Alexandra Luke, painter (born 14 May 1901 in Montréal, QC; died 1 June 1967 in Oshawa, ON). Alexandra Luke was one of two female founding members of the Ontario-based group of abstract artists known as Painters Eleven. She initially painted landscapes in the Group of Seven style, but she discovered abstract art around 1933. She worked diligently to gain recognition for abstract art in Canada. In addition to exhibiting as a professional artist, Luke taught art for many years and contributed to the cultural life of Oshawa.
Alexandra Luke was born Margaret Alexandra Luke in Westmount, a wealthy neighbourhood of Montréal. Her twin sister’s name was Isobel. The Luke family moved to Oshawa in 1914. After completing high school, both Luke and her sister trained as nurses at the Columbia Hospital in Washington, DC. After graduating in 1924, Luke decided not to practise nursing. She returned to Oshawa and soon thereafter married Marcus Everett Smith, who died suddenly four months after their wedding in 1925. Luke gave birth to a son in 1926. She married Clarence Ewart McLaughlin in 1929. McLaughlin was the grandson of Robert Samuel McLaughlin, the founder of the McLaughlin Carriage Company, which was bought by General Motors in 1918. The couple had a daughter in 1930.
Oshawa’s Arts Community
Luke’s interest in art was strengthened by two women in Oshawa, Dorothy Van Luven, an art teacher, and Dorothy Henderson, who dedicated herself to creating an artistic community in Oshawa in the early 1920s. Luke contributed to the cultural life of Oshawa by organizing children’s art classes at a local school with guest artists and teachers. She also taught some of the classes. In the 1930s, Luke founded the Oshawa Women’s Lyceum Club and served on various boards including the Henry House Museum Committee and the Oshawa Historical Society. In addition to these social responsibilities, Luke painted in her studio on the third-floor of her home in Oshawa, which was called Greenbriar.
Luke was also interested in ceramics. She joined a pottery club and had a pottery studio and kiln added to her studio at Greenbriar, where she gave free lessons to adults. One of her major contributions to Oshawa’s arts community were the 69 exhibitions at the YWCA’s Adelaide House that she organized with Dorothy Van Luven. Many of the exhibitions included abstract art. In 1949, Luke organized an event that provided an opportunity to discuss the work of modern artists such as Picasso, Matisse, Cézanne and Van Gogh.
Luke only began painting in her late twenties, in 1928, and until the 1940s, she was a self-taught artist. She initially painted landscapes in the Group of Seven tradition. She discovered abstract art around 1933, but she only began to paint in an abstract style in 1943. In 1944, she met Caven Atkins, a landscape artist who had studied at the Winnipeg School of Art in the late 1920s. Atkins was not enthusiastic about her landscape paintings, which fortified her interest in abstraction. Luke had taken her son to New Mexico in 1938 for his health, and while there she took art lessons in Sante Fe. New Mexico had a rich artistic community at the time, and in addition to the art lessons, Luke learned various ideas about spirituality, which resonated with her beliefs about art.
The late 1930s and 1940s proved to be an important transitional period for Luke. In 1948, in order to create a new artistic identity separate from her married identity as well as from her sister-in-law, the painter Isabel McLaughlin, Luke began using her middle name, Alexandra, and the surname she had before her first marriage. Around this time she also decided that she wanted formal training. In 1945, she enrolled in the Banff School of Fine Arts (renamed the Banff Centre in 1978), in the summer art session. Her instructors included A.Y. Jackson, H.G. Glyde, James Ditchmount and Walter Phillips, as well as Jock Macdonald, with whom she developed a strong relationship. Macdonald supported Luke’s interest in abstract art, and he also shared similar beliefs about spirituality. In addition to the Banff summer session, Luke enrolled in the Hans Hofmann School of Art in Provincetown, Massachusetts in 1947, based on the recommendation of the New Westminster, BC artist Joe Plaskett, whom she had met at the Banff school in 1945. After her first year at Hofmann’s School of Art, she attended another four summer sessions, through to 1952; she did not attend in 1950. Luke learned from Hofmann the technique of employing explosive colour and thick impasto bursts to give her paintings more power and authority than they had previously exhibited.
During the first of four summer sessions in Banff, Luke began to receive public attention as a painter. Her painting Vermillion Lake (1945) was selected for an exhibition of student work that toured across Canada in 1945 and 1946. Some of her paintings produced in Banff were also included in a two-person exhibition with Isabel McLaughlin at Oshawa’s YWCA Adelaide House in 1946. The next year, Luke’s painting Willows, in Cedardale (1946-47) was selected for the exhibition Canadian Women Artists, which opened at New York’s Riverside Museum and toured from 1947 until 1950. The major turning point in her career was an exhibition of abstract art that originated in Oshawa in 1952. The exhibition was crucial for the formation of the Painters Eleven.
In the early 1950s, Canadian painters influenced by Abstract Expressionism were not receiving the kind of public and critical attention given to their American counterparts. An exception was Douglas Duncan of the Picture Loan Society in Toronto, where Luke had a solo exhibition in 1952. Luke played an important role in organizing the Canadian Abstract Exhibition that opened at Oshawa’s YWCA Adelaide House that same year. Twenty-six artists were included in the show, which opened in October 1952 and subsequently travelled to Hart House at the University of Toronto, then to the Willistead Gallery in Windsor (now the Art Gallery of Windsor), as well as galleries in London, Peterborough, Hamilton, Montréal and Sackville, New Brunswick. The exhibition closed in March 1953. The group show included nine artists based in Toronto and Hamilton who would soon become the founding members of Painters Eleven. Luke invited the artists from the exhibition to meet in her studio in 1953 to discuss the state of abstract art in Canada. The meeting led to the formation of Painters Eleven in 1953. During the subsequent years, Luke continued to exhibit regularly. Between 1952 and 1966, the year before her death, Luke’s work was included in 80 group exhibitions, as well as Painters Eleven group shows, two-person and solo exhibitions. The retrospective Alexandra Luke: A Tribute opened at the Robert McLaughlin Gallery in Oshawa on 6 July 1977. Before her death, Luke donated the Alexandra Luke Collection of 81 paintings to the McLaughlin Gallery; the collection includes many of her own paintings as well as works by the Group of Seven and members of Painters Eleven.