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

 

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.

 

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#24

 

Blind Contour Drawing #24 –
“I have spoken with this green person”
– Rachel Berman 2010

Once known as Susan King, Rachel Berman reclaimed her birth name as an adult after she successfully discovered the names and of her biological parents and her own birth story. She was born in New Orleans in 1946 and was raised by foster parents in Victoria B.C. She abandoned the foster system at an early age and lived a tough life.

She was a self taught artist and traveled and worked in the U.S., Ireland and in Canada, she eventually settled in Victoria B.C. where she grew up. She worked as a greeting card artist. Her quirky animal characters, Mooky McBeth and Vanessa Vanilla eventually became characters in children’s books. She was nominated for the Governor General’s award for English Language Children’s Literature-Illustration in 2009 and 2013.

Berman’s paintings were exhibited in many places but most frequently with The Ingram Gallery in Toronto. Her gallery paintings are hauntingly beautiful. She drew from her experiences in the streets of London, Dublin, New York, Toronto and downtown Vancouver. She never owned a camera but spent hours sketching in housekeeping rooms, worn hotel lobbies, cafes, and metro stations. The mysterious figures and hidden stories in her paintings are a reflection of the struggles and mysteries she lived through herself. She once said that her paintings were autobiographical, her search for herself.

Berman suffered from HIV and hid her illness from her loved ones for a long time. She was ashamed of her early drug addiction and lifestyle. However, she felt AIDS made her grateful: “It did give me time to think, not about what the disease has taken away from me but what it has given me, and for which I now am most grateful, for life is most generous … – I have to live today like it is the best day in the world — & I now have the wisdom to know that it is.”

She was known to deliver envelopes stuffed with drawings, philosophy, calligraphy, rambling love letters and poetry, usually by bicycle in the early hours of morning to friends, loved ones and even strangers. She was an apparition in an overcoat and described as a “quiet observer of life, a thinker and a humanist.”

Born: 1946, New Orleans, Louisiana, United States

Died: May 28, 2014, Victoria