Pratt's New Show

She is a grandmother of nine, a slim, dark-haired figure with a wicked laugh and a no-nonsense attitude born of spending most of her life in a Newfoundland outport. That unaffected manner, it seems, has contributed to Mary Pratt's unaffected art.

Pratt's New Show

She is a grandmother of nine, a slim, dark-haired figure with a wicked laugh and a no-nonsense attitude born of spending most of her life in a Newfoundland outport. That unaffected manner, it seems, has contributed to Mary Pratt's unaffected art. The 60-year-old painter believes that only concrete, real images are truly worth painting. The sum of a career based on that homespun esthetic now hangs on the walls of the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in Fredericton, in a major exhibition titled The Art of Mary Pratt: The Substance of Light. The show, which opened on September 16 and begins a cross-country tour in November, is accompanied by a richly illustrated book of the same title (Goose Lane Editions/The Beaverbrook Art Gallery, $65), written by the retrospective's curator Tom Smart. But last week, as Pratt surveyed the 58 oils and watercolors in the exhibition, the Fredericton-born painter seemed remarkably humble about herself and her accomplishments. "You've got to remember," she explained, "I don't think I ever really believed I would be a very good painter."

Yet, Pratt has been a force in Canadian art for the past 25 years. Critics have gushed that her paintings amount to "a new way of seeing" and have called her "the visual poet of the kitchen." Collectors fork over as much as $31,000 for a new Pratt oil. Her most recognizable images of fish, food and fire have graced everything from commercial billboards to the cover of an Alice Munro short story collection. "Mary Pratt is one of the giants of Canadian art," declares Smart, who is the curator at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery. "She deserves to be better known."

The daughter of a lawyer and a homemaker, Mary West grew up in the comfortable shelter of genteel Fredericton. She had talent - when she was 11, one of her paintings was selected for an international exhibition in Paris - which blossomed at Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B., where she studied under Alex Colville, then in the early stages of becoming one of the titans of Canadian realist painting. Then, she met a brooding, pre-med student from Newfoundland named Christopher Pratt. In 1957, the couple married. And six years later, they moved to a rustic cottage in the tiny Newfoundland outport of Salmonier, 200 km southwest of St. John's, where Christopher took the first tentative steps towards building his own international reputation as a realist painter.

In the early years of the marriage, Mary's art took a backseat: she painted - mostly impressionist-style still lifes - when she could steal a bit of time away from cooking, keeping house and raising their four children. Sometimes it was simply too much. Once, while she worked on a piece, her son Ned swallowed half a bottle of Aspirin and had to be rushed to St. John's to have his stomach pumped. During a particularly bad bout of self-doubt in 1970, Pratt vowed to quit altogether and took up sewing lessons. Through it all, though, her technique and vision developed. Totally isolated from the artistic fashions of Toronto, New York City and London, she turned to images of her everyday rural life - gutted fish, flayed chickens and beakers of blood-red current jelly - which spoke to her on a physical level. "I have to go to the source," she says. "I can't intellectualize. For me reality is a very sensuous experience."

In 1969, as she worked on the painting Supper Table, she found her technique - basing a work on a photographic image. At first she was uncomfortable with that method, considering herself inferior to artists such as her husband and Colville, who painted images first glimpsed in their own minds. In truth, they were all part of the New Realist school of painters then coming to the fore in Canada and the United States, which included many artists working from photographs. It was a group that, in Smart's words, "asserted that a purely visual perception of the world was a valid basis on which to compose a work of art."

Some 25 years later, Mary Pratt still seems a touch skeptical about her place in the art world. "I look and paint and Alex and Christopher think and paint," she says. "I come from a lower order." Smart, however, argues that Pratt's homely subject matter and naturalistic style are deceptive. He cites the metaphors of domestic and gender violence inherent in her early paintings of fish, fowl and animal carcasses, the questions of sexual identity raised in her nudes, the apocalyptic energy of the bonfires. But Pratt claims a simple creed: "I feel nothing is not worth discussion," she says. "I don't think I have any answers. My paintings just make the questions more colorful."

Pratt continues to rephrase those questions, but with a new vigor. "I'm more excited about my work than I've ever been before," declares the artist, who now lives apart from her husband. She keeps a home in St. John's, but finds it more productive to work for intense periods in a condominium in Vancouver, where she and a Japanese woodblock printmaker have been busy creating a series of limited edition prints based on her still lifes. As well, the artist has resurrected an old idea for an art film based on her work. But mainly, Pratt is busy reinterpreting on canvas images from earlier in her career. One recent painting in the retrospective shows the dining-room in the old Fredericton house where she grew up, a few hundred yards from the site of the Beaverbrook Art Gallery. The other is also a dining-room scene - but while her breakthrough painting Supper Table featured six place settings, the implication of Dinner for One is evident. "Life is about change and flux," she says. "It is not something that needs to be despaired about. It is all interesting and worth celebrating." Despite her lingering self-doubt, Mary Pratt continues to practise the art of celebration.

Maclean's October 9, 1995