Mary Pratt

Is it just me or are we a nation looking outward when it comes to artistic talent? Or is it that I’m just waaaay out of the loop when it comes to Canadian Art? Probably. I don’t remember when or where I first came across the astounding work of realist painter Mary Pratt but I do remember feeling drawn to it; domestic scenes painted in luscious colours. And that light that made you believe you just had to reach through the canvas to feel the sun’s warmth in a scene or run your fingers along the plastic wrap, paper and tinfoil she rendered so well.

Born in Fredericton, New Brunswick in 1935, young Mary (West) grew up in a prosperous household. Her dad, a lawyer (who would go on to became Attorney-General of the province) and her mom (who seems to have had no career other than housewife…not that there’s anything wrong with that) encouraged her early artistic nature. At 18 she attended Mount Allison University just 2 hours down the road to study Fine Art. There she met and would later marry her first husband, painter Christopher Pratt. They would have 4 children together and despite the challenges of raising them Mary was somehow able to find the time to paint during those years. Now, I don’t know about you but I’d find it tough getting the time and energy to paint with even one child around. And if that wasn’t enough, then her ability to beautifully capture the most minute details of her everyday subject matter was astounding.

Salmon on Saran, 1974

It seems that subject matter had the Canadian art scene confounded though. Was that salmon a metaphor for simple domesticity or was it whispering something much more unsettling, something feminist? Oh my! Was she just a wife and mom painting pretty pictures, “the visual poet of the kitchen” as a Globe and Mail critic called her? Or was she making a statement about the wretched place of women in society? She definitely existed in another era…where people grew fruits and vegetables and preserved them and where their caught food was cleaned and prepared. Was it so terrible that those simple subjects captivated her? It’s said that she jumped up one day at the dinner table ready to paint the scene in front of her and that when her husband told her the light in the room was changing too fast he quickly got his camera and took a photograph of the table. Later with the developed slide Pratt was able to capture the scene as she’d intended, amazing light falling across a seemingly mundane subject. Her decision to use photographic slides to paint from after that was of course frowned upon by others and this criticism hurt her so much that she stopped painting for a time in 1970. Tisk tisk. Such a shame.

Supper Table, 1969. Oil on canvas, 61cm x 91.4cm
Smears of Jam, Lights of Jelly, 2007. Oil on canvas 40.6 x 50.8 cm

I have to say I love her paintings and I don’t want to pigeon hole them as feminist or otherwise. I guess they’re capable of saying many things. But if she took a position about her life as a woman then she said it best herself when she began painting nudes…

“I really didn’t think that women should paint nudes. I thought that if you didn’t have an erotic reaction to a nude, you probably shouldn’t paint it, because wasn’t that what it was all about?…then, I began to think about it, and thought, “How ridiculous. If anybody has the right to paint the naked female, it’s another woman. It’s not a man at all.” And when I looked through the canon of naked women painted by men, there they were, these voluptuous beauties ready to say, “Well, climb aboard!” and I thought, “That’s not what women are like. We are not like that.” And so I changed my mind.” {Mary Pratt quote from exhibition wall text} via slingshotsandarrows wordpress

Girl in a Wicker Chair, 1978
Eggs in an Eggcrate, 1975

Service Station, 1978

Bags, 1971 Oil on masonite 45.7 x 63.5 cm 

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