Monday, October 20, 2014

Made in Canada, an homage to Alice Munro and Mary Pratt

Acrylic on gessoed hardboard, 10 x 12"
Painting #224, 2014

Alice Munro and Mary Pratt are considered royalty and icons in Canada for their contributions to the arts.

Alice Munro is an author, a writer of fiction known for her uncomplicated prose of short stories exploring a recurrent theme of the human condition. American writer of "The Corrections" Jonathan Franzen states, "Over a career now in its sixth decade, she's rehearsed the same themes again and again, but that's because she's a master of variation. She has preternatural powers of sympathy and empathy, but she's never sentimental". The setting for many of her stories often takes place in southwestern Ontario, where she spent the greater part of her life. Her first short story, "The Dimensions of a Shadow" was published in 1950 at age 19. But it was only at the age of 37 that a collection of several short stories would appear in book format with "Dance of the Happy Shades. The Canadian literary scene was quick to recognize her talent by awarding her with the 1968 Governor General's Award for Fiction for her first offering. She would continue to publish another 13 volumes of original stories, gaining the attention of the literary world while receiving many accolades including two more Governor General Awards, three Trillium Book Awards, two Giller Prize, a Man Booker Prize, a National Book Circle Award, and a Roger's Writers' Trust Fiction prize. 

Alice Munro - photo by Kim Stallknecht

Munro has been a frequent contributor to several publications including The New YorkerThe Atlantic MonthlyGrand StreetHarper's MagazineMademoiselle, and The Paris Review. She was introduced to The New Yorker's readers in 1977 with the short story, Royal BeatingsI probably became aware of Mrs. Munro in 1998 when she was awarded the Giller Prize for "The Love of a Good Woman". That same Christmas, I offered the book to my wife as a gift. Her story "The Bear came over the Mountain" was adapted to cinema by fellow Canadian writer/director Sarah Polley as "Away from her". The film garnered two Academy Awards nominations; for Polley as Best adapted screenplay and for Julie Christie as Best Actress in a leading role. It won 7 Genie Awards including Best Picture and was ranked the #1 drama for 2006 by the Rotten Tomatoes.  "Boys and Girls", directed by Don McBearty won an Oscar in 1984 for best short film from an adaptation of a 1968 short story of the same name. On October 10, 2013, she became the first Canadian to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. New Yorker editor Chip McGrath calls Munro's Nobel a "Win for her, for Canada". 

Mary Pratt is celebrated for her highly realistic paintings spanning a professional artistic career of more than 50 years. She was born in Fredericton, NB in 1935 and began drawing and painting at an early age. She would go on to study Fine Arts at Mount Allison University in Sackville, NB, where she would meet her former husband, Newfoundland artist Christopher Pratt. They would wed in 1957 and later moved to her husband's native province during the early 1960's.  Her artistic career was delayed by the fact that she was very busy raising their four children. At first, she stole time to paint small sketches on their kitchen table. Memorial University Art Gallery in St. John's hosted her first solo show in 1967. 

As she reveals in several interviews, she would find her voice as a artist with the painting, "The Bed" (1968).  The way the light came across the bed as she entered their bedroom, gave her what she describes as "an erotic reaction". She knew at that very moment that this was the kind of emotion that was essential when being informed about subject matter worth consideration and major enough to paint. She didn't find inspiration from other artists. She painted the world around her. Finding inspiration in the domestic and rural life she knew. In 1969, her work, The "Supper Table" is often considered as the first painting of her professional career, because she painted it from a slide instead of real life. The slide informed her about the constant light and gave the time needed to paint the subject in a timely manner.

 Mary Pratt - photo by Ned Pratt

Since then, her work as been exhibited and collected by major art institutions, corporate and private collectors across Canada while also being represented by two major commercial galleries, the Mira Goddard Gallery in Toronto and the Equinox Gallery in Vancouver. The year 2013 would mark the start of her third touring retrospective to visit several venues across Canada. The first being "The Substance of Light" 1995-97 organized by the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in Fredericton, NB. This was followed by "Simple Bliss" 2004-2005, organized and curated by the MacKenzie Art Gallery in Regina, Sask. and finally her 50th Anniversary retrospective 2013-2014, organized and curated by The Rooms, Provincial Art Gallery in St. John's Nfld and the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia in Halifax, NS. Six books have been published about her art, including A Personal Calligraphy (2000). She has been awarded The Canada Council of the Arts Molson Prize and is a companion of the Order of Canada. A series of two stamps was issued by Canada Post in 2007 to honour her contribution to the Canadian Art scene .  

I've had the privilege to view all three retrospectives. Her most recent, on October 18 at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. They are among the best solo shows that I've had the privilege to see in my lifetime. The impact they've had on my own work makes her my all-time favourite artist. She presents here subject matter in such an original manner, like no one had done before her. Her colour palette is harmonious, vibrant and goes beyond what any slide might be able to provide as information. So many of her paintings gives me a visceral internal response that just speaks volume about her ability to juggle life. She balances the very appealing images of jelly jars, fruits and glass bowls with less easy imagery containing dead moose, eviscerated chickens, dead fish and slides of a nude model taken by her husband.  Collectively, they become the biography of her own life. The scale of her paintings also makes a statement when viewed in person. This last show is but a sample of her total oeuvre and makes an overwhelming declaration of dedicating a life to family and art while making lifelong sacrifices in order to produce such a body of work. 

Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, Halifax, October 18, 2014

Salon hanging of still life paintings at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia

Unlike Munro, who's work has crossed borders and has been published in 13 languages, Pratt's work as a painter has essentially remained inside Canada. That is the faith for many artists, not just Canadians. With the digital age and the internet, art is quickly becoming more accessible to the masses. Opportunities for artists are becoming more common place, even if recognition by the artistic establishment and academia might be another issue.  

Munro and Pratt do share many commonalities. They are of the same generation, only four years separate them. Both married as young adults and for a while put their professional career on hold in order to raise their children. Both lost children at birth or miscarried. Both depicted the world in their immediate surroundings. Although Munro's work is fictional, the setting for her stories is not. Neither of them have political agendas with their work. When they started to produce their mature work, both received National recognition very early on. Both divorced and remarried. Both of their careers has been hampered by illness as they advance in age. 

The genesis for this painting was brought on by these recent honours bestowed upon both. They are forever linked by the fact that Alice Munro's editor, Douglas Gibson has chosen no less than three of Mary Pratt's images to appear on her book covers, with:
-Friend of my Youth (1990) / "Wedding Dress"- 1986 
-No Lost Love (2003) / "Barby in the dress she made herself"- 1986         
-Runaway (2004) / "The Bed"-1968.  

For my own painting, the background image is Mary Pratt's "Jelly Shelf" (1999) from the exhibition poster for her retrospective "Simple Bliss" shown at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. I viewed that exhibition after driving my mother to Halifax for a medical appointment during the winter of 2005. My mother was insisting on paying for the usage of my car and gasoline for the seven-hour round trip. When I refused, she said, "Well, I want to pay for something", so she ended buying me this exhibition poster. My mother was not well at the time and passed away the following year from heart failure, Parkinson's disease and severe osteoporosis which had crippled her body. This image and poster has sentimental value for the very obvious. The curators for her current retrospective also chose "Jelly Shelf" as the promotional image for the poster and for the book cover published in conjunction with the show. Her latest retrospective in comprised of 75 paintings.   

To acquire this painting, please contact the 
Fog Forest Gallery 
14 Bridge Street, Sackville, NB. Canada
(506) 536-9000 or .