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

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