BCD#28

Blind Contour Homage #28 – “Sweet Peas” 1911 – Edith Hester Macdonald-Brown

Thanks to a frustrating tangle of social, historical, and geographical circumstances, very little is known about the African-Canadian artist, Edith Hester Macdonald-Brown.

Born in Nova Scotia in 1880, Macdonald-Brown may have attended art school in Montreal before returning home, where she married William Brown. Because her works are signed “Edith Macdonald,” it is generally believed she painted them before marriage.

However, although she must have created many pieces, few survive. The rest fell victim to the racist policies inflicted upon her community, Africville. A neighbourhood founded in the mid-1800s on the outskirts of Halifax and populated predominantly by African-Canadians (many of whom settled in Nova Scotia after escaping slavery south of the border), Africville suffered for decades from deficient infrastructure. According to the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR), the City of Halifax denied requests from the residents of Africville for clean water, appropriate sewage systems, and garbage removal. Yet, despite their social and political neglect, Africville was a thriving and close-knit community, building together a school, church, and shops.

But in 1964, the City of Halifax decided to take Africville’s land for its own development. Claiming interest in Africville’s health and living standards, it forced all residents to relocate to different neighbourhoods across Halifax. Some home-owners were paid for the price of their house; most were forced out with little or no compensation, all while their homes were bulldozed and their sense of community was torn apart.

Sunday Miller, the Executive Director of the Africville Heritage and Trust, explained to Mallory Richard (a blogger for the CMHR), that the citizens of Africville had tried “to create a community that the government wasn’t willing for them to have. When they took them off this land and forced them to be a ward of the government, which is what happened for those who went into social housing, you took their dignity from them.”

Dignity was not the community’s only casualty. While some of its artifacts remain—displayed in the Africville Museum—many were destroyed, including all but four of Macdonald-Brown’s paintings. In fact, hardly anyone even knew that Macdonald-Brown’s art existed until David Woods, artistic director of the Black Artists Network of Nova Scotia (BANNS), curated the 1998 exhibition In This Place: Black Art in Nova Scotia. Through his own “door to door” research, he uncovered Macdonald-Brown’s work in an effort to counter the widely held assumption that Nova Scotia doesn’t “have any black art.”

The only Macdonald-Brown painting ever to be exhibited is Sweet Peas (1911), a still life of a vase of flowers, but it has gone missing. Macdonald-Brown’s granddaughter, Geraldine Parker, now holds the four extant paintings—one still life and three landscapes. They depict a vibrant Romantic countryside—scenes whose inspiration remains a mystery. For instance, her 1906 untitled oil painting of a herd of cattle suggests not only a rich pastoral setting, but also, perhaps, a metaphor for colonial conquest—an observation about race and power that would bear great relevance on the fate of most of Macdonald-Brown’s oeuvre.

Born: 1880, Halifax, Nova Scotia
Died: 1956, Halifax, Nova Scotia

Sources:

Canadian Women Artists History Initiative: Artist Database. “MacDonald-Brown, Edith Hester.” https://cwahi.concordia.ca/sources/artists/displayArtist.php?ID_artist=5711

Johnson, Adrienne. Through African Canadian Eyes: Landscape Painting by Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Century African Canadians. MA Thesis, Concordia University, 2015.

Richard, Mallory. “The Story of Africville.” February 23, 2017. Canadian Museum for Human Rights. https://humanrights.ca/blog/black-history-month-story-africville

Simmonds, Veronica. “Uncovering History.” The Coast, February 16, 2012. https://www.thecoast.ca/halifax/uncovering-history/Content?oid=2958695

Virtual Museum Canada. “1906: Expanding History: Edith Hester Macdonald-Brown.” https://150ans150oeuvres.uqam.ca/en/artwork/1906-untitled-by-edith-hester-macdonald-brown/#description


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 #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

BCD#22

Blind Contour Drawing #22 – “Fingal” Gillian Ayres, 2005

Gillian Ayres was born in 1930 in Barnes, London and grew up in comfort due to her family’s hat making business. She developed interest in art early and enrolled at the age of 16 in the Camberwell School of Art and Crafts.

Ayres exhibited with Young Contemporaries in 1949 and with the London Group in 1951. Her first solo show was at Gallery One, London, in 1956. The following year she was commissioned to create a large-scale mural for South Hampstead High School for Girls. It was not appreciated at the time and was quickly covered with wallpaper. Luckily it was rediscovered in 1983 in nearly perfect condition.

She met her husband, Henry Mundy at school and they married in 1951. They had two sons and eventually divorced in 1981 but remained friends and continued to live together in the same house painting in their separate studios. Mundy and many of his friends were ex-servicemen, their distain towards traditionalists suited Ayres anti-authoritarian attitude and helped her find her voice in abstraction.

Ayres’ early works were usually made with thin vinyl paint with a limited palette. She matured as an artist in the 1950s, in the heyday of “experimental art.” Her rebellious nature helped her to become one of the first British admirers of Jackson Pollock.

Her later works in oil paint are very colourful and thick with paint. Her huge canvases were often worked on in sitting-rooms and bedrooms while her bantams, peacocks, cats and dogs roamed freely from her garden to the kitchen to the studio. The marks of their paws and claws may still be detected in some paintings.

In 1957 Ayres showed at the significant exhibition Metavisual, Tachiste, Abstract: Painting in England Today, at the Redfern gallery. She was the only woman in the Situation exhibition at the RBA Galleries in 1960, the first group show of British abstract art of the new decade.

Ayres worked part-time at the AIA Gallery from 1951-59 before starting to teach. She held a number of teaching positions through the 1960s and 1970s. In 1959, she was asked to teach at Bath Academy of Art, Corsham, for six weeks. They asked her to stay and she remained on the teaching staff until 1965.

In 1965 she became a senior lecturer at Saint Martin’s School of Art in London, she stayed there until 1978 when she became head of painting at Winchester School of Art in 1978, she was the first female teacher in the UK to this position. She left teaching in 1981, and moved north-west Wales to become a full-time painter. 1987 she relocated to the North Devon-Cornwall border where she remained for the rest of her life.

She smoked about 3 packs of cigarettes a day, worked throughout the night if she felt like it, gave money to friends, wasn’t much of a housekeeper, collected broken pieces of china and loved Elizabethan poetry. Her favourite painter was Rubens. Ayres ignored most advice, including medical and didn’t have much time for current affairs.

Ayres was one of Britain’s most significant abstract painters and has been described as courageous, independent, determined with a generous heart.

She died at the age of 88 near her beloved cottage and studio in North Devon. Her paintings and prints are held by major museums and galleries around the world.

Born: 1930, London
Died: 2018, North Devon

 

BCD #21

Blind Contour Drawing #21 – “Group IV, The Ten Largest, No. 7, Adulthood,” – Hilma af Klint 1907

Hilma af Klint was the fourth child of five to a Swedish naval commander and mathematician. The family spent summers at their manor on the island of Adelsö. She formed a strong connection to nature in these idyllic surroundings, which would later influence her work.

When the family moved to Stockholm, she studied at the Academy of Fine Arts of Stockholm, where she learned portraiture and landscape painting. In 1882, by the age of 20, she was admitted to the Royal Academy of Fine Arts. After graduating with honors, she was awarded a scholarship in the form of an art studio, where her landscapes and portraits became the source of income and independence. The Scandinavian education system was well ahead of the French and German systems and allowed women into their Academies. It was not uncommon for women to make a living from their art.

Af Klint’s 10 year old sister, Hermina died in 1880. The grief and the loss sparked her interest in spiritualism and religion. She began meeting with ‘The Five’, or ‘De Fem’ – a group of five of female artists who met secretly to seek communication with mystic beings. Conducting séances and creating automatic drawings, they communed regularly with these spirits they called the “High Masters.”

Her knowledge of botany, geometry, mathematics, natural sciences, world religions and her interest in spiritually accumulated in what the art world now recognizes as the first abstract paintings in history. In 1906, she was painting and working in abstraction at least 5 years earlier before Vasily Kandinsky, Kazimir Malevich, Piet Mondrian, and others would create similar moves to rid their work of representational content.

She worked in private, selling her landscapes and portraits. She did not spend time promoting herself, publishing manifestos or participating in exhibitions as her contemporaries did. Even in her old age, she did not believe the world was ready for her work and included in her will that not a single item from her over 1,200 piece estate which included paintings, drawings and writings be shown until 20 years after her death.

She passed away on October 21, 1944 in the aftermath of a traffic accident, nearly 82 years old. When she died none of her abstract works had ever been shown to the public.

Since 2013, when the Modern Museum in Stockholm hosted an exhibition dedicated solely to her work, af Klint is now generally considered to be the pioneer and inventor of abstract art. Her first abstract work was painted in 1906.

Born: October 26, 1862, Solna, Sweden
Died: October 21, 1944, Danderyd Municipality, Sweden