The first thing I did learn very early on was [that] I wasn’t going to go looking for something to paint. The world had to come to me.
March 15, 1935 – August 14, 2018
Last Tuesday, Canada mourned the loss of one of its most talented fine artists, when New Brunswick-born Mary Pratt passed away at the age of 83.
Pratt was a photorealist whose paintings of everyday objects and scenes truly exemplify what it means to elevate the ordinary to extraordinary heights. Whether it was a fish lying on some saran wrap, the abandoned dinner table after a meal, or the corner of her modern orange sofa, Mary was able to infuse her scenes with a lightness and warmth that took them far beyond the realm of simple “realism”.
Mary was married to another popular and successful Canadian artist — Christopher Pratt, a native of Newfoundland, where the two moved to raise their four children. Each worked alone in their respective studios, and while Mary’s career didn’t really take off until her children were grown and gone, she still managed to stay organized enough to continuously paint when they were little.
Mostly working from photos which she then projected onto her canvas, Pratt’s images are bright and colourful, highly saturated, and feature the most mesmerizing play of light.
“Jelly Shelf” is perhaps the best showcase of Mary’s skill. Here we see that the sense of high realism is actually being achieved by the lack of minute details. Sometimes a touch of abstraction is what you need to create the illusion of realism. When you look at a simple jar of jelly, you might be surprised at how your eye registers the image. Our brains are filling in the details, but our eyes are often only recognizing basic shapes, colours, lights and darks. In short, you don’t always need to paint every single hair on a dog’s back to make it appear photorealistic.
In 2007, “Jelly Shelf” (as well as “Iceberg in the North Atlantic”) was immortalized on a postage stamp as part of Canada Post’s “Art Canada” series.
The reality comes first, and the symbol comes after. I see these things, and suddenly they become symbolic of life.
Upon her death last week, I read many articles which described her as one of Canada’s most beloved artists. Her name was trending on Twitter, and tweet after tweet, I read about her work, and her contributions to the Canadian art scene.
But something really took me aback…
I had never heard of her before.
Now, full disclosure, I didn’t attend any post-secondary “art school”, where surely students must be introduced to Pratt’s extraordinary work. When I graduated, within a single year I had transitioned into working freelance. But the thing is, I did learn quite a bit about other famous Canadian artists during my years as a student. Every child in Canada can tell you who the Group of Seven are, and can likely point out an Emily Carr at one hundred paces.
And there’s nothing wrong with that. The stylized Impressionistic style of the Group of Seven and Carr isn’t bad. It definitely has its place in our Canadian heritage. However, in my opinion, it pales in comparison to Mary Pratt’s artistic talents. Which I find a little amusing considering that when Pratt attended New Brunswick’s Mount Allison University, one of her teachers was actually Lawren P. Harris — son of Group of Seven member Lawren S. Harris. And according to Pratt herself, he was a man who didn’t exactly encourage her to pursue a career in art.
And so last week, I was left somewhat bewildered, wondering how on earth I, as a now 32-year-old Canadian artist, didn’t know that Mary Pratt even existed until after she had died.
This seemed like the most heinous tragedy to me. How did I not learn anything about her in school? She absolutely would have provided an abundance of inspiration for me back then. Or even after school! I run an art page on Twitter, for goodness sake, so what was wrong with ME that I was seemingly one of the few people in the whole country who didn’t know who she was?
Well, anyone who uses social media should know that you can’t believe most of what you read on the internet. People just love to get on Facebook and post staged pictures that make their life look like a fairy tale, shamefully lying about their situations and relationships in order to impress other people. And when it comes to Mary Pratt, I should have noticed that everyone online was basically just regurgitating the exact same news article sentiments about Mary and her work, and that everyone was sharing the very same three paintings that the news articles were showing. Add that to the fact that as of early Monday, August 20, there have been zero tweets about her since last week, and I think I see what’s happened here: People see something in the news, read one article, and suddenly, they’re making it sound as if they are life-long fans and experts on the subject.
Mary Pratt was a very accomplished painter, no question. In 1996, Mary was named a Companion of the Order of Canada, which, according to her children, was one of her greatest achievements.
From October 2014 to March 2015, she was the subject of a 50-year retrospective touring exhibition at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.
And in 2007, Pratt painted this portrait of Adrienne Clarkson, former Governor General of Canada (1999–2005).
But as so many others like her, her name and work are nowhere near as mainstream as they should be. There are many illustrators whose talent could rival that of Norman Rockwell. And they are well known by those in the “inner art circle”. But just ask random people off the street about their work and you’ll get back nothing but blank stares.
I feel a bit robbed by the education system that Mary Pratt’s luminous scenes of domesticity were not offered to me as shining examples of other Canadian talent. You shouldn’t have to be some art critic, or superstar, gallery-represented artist yourself to be able to recognize at a quick glance Pratt’s famous fish, fruit and kitchen goodies.
And I’m disappointed that good art is not as readily available in the mainstream as I think it should be.
There are so many talented artists, just like Mary Pratt, who yes, perhaps find much commercial success, but who are lacking the public fan base they deserve.
And Pratt herself was an advocate for access to the arts in this country. It was Pratt’s determination that finally led to the construction of an art complex in St. John’s, Newfoundland, called “The Rooms“, which houses an archive, gallery and museum.
In an interview she did in 1972, Pratt credits her father with pushing her to become an artist.
She explained how at 10 years old, he insisted that when she grow up, she take fine arts. Mary admits she loved to paint, but that she felt it would be a silly and “rather useless” pursuit.
Finally, her father said, “Well, when you get to be 40, and your children are all gone away, what good is anything else going to be to you?”
As many of us women know, it often pays to listen to your father (at least some of the time!), and so Mary became one of the greatest Canadian artists who ever lived.
Her paintings can be found in galleries nationwide, as well as being owned by private collectors. Her obvious enthusiasm for life is evident in each of her pieces, where ordinary objects are given all the extra care and attention that the rest of us never knew they deserved.
And as the old saying goes: Better late than never. I may have missed out on Mary’s work for many years, but I’m positive that there is still much she can teach me, be it about art or about life.
Because that’s what a good artist should do: Give you something to appreciate, teach you how to better your own self, and remind you that there is so much out there in the world to discover.
And sometimes you’d be surprised at just how close to home those treasures are.
My role seems to have been to make people see things that are around them all the time that they never noticed before… to help them find the beauty of the simple things.