BCD#39

Blind Contour Drawing #39 “Pemberton Valley” Emily Carr

Emily Carr is one of the most widely celebrated and recognizable Canadian painters. Strongly associated with the Group of Seven, many of her works represent the cultural identity of British Columbia—its natural landscapes, its historical development, and its indigenous heritage. But Carr’s legacy was not always so certain.

The eighth of nine children, Carr was raised by a domineering British father, who taught her that women ranked well below men, and who developed in his daughter an abhorrence of physical intimacy. Upon her parents’ deaths, Carr was left with a strict and controlling sister, who rebuked Carr for her interest in art. Thereafter, Carr rejected traditional expectations, making up her own rules and manners as she forged a new path.

In fact, it is hard to know whether obstinacy and eccentricity helped or hindered her success. During much of her lifetime, public response to Carr wavered between two unfortunate extremes: disregard and dismay. Despite her fine arts education in San Francisco, London, and Paris, Carr’s paintings were at first unpalatable to western Canadian audiences, who resisted the revolutionary modernist and post-impressionist trends she’d learned in Europe. And because her physical and mental health frequently suffered (she spent many months in European “sanatoriums”), she gained a reputation for volatility. Her reception was probably not helped by her public behavior: she smoked and swore, walked around with a pet monkey on a chain and a rat in her pocket, and had a hot temper, which was frequently unleashed upon the tenants of her boarding house, “The House of All Sorts.” This ignominy, as well as the economic hardships of World War I, meant that Carr struggled to make ends meet. She produced very little art in her middle age, partly because students would rarely study with her, and partly because she had to work so hard as a landlady.

Despite these antagonisms, Carr persisted in pursuing her own passion for western landscapes and indigenous cultural heritage, and this tenacity was ultimately rewarded by broad celebration in her final years. When fame finally materialized, the work she had produced over her lifetime came to light, including the paintings produced as a younger woman during her frequent sojourns to First Nations communities along the west coast, where she painted totem poles in their natural settings. She was determined to document the poles before they disintegrated, and to record the indigenous people she encountered, recognizing the threat to their culture and lives by disease, poverty, and government policies.

In 1927, Carr’s work was “discovered” by Marius Barbeau and Eric Brown, who convinced Carr to allow her paintings to be featured in an exhibition on West Coast indigenous art at Canada’s National Gallery. Carr’s visit to Ontario for this grand entrance into eastern Canada’s art scene enabled her meeting with Lawren Harris and other Group of Seven members, who guided Carr’s transition from totem pole pieces to landscape paintings of the mountains and forests of the lower mainland and Vancouver Island, which were painted while she travelled through wilderness campsites in her caravan, “The Elephant.” In her sixties, she turned to creative writing; her essays and short stories were published in seven highly successful collections before and after her death in 1945. It was only in these final years that Carr earned enough to survive without renting out rooms, breeding dogs, or taking on art students. At last, she was rewarded with the recognition her work merited: in addition to receiving the Governor General’s Award for non-fiction, her paintings were bought by Canada’s National Gallery and the Vancouver Art Gallery, and are still exhibited in esteemed galleries around the world.

Born: 1871, Victoria, B.C.
Died: 1945, Victoria, B.C.

Sources:

Forster, Merna. 100 Canadian Heroines: Famous and Forgotten Faces. Dundern Press, 2004.

Klerks, Cat. Emily Carr: Adventures of a West Coast Artist. Heritage House, 2015.

Shadbolt, Doris. The Art of Emily Carr. Douglas & McIntyre, 1979.

Thom, Ian M. Emily Carr Collected. Douglas & McIntyre, 2013.

 

BCD#38

Blind Contour Drawing #38 “We Can’t All Be Perfect” Erica Rutherford

Born in Scotland as Eric Rutherford, Erica Rutherford led a life of adventure, spanning several continents, careers, and artistic pursuits. For instance, Rutherford trained as a naval cadet before attending London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in 1939, then studying art at the Slade School of Fine Art. In South Africa, Rutherford produced the 1949 musical film Jim Comes to Jo’Burg, insisting on creating content by and for black South Africans, and politically motivated to make a “documentary about the life of the African in regions hardly touched by the white man.” Rutherford also worked as a farmer, actor, artist, and writer. Marrying for the fourth time in 1959, Rutherford and wife Gail moved to Spain, where Rutherford painted and exhibited widely throughout Europe. They had a daughter in 1966 and, in 1972, moved to Prince Edward Island, which became the family’s permanent home.

Yet, through all these extraordinary undertakings, Rutherford never felt comfortable with the male body of her birth and, as a result, her first fifty years were dominated by feelings of identity dissociation, loneliness, and depression. In her autobiography, Nine Lives: The Autobiography of Erica Rutherford (1993), Rutherford recalls a lifelong struggle with what she describes as “gender dysphoria.” In the mid-1970s, she made the decision to transition to a female body. Rutherford documented the transition in both art and narrative. Jay Prosser describes Rutherford’s painted self-portraits, which she based on photographs of herself dressed as a woman:

[Her] portraits begin by envisioning the woman Rutherford wishes to become and are gradually transformed as she transitions into a record of that becoming. In one photograph… a painted self-portrait is situated behind the photographic Rutherford. In the painting, the seated figure is feminized through body contour, posture, and clothing, but the face is featureless—a blank space as undetailed by the feminine as the still-masculine face of the photographic Rutherford seated before it. Yet the photographic Rutherford repeats the conventionally feminine pose of the pictorial Rutherford (knees jammed, legs tightly crossed, hands clasped), so that the painted self-portrait appears as a model for the transsexual body to follow.

The decision to transition brought an end to Rutherford’s marriage with Gail, but Gail eventually returned to live with Rutherford as a “lifelong partner” and friend. Rutherford was surprised by the support she received in PEI and abroad and, in addition to the “relief” of getting “away from the evidence of masculinity,” she felt more settled within herself after surgery. As Erica Rutherford, she became a critical member of PEI’s art scene. In the 1980s, she began writing and illustrating several children’s books. In the 1990s, she started the Printmakers Council of PEI. In 1999, she was inducted into the Royal Canadian Academy of Artists. For her art and for her role as a “transgender pioneer,” Rutherford remains a highly celebrated Canadian artist.

Born: 1923, Edinburgh, Scotland
Died: 2008, Charlottetown, PEI

 

Sources:

 

“Artist Recounts Life before Sex Change.” Kitchener-Waterloo Record, 1 November 1993, D2.

 

“Erica Rutherford Fonds.” Archives PEI. http://www.archives.pe.ca/atom/index.php/erica-rutherford-fonds-2

 

“First Hand: Arts, Craft, and Culture Created by PEI Women of the 20th Century.” The PEI Advisory Council on the Status of Women and the PEI Interministerial Secretariat. http://www.gov.pe.ca/photos/original/firsthand2017.pdf

 

Maingard, Jacqueline. “‘Lost Classics’ in Context.” Africa’s Lost Classics: New Histories of African Cinema, eds. Lizelle Bisschoff and David Murphy, Legenda, 2014. pp. 35 – 49.

 

Prosser, Jay. Second Skins: The Body Narratives of Transsexuality. Columbia UP, 1998.

 

BCD#37

Blind Contour Drawing #37 “Wolfman” Kitty Smith

After several interviews with Kitty Smith, author Julie Cruikshank realized that the best way to connect with Smith was through stories. “To a large extent,” Cruishank observes, Smith’s “evaluation of other people … is based on their storytelling abilities.”

Storytelling is inseparable from Smith’s life and livelihood. She understands her own personal history as intertwined with the history of her communities and the cultural origin stories—tales of wolves, crows, women, and children—that nourished her upbringing. Spoken in her first languages of Tlingit and Athapaskan (Tagish) and—later—in English, these narratives are Smith’s method of talking about people and places.

Born in 1890 near the mouth of the Yukon’s Alsek River, the early years of Smith’s life were dramatically impacted by the Klondike gold rush, which peaked between 1896 and 1898. Her mother’s brother, along with three other Tlingit men, was accused of shooting a white prospector. Smith explains the shooting itself as customary revenge for the poisoning of two Tlingit men by prospectors, but the punishment on her uncle was severe: all four men were tried for murder; her uncle and another man were executed, while the other two died in hospital. Smith’s mother travelled to Marsh Lake, the home of her own mother’s family, rocked by shock and grief. While there, she died of an influenza epidemic.

Left without a mother, Smith was largely raised by her father’s family, who taught Smith to be a skilled trapper as they travelled along Yukon rivers. Raised to a high status through a potlatch ceremony, a strong marriage was secured for her once she finished a lengthy seclusion through puberty. However, Smith was dissatisfied with the marriage; her husband, she claims, was unfaithful and unskilled. She made the decision—shocking for the time—to leave him and to live with her mother’s family, a “Crow” family, according to Tlingit kinship affiliations. Here, she developed close bonds with her grandmother, who eventually secured a better marriage with Billy Smith. The couple had six children, to whom they taught hunting, trapping, fishing, sewing, and other skills.

But Smith never relied on her husband as a means of support. At a time when women were neither primary breadwinners nor carvers, Smith was both, and she was fiercely independent. In the 1930s, she realized how much Canadian soldiers would pay for winter gear, so she used muskrat skins to sew mitts and mukluks. She also began carving small poplar totems of the animals that populated the stories she grew up with. Her husband would sometimes write short pieces to accompany the figures, such as “The Wolf Man,” which she affixed to the bottom of her Wolf Man carving. Later, she published a book of stories, entitled Nindal Kwädindür / I’m Going to Tell You a Story. The collection is as much homage to her reverence for narrative as are her carvings.

Smith died in 1989. At that time, she was one of the last people to remember the impact of the gold rush and the construction of the Alaskan highway on Tlingit and Athapascan people. But although her early life bore the ruptures brought by western economic and environmental intrusions, she remained steadfastly devoted to and defined by the stories and relationships of the multigenerational lines of her family.

 

Born: 1890, Yukon
Died: 1989

Sources:

 

Cruikshank, Julie. Life Lived Like a Story. U of British Columbia P, 1990.

 

“How People Got Fire: Study Guide.” National Film Board of Canada. http://lss.yukonschools.ca/uploads/4/5/5/0/45508033/hpgf_guide.pdf

 

Kwanlin Dün First Nation. Listen to the Stories: A History of the Kwanlin Dün People. A Kwanlin Dün First Nation Publication, 2013.

 

Tukker, Paul. “Flea Market Find Inspires New First Nations Art Exhibition in Yukon.” CBC News, 14 May 2017, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/north/kitty-smith-carving-flea-market-exhibition-whitehorse-1.4113543

 

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