As a graduate student, I moved to Halifax to continue my studies. Formally, I was studying English literature; informally, I was studying Maritime culture.
Amid the Cape Breton fiddling and the codfish suppers, I began to learn more about the artists whose vision was formed by that landscape and light, chief among them painter Alex Colville, then based in Wolfville, Nova Scotia; New Brunswick photographer Freeman Patterson; and Newfoundland’s Christopher Pratt. Biographies of Pratt would mention that, oh yes, his wife painted, too.
They had met as art students (studying under Colville) and married shortly thereafter in 1957; they moved to Scotland where Christopher studied art and design in Glasgow while his wife had their first child. After both finishing their degrees back in Canada, they returned to Newfoundland. Mary Pratt more often had a scrub brush than a paint brush in her hand then, raising a family of four children and keeping things on an even domestic keel. Her husband was named to the Order of Canada in 1973 to honour his by-then vast body of work. She created what she calls her first professional painting, Supper Table, in 1969.
In a fascinating 2014 article in the Canadian Literary Review, Mary Pratt recalls how she found her artistic path through creating that work. As Judy Stoffman writes, “When she was sketching this messy still life [of the supper table] and complaining of losing the light, her husband left the room, came back with his camera, and took a photograph of the table that changed everything.
“The photograph enabled her to capture the moment and picked up details the eye tends to miss. From then on, she used slides for reference and invented a distinctive contemporary style, while executing her paintings in oils the traditional way, using small sable brushes.”
Especially early in her career, critics dismissed Mary Pratt’s work as being “just” paintings of food and kitchens and domestic life. Technically competent still lifes. Nothing more.
I’ve always had a weakness for luminosity in paintings. To me, it’s such magic to create the illusion of light from paint. I cannot recall when and where I first saw a painting of Pratt’s featuring jars of homemade jelly on a sunlit shelf (she has painted several in her career, including the 1999 version featured with this post) but I remember stopping dead in my tracks and staring. And staring.
That everyday, magnificent fleeting moment, captured for all time. That light.
By the 1970s, Pratt was able to commit more time to painting and was honoured in 1996 with the Order of Canada for her own creative excellence.
From spring 2013 to winter 2015, a 50-year retrospective of Mary Pratt’s work toured Canada, co-curated by The Rooms gallery in St. John’s Newfoundland and the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia in Halifax. It also stopped at the Windsor Art Gallery (Ontario), the Mackenzie Art Gallery in Saskatchewan, and the McMichael Canadian Art Collection. These are all terrific galleries, but they have neither the size nor influence of the bigger galleries in Toronto, Montreal, or Ottawa. Christopher Pratt, on the other hand, has been the subject of a major solo exhibition in 2005 at Canada’s National Gallery in Ottawa.
I saw Mary Pratt’s collected work at its McMichael stop in 2014 and the curators – three women – did an artful job of putting her work in context. There were the by-now-famous kitchen and food scenes, but also paintings of people and portraits from later in her career. She saw her subjects with the same piercing eye that transformed her kitchen counter into art.
She and Christopher Pratt had separated in the early 1990s and formally divorced in 2004. One of the most disturbing paintings on display at the retrospective was Threads of Scarlet, painted a year after that divorce. On the surface, its subject is simple: one pomegranate whole and one cut in half.
But the blood-like fruit juice and jagged angles evoke feelings of violence and pain. As Pratt revealed in the gallery notes accompanying this painting, she was later embarrassed when she saw this canvas in public: “So much of myself was on view.”
Catharin Pastin, Director at the Windsor Art Gallery, contributed to this exhibition’s catalogue and calls Pratt’s work equally beautiful, compelling, and unsettling. I hope one day she is recognized fully for being among the brightest of the stars in Canada’s artistic constellations.
Main photo: Mary Pratt, Jelly Shelf (1999), oil on canvas, 55.7 x 71.2 cm. Courtesy of Equinox Gallery, Vancouver.