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

 

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.