Tuesday, September 21, 2010

ALMA DUNCAN (1917-2004)

I suppose that normally I would not have a lot of interest in drawings and paintings of industrial scenes, but an artist who hangs out on catwalks in a factory to get a good view of a scene has a certain appeal to me. Alma Duncan’s interest in machinery began early in her life when as a child in Philadelphia she had the task of making lace as part of a textile show, and she knew early in her life that she would be an artist because she thought making pictures was very exciting.

Duncan attended McGill University in Montreal and also studied art with Ernst Newmann and Goodridge Roberts at the Art Association of Montreal. The National Film Board of Canada (NFB) hired Duncan, first in the Graphics Division and later in the Animation Department. There she met the photographer Audrey McLaren in 1951. The two became life partners and formed a film-making company, Dunclaren Productions.

A touring show of Duncan’s work, initiated by the Robert McLaughlin Gallery in Oshawa, Ontario in 1987-1988, focused on her depictions of factories and machinery, the big stuff that men (no women in these paintings) did to make our society hold together, from oil refineries to ship building to making paper. The show was called “Alma Duncan and Men at Work.” In this exhibition, Duncan’s acute powers of observation were obvious in the way she positioned workers and machines. Now she is still known for her drawings of industrial scenes.

Duncan moved back and forth between her several media throughout her career. During the 1950s she made a series of chalk drawings of women. Along with her drawing and film making, from time to time she also worked in teaching and gave talks on a variety of art-related topics such as animation and collage.

During World War II she was given permission to sketch war industries, and some of these works are in the collection of the Canadian War Museum. She is also represented in the National Gallery of Canada and the Art Gallery of Ontario, among others.

Joan Murray, "Alma Duncan and Men at Work 1943 to 1986" (Oshawa, Ontario, The Robert McLaughlin Gallery, 1987.
Library and Archives Canada

Sunday, August 29, 2010

JACOBINE JONES (1897-1976)

Jacobine Jones was born in England. When she was a child, her Danish-born mother encouraged her and her brother and sister to explore their world. Fortunately, her mother also fostered Jacobine’s spontaneous interest in art. As Natalie Luckyj explains in her book on the artist (see below), her childhood drawings include a happy family of birds with the father leading the flock and the mother at the rear - an indication of Jacobine’s feeling about her family.

Jacobine was educated at the Regent Street Polytechnic in London where she experienced the companionship of a circle of other students also passionate about art, and developed her technical skills in sculpting. In her final year of her studies, she won an award for a stone carving, which was purchased by an art gallery in Glasgow.

In 1932, Jacobine came to Canada for a visit that stretched into more than just a visit. She went camping in northern Ontario with a friend two years after her arrival, an experience that led her to adopt Canada as her home. She became a teacher at the Ontario College of Art in Toronto; there she became the first woman to be chosen as the head of any department - she took on the sculpting department.

Jones’s work was primarily figurative and representational, though she was open to a more abstract approach in later years. She came into her own during a period of time when architectural sculpture was popular; she received many commissions from both corporations and also from government. Her work can be found in private collections, and in such public museums as the Agnes Etherington Art Centre at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, the Art Gallery of Hamilton, and the National Gallery of Canada.

Natalie Luckyj “Put on Her Mettle: The Life and Art of Jacobine Jones” (Manotick, Ontario: Penumbra Press, 1999)

Saturday, August 21, 2010


Dorothy Stevens is an artist for whom little archival information is available, despite that her work as a print maker is outstanding and her work is in the collections of the Art Gallery of Ontario, the National Gallery and the Canadian War Museum.

Dorothy was born and raised in Toronto. Her father was a painter and recognized his daughter’s talent, so he sent her to study abroad. She attended the Slade in London as well as the Académie Colorossoi in Paris. During the First World War, Dorothy requested a commission from the Canadian War Memorials Fund. As a result, she created etchings of workers in the shipbuilding yards and munitions plants, focusing especially on female workers whom she captured in poses that suggested the fluidity and grace of dancers. These works are part of the collection of the Canadian War Museum.

Dorothy was a teacher at the Ontario College of Art, and became known as a portrait artist. Her favourite travel destination was Mexico, where she painted portraits of the people as well as landscapes.

Selected Sources
www.fineartandantiques.ca/.../gallery stevens.html

Friday, August 13, 2010


Yvonne McKague Housser (1898-1996), a highly regarded educator and painter, studied at the Ontario College of Art before travelling to Paris to study there. Later, she studied in Vienna under Franz Cizek, Arthur Lismer’s mentor in art education for children - Lismer was an influence in Yvonne’s thinking about art. While travelling abroad, Yvonne was exposed to French modern art; Cezanne’s influence can be seen in her work.

Besides working as a painter, Yvonne was also a teacher at the Ontario College of Art. Of all the painters of that time, Lismer was the one who influenced her most. Yvonne was a founding member of the Canadian Group of Painters and an adviser for the Toronto Art Students’ League patterned after the Students’ League in New York City.

Yvonne made many sketching trips to glean subject matter for her paintings, scenes from mining towns and other villages in Northern Ontario over a ten-year period, from 1925-1935. Her friends often accompanied her: Rody Kenny Courtice, Prudence Heward and Isabel McLaughlin. Yvonne’s paintings from the North were different from those of her predecessors (paintings that gave the impression of lifeless towns) for their evidence of human habitation - details including curtains and lights shining from the windows in night scenes.

A letter from Yvonne to Paraskeva Clark in 1950 reveals her admiration for her friend’s work. Apparently Yvonne was late for an opening at an exhibition and arrived during a talk Paraskeva was giving. In a letter to Praskeva she apologized and concluded with “…perhaps before I die I shall be able to paint a bit of green foliage so that it sings - as yours does - I hope so.” This is an example of how the women artists of that time had a true appreciation for each other.

Two years after Yvonne’s marriage to Fred Housser, in 1936 he died of a heart attack. Her personal tragedy seemed to take her into a new direction in her art. She was one of the artists who was strongly influenced by the move to abstraction in the art world - she studied with Hans Hoffman in the 1950s in Provincetown, Massachusetts.

Yvonne’s work can be seen in major museums in Canada.

Selected Sources
Library and Archives Canada Artist Files
"Yvonne McKague Housser," Joan Murray (Oshawa: The Robert McLaughlin Gallery, 1995)

Friday, August 6, 2010

MARY ELLA DIGNAM (1856-1938)

Mary Ella Dignam was one of those artists who showed an interest in art when she was a young child. Her inclination was hard to miss because she sometimes pulled wool out of carpets to get coloured material for making her pictures. This interest in art stayed with Mary Ella as she grew up. Fortunately, her parents could afford to pay for art classes in London, Ontario not far from their home.

Later, Mary Ella went to New York and studied at the Art Students’ League in Manhattan and also traveled to Europe. She lived an unconventional life for her time; she was married and had children and still followed her professional interests as an arts educator and developed her career as an artist.

Moulton College in Toronto (a girls’ prep-school founded by Susan Moulton McMaster, the widow of Senator William McMaster who founded McMaster University) hired Dignam to establish an art department and be its director.

Dignam knew that women in Canada had little opportunity to develop as artists and began using her energy to change this situation. She started the Women’s Art Association of Canada (WAAC), an organization still alive today with its own building, purchased in 1916, in Toronto. She was also active in other arts organizations.

From what I’ve learned, I think that Dignam, despite her ideas about women - revolutionary for her time - painted oils of “ordinary” subjects that included landscapes and flowers. Nevertheless, she exhibited her work widely and gathered praise from critics, along with having made a great contribution to having women recognized in the art world of her time.

Selected Sources
Library and Archives Canada Artist files

Thursday, July 29, 2010


For some time I have been wanting to write a series of short blog posts about Paraskeva Clark’s contemporaries, and other female Canadian artists in our history. The first one is on Prudence Heward.

Prudence Heward (1896-1947) was a major figure painter in the 1920s and 1930s when landscape painting dominated Canadian art, especially in English Canada where the Group of Seven held sway. Heward grew up in a large Montreal family - her father was a business man, an executive of the Canadian Pacific Railway.

Heward’s mother encouraged her daughter’s interest in art, who studied at the Art Association of Montreal and in Paris, where she met Isabel McLaughlin. The two became friends and often went sketching together. Heward was a co-founder of the Canadian Group of Painters, the group that formed in 1933 in Toronto after the Group of Seven disbanded. She was also a part of the Montreal circle known as the Beaver Hall artists, friends who shared their love of painting and were active in the Montreal art world.

Using a brilliant colour palette, Heward’s paintings of women showed that she saw them as strong, complex people, not as weak and passive, which is how many artists of the day portrayed them. She exhibited her work and won several awards for her painting and was included in international exhibitions of Canadian art in the 1920s. Her paintings now hang in Canada’s major collections.

Unfortunately Heward suffered from fragile health, and in 1939 her nose was injured in a car accident, which intensified her asthmatic condition. She went to California for treatment in the late forties and died there in 1947.

Selected Sources
Barbara Meadowcroft, "Painting Friends: The Beaver Hall Women Painters" (Montreal: Véhicule Press, 1999).
Library and Archives Canada www.collectionscanada.ca "Prudence Heward"

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Writers’ Union of Canada Annual General Meeting

The Writers’ Union of Canada, founded in 1973, met in Ottawa from the 3rd of June till the 7th for the Annual General Meeting. I attended four workshops on Friday, and the plenary sessions on Saturday.

What stands out in my mind from these inspiring days is the dedication and passion of the long-time members who work endlessly to advocate for writers. They care deeply about the welfare of writing and writers in this country, and those who have responsibilities for the organization give hours and days of their time along with working as writers.

I was particularly impressed with Merilyn Simonds’s presentation as she spoke about the lack of respect for artists and writers so prevalent in Canada. No other professional group is treated the way we are treated. Workers in other industries, from truckers to farmers to the oil companies, are given government subsidies, but artists are seen as unworthy of such support, are seen as asking for handouts when they seek government funding and are offered meagre “subsistence” grants. As Merilyn pointed out, for no other group is that kind of language used, language conveying that writers and artists do not deserve more than mere survival. Indeed, the average income of writers in this country is $12,000 a year, putting the lie to the strange idea that if you have your name on the spine of a book you are rich.

Writers and artists in Canada have been talking about this for years. In 1950 the artist Paraskeva Clark gave a lecture in Hamilton, Ontario in which she spoke about art as the spirit and soul of a nation (See my book, Perfect Red: The Life of Paraskeva Clark). She spoke out the government’s disregard for artists. Here we are, sixty years later, talking about the same thing and I wonder if this will ever change.


Monday, May 24, 2010


A two-month absence. It couldn’t be helped. I abandoned most of my reading and, for sure, my writing while my husband and I packed up our place in the country in preparation for moving to Guelph. We lived in Eramosa Township for twenty-seven years and poured ourselves into the place. Our gardens and the lovely twenty acres of land gave back to us immeasurably, and leaving all that gave us much grief, even if it was the right time to make this major change.

Moving to this stone house near Guelph’s Speed River is the beginning of a new stage of our lives, and we have begun the work of make the place our own. For a number of years, the former owner did not give this house the care it deserved, so restoring the house to good health is not exactly simple. If a person were to treat him or herself the way this house was treated, I think that poor person would be hospitalized. Never mind. We are giving ourselves to the tasks that need to be done, including finding someone to repair and paint the windows, fix the stone work, paint the outside trim, install a decent shower, build kitchen cupboards and so on.

I’ve had a lot of pleasure unpacking my books and placing them on the shelves, setting up my new office, hanging things on the walls. Now I feel I can work here, even if I haven’t decided on which wall to hang some of my art. It’s all a new adventure in a beautiful room at the front of the house.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Book Launch Tonight, 25 March 2010

Yesterday afternoon I drove from my home to Porcupine's Quill in Erin, Ontario to pick up copies of the newly bound "Joyce Wieland: Writings and Drawings 1952-1971, selections of her work from the Clara Thomas Archives and Special Collections at York University. On my way home from Erin, I imained Joyce sitting in the passenger seat and having a conversation. This is what I imagined.

Jane: Joyce, I think some of your drawings, which are actually cartoons, are extremely funny. I've looked at them dozens of times and I still laugh every time I look at them. Why did you use chickens as characters?

Jocye: You have to get to the point quickly in cartoons. Don't you think chickens are strange creatures and very funny? And I think they get to the point quickly.

Jane: You give them such humanity, but not in the anthropomorphic way of cute bunny-people.

Joyce: People take themselves way too seriously and I want to poke fun at people, all kinds of people, especially artists and politicians.

Jane: Well, you include "God the Father Devine" in this, too, you know.

Joyce: Yes, well those God drawings aren't chickens.

Jane: I like your irreverence, but it's lucky those drawings aren't chickens or a lot of offended people might show up at your door ready to lecture you, or worse... And so on.

You can hear all about this newly published book, and purchase copies, tonight at Ben McNally's Books, 366 Bay Street (south of Richmond Street) in Toronto.
416-361-0032 I will be there signing copies and talking about the book.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010


After living in Eramosa Township on twenty acres for twenty-seven years, my husband and I are moving to Guelph, Ontario to a lovely stone house with a garden Initially the old house, which is at least a hundred and forty years old, will require some improvements. I think it will be fun to take the summer to work on the house and garden and make them our own. I have loved this place in the country with my large perennial gardens, and our greenhouse where we grew some cool-weather vegetables. Now it's time to say good bye to this place when we move in mid April. I look forward to a smaller perennial garden and growing a few vegetables.

Moving is an enormous amount of work, especially when you have a large studio-workshop building full of stuff. I am sorting through my paintings and sculptures I made over the years, and packing things up. This is my focus right now, and I’ll pick up my writing after a few months. My blog ideas - a series on Canadian women artists of the past - must wait.

Meanwhile, I have a few presentations to give this month on "Perfect Red," and on the 25th of March will be the launch of "Joyce Wieland: Writings and Drawings 1952-1971 at Ben McNally Books in Toronto, from 5 - 7 p.m.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

More on Joyce Wieland

Toronto artist Joyce Wieland (1930-1998) was a young adult after World War II during the 1950s. During the war, many women worked in factories or in other jobs to help the war efforts. When the war was over, they were expected to go back to keeping a spotless house and making a home for a husband and dad. (The ads during the fities included images of smiling women in tidy skirts behind a vacuum cleaner or serving Ovaltine to their husband in front of a fireplace with kids sitting quietly on a couch.)

Wieland was caught between the idea of a "happily-ever-after" marriage and her passion for her art. Her thoughts about how she wanted to live her life are written in her journals from the early to mid fifties. Here is a brief excerpt from November 1955."Why for God's sake cannot we girls be brought up to be humans instead of dependent wretches. We cannot find happiness this way. Its [sic] not like in the movies, we don't always grow up and get married and live happily. And this is the truth which kills me a little more each day and disables me - little by little."

The volume "Joyce Wieland: Writings and Drawings 1952-1971" includes many more selections from her journals, along with her sketches. This book will be published in March by Porcupine's Quill in Erin, Ontario.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Joyce Wieland: Writings and Drawings 1952-1971

Joyce Wieland (1930-1998), the Toronto artist who was a pioneer in breaking through barriers women faced in the art world in the sixties and seventies, is known for her work in a variety of media. She made an endless number of drawings and sketches with pencil, pen and ink, and also kept a journal when she was in her early twenties as she was developing her ideas about her life and her art. Her drawings and writings are housed in the Clara Thomas Archives and Special Collections at York University in Toronto. This is where I found them when I was researching Wieland’s life for what became “Joyce Wieland: Artist on Fire” (James Lorimer & Co., 2001).

I have made a selection of Wieland’s writings and drawings, which will be published in one volume by Porcupine’s Quill in Erin, Ontario. Next week I will be checking the final proofs of “Joyce Wieland: Writings and Drawings 1952-1971,” which means the book will soon be available in bookstores. This collection tells us much about Wieland’s early aspirations and struggles, and the subjects important to her in her work. She loved to poke fun at politicians, the art establishment, and even artists themselves. Her sense of humour and great wit would cut through the most stodgy situations on any day of the week.

On 25 March 2010, the Ben McNally Bookstore in Toronto at 366 Bay Street (west side of Bay, south of Richmond) will host the launch of “Joyce Wieland: Writings and Drawings 1952-1971” from 5 to 7 p.m. My hope is that this book will help to keep Wieland in our consciousness, and remind the art world of what she has given to Canada and the world.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010