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

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