Mary Pratt: A 50-Year Retrospective

By Becky Rynor on November 14, 2013

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Mary Pratt, Supper Table (1969), oil on canvas, 61.0 x 91.4 cm. Collection of Mary Pratt

It will take a good three hours to take in the retrospective of 50 years of work by Mary Pratt currently on tour. At least, Mary Pratt says that’s how long it took her.  

“I can’t believe I did it,” Pratt said in a recent interview with NGC Magazine from her home in St. John’s, Newfoundland. “I look at it and I think, 'How in the name of God did you ever do this?'”

Pratt, 78, is considered one of Canada’s finest still-life realist artists. She began creating oil paintings and sketches of everyday objects, life and relationships while married to her former husband, Canadian artist Christopher Pratt and raising their four children. She painted largely in isolation, when the couple lived in remote communities such as Salmonier, Newfoundland.  

“I couldn’t drive, so I couldn’t put the kids in the car and take them for a drive; so I had to be in the house, or make sure they didn’t drown in the river,” she recalls. “So I was cooking and cleaning and ironing, and doing what you do. But the world came to me. It just popped at me. And it was pretty much an erotic reaction. I figured I wasn’t going to paint anything that didn’t affect me personally and physically. For me, creativity was very close to the whole creative process of creating babies, and that creativity was exciting and wonderful. It was a physical thing.”

What popped at Pratt were jewel-like jars of jelly cooling on a kitchen counter; a raw, eviscerated chicken; moose hanging on the porch, and the clutter and remnants of a family dinner. Her work is equally beautiful, compelling and unsettling says Catharine Mastin, Director at the Art Gallery of Windsor, where the 75 pieces in the retrospective are being exhibited until 5 January 2014. Mastin has also written extensively about Mary Pratt, including the essay “Base, Place, Location and the Early Paintings” in the catalogue that accompanies the retrospective.

We’re only starting to understand who she is,” Mastin told NGC Magazine. “Her voice is about seeing and living the experience of being in a remote community by herself as the only female artist in the vicinity, and working alongside a much more well-known artist at the time: her husband, Christopher Pratt. She made those conditions of her life into an economic enterprise, and I think that’s a really powerful story that this exhibition tells.”

The National Gallery of Canada has 16 of Pratt’s works in its permanent collection, including Amaryllis, Kettle on the Stove-top and Red Currant Jelly.

“My strength has always been to find something where others found nothing,” Pratt says. “There’s a depth to everything, and everything is worth looking at, like those roses that are now past their prime. Everything is worth consideration. I really believe that.”

The objects Pratt captures may be everyday, but they allude to the profound life experiences that mark our lives, says Timothy Long, Curator at the MacKenzie Art Gallery in Regina. The MacKenzie will host Pratt’s retrospective from 16 May to 24 August 2014.

“Marriage, breakup, the whole range of human experience and, for all, the lushness of the paint and the beauty of the colour and light; she presents those things right in your face,” he told NGC Magazine. “You don’t have a lot of distance from it. A piece of uncooked cod on Saran Wrap will, if you let it, unsettle you and speak to the issues of hidden violence, the raw nature of our lives.”

Pratt says she finds the retrospective rewarding but bittersweet. She now has health issues, preventing her from painting with the focus and intensity of her younger years. Her eyesight is deteriorating, and she worries that she “may not see things to paint any more.”

“I worry that it’s sort of over, because when I look at the retrospective and I know there is twice as much work, maybe three times as much again—I think, well, I’ve done it.”

But then she recalls a young woman who recently visited her. “I’d known her as a child, and she came to get her book signed, and she brought me a big bouquet of white roses,” Pratt says. “And she was gorgeous! Her face is probably perfect and she had her black hair tied back in a big white ribbon, and she sat on my sofa with this big floppy skirt on—sort of glitzy all around the bottom—and her toenails were bright red. And this is the first thing I’ve seen in a long time that I’d really like to paint. Maybe,” she muses, “I could phone her and she would come back.”

The thematic retrospective Mary Pratt is a collaboration between The Rooms, St. John's, NL, and the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia (AGNS). The touring exhibition began at The Rooms in May 2013, and is on view at the Art Gallery of Windsor, Windsor, Ontario until 5 January 2014; the McMichael Canadian Art Collection, Kleinburg, Ontario from 18 January to 27 April 2014; the MacKenzie Art Gallery, Regina, Saskatchewan from 16 May to 24 August 2014; and the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, Halifax, Nova Scotia from 12 September 2014 to 11 January 2015.

By Becky Rynor| November 14, 2013
Categories:  Correspondents

About the Author

Becky Rynor

Becky Rynor

Becky Rynor is a journalist and editor based in Ottawa.

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