoka” – Marjorie Pigott

Marjorie Pigott was born in Yokohama, Japan. Her father was English and had commercial interests in Japan. Her mother was Japanese of noble birth. Pigott and her sisters were considered British according to Japanese law which determines ones nationality based on the father. The girls received an education from an English governess until they were old enough to attend boarding schools in Britain and Japan, However Pigott was not strong enough to travel aboard. Her mother had a thorough knowledge of Japanese art and their home was filled with priceless treasures of ancient Japan, (many of which were destroyed during an earthquake in 1923). She recognized Pigott artistic talent early and sent her to study under master artists at the Nanga School, which was founded in the 15th century. After 12 years of study, she received her Seal Diploma and a Master Diploma (Teacher’s Certificate) designating her a Nanga Master. Part of her teacher’s name Shutei is on the Seal Diploma as an honour for her achievement in certain atmospheric misty effects in her paintings. Her father died when she was young and never got to witness his daughter’s accomplishments.

Because of their English nationality it was advised that the girls leave Japan as war was looming. In 1940 and at the age of 36,Pigott left with her sister Edith for Canada. They first settled in Vancouver and then moved east to Toronto because the West Coast climate was hard on Pigott’s health. For the first few years she kept active doing floral studies (many in lacquer) for a commercial firm.

Then from 1955 to 1965 she taught the Nanga technique to Japanese in Canada. This school of painting is almost abstract. Black ink is applied in skillful ways to express how the artist feels about their subject. Pigott started painting Canadian scenes, such as the landscapes around Muskoka, using the Nanga technique. She developed her own style of semi-abstract wet-into-wet watercolour painting. She painted from memory and used photos as reference of the nature around her.

Her work was shown in several solo exhibitions and group shows all over Canada. Her work is represented in the National Gallery of Canada among others. She was a member of and exhibited her work with the Canadian Society of Painters in Water Colour and the Ontario Society of Artists. She was also elected to the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts in 1973.

Born: January 06, 1904, Yokohama, Japan
Died: January 12, 1990, Toronto, Canada

BCD #25

Blind Contour Drawing #25 –
“Dishcloth on Line #3 ”
– Mary Pratt 1997

Mary Pratt grew up on one of the most well-regarded streets in Fredericton, New Brunswick. She was one of two daughters to a Harvard-educated provincial cabinet minister.

She was heavily influenced by her maternal grandmother, Edna McMurray, who was the co-founder of the first Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire (IODE) chapter in New Brunswick. Pratt, like her grandmother, served her community on several boards and communities during her lifetime, especially with matters of the arts and education.

Pratt attended Mount Allison University, studying Fine Arts under Alex Colville, Ted Pulford, and Lawren P. Harris. It was Colville who influenced the development of her style and her subsequent move toward realism. Harris was less enthusiastic. In her second year, she met the artist Christopher Pratt they married in 1957. Harris was quick to inform her that there could only be one artist in a marriage and she was not it.

Despite his forewarning, Pratt kept up with her practice even after they moved to Scotland so that her husband could attend the Glasgow School of Art. They had two children while there and even though she had very limited time, she continued to paint. They moved back to the Maritimes in 1961, to Newfoundland, Christopher’s home, had 2 more children and Pratt continued to work. The couple separated in 2004.

While she was frustrated by the lack of time she could work, she kept up with her practice by focusing on the ordinary things she found around her home in rural Newfoundland. She began to experiment with the use of light and found that she couldn’t sketch fast enough so started to take photos of mundane moments that she described as having an erotic charge. Months later, getting the slides back, she would reassess if her subject still held that special quality and only painted those moment that she loved.

This portrayal of the ordinary helped Pratt earn national recognition. She started to show her work in 1967 and by the 1970’s her focus was turned towards the everyday objects of women’s domestic lives.

In 1996, Pratt was named Companion of the Order of Canada. In 1997, she was awarded the Molson Prize for visual artists from the Canada Council for the Arts. In 2013, she was made a member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts. She was also awarded nine honorary degrees from various universities throughout Canada. Pratt was also the first Atlantic woman to have a solo exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada.

Pratt suffered severe near-sightedness, which is reflected in the focal depth of her paintings. She also found difficulty walking and using her hand by middle age because of Rheumatoid arthritis. She continued to paint until her late 70’s.

Her subject matter elevated the mundane scenes of domesticity. Pratt’s art was powerful and political. It was derived from what she called an erotic charge for the moment she captured and then painted.

Born: March 15, 1935, Fredericton, New Brunswick
Died: August 14, 2018, St. John’s, Newfoundland