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Picture courtesy of Mary-Beth Laviolette
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Annora Brown

Mountain Shooting Star 58.45.23 - Collection of Glenbow
Used with permission of Annora Brown Estate
Daughter of the Prairies
Gallery Exhibit at Galt Museum, Lethbridge, Summer of 2016 - Curated by Mary-Beth Laviolette
Annora Brown is one of Alberta’s foremost early artists. Based for much of her life in historic Fort Macleod, Brown played a major role in creating a ‘picture’ of southern Alberta: its wild landscape, First Nations, pioneer rural communities, local history – above all its wondrous nature symbolized by the wildflower. It was her home and she came to know it well.

A student of the celebrated landscape painters, known as the Group of Seven (1920 – 1933), Brown’s artistic practise spans the 1930s to the mid 1980s. During that time, she cobbled together a living as an artist, often by teaching, illustrating books and magazines, and selling, whenever she could, her captivating paintings in watercolour, tempera oil and later serigraph prints.

Buoyed by the conviction that a woman’s activities “need not be limited to polishing furniture and raising babies”, Brown was also a writer and author of two books: the Western Canadian classic Old Man’s Garden and her autobiographical Sketches from Life. She was the first woman to receive an honourary degree from the University of Lethbridge in 1971 for her contribution to “western art and living”.

Annora Brown was born outside Red Deer in 1899 and died in 1987 in Deep Cove (Sidney), British Columbia where she retired.

BEGINNINGS

Originally a red-coat, a member of the North West Mounted Police from 1886 to 1895, Annora’s father was the London-born Edmund Foster Brown. Her mother, Elizabeth Ethel (Cody) Brown came from Ontario in 1891 and despite her parent’s protests about the ‘wild west” was one of the first school teachers in the tiny community with its two-room school and busy police post. Elizabeth and Edmund met and married in Macleod (as it was known then).

Born in 1899, Annora grew up in a family of four children although, as was sometimes sadly the case for this era, her two sisters, Helen and Kathleen later died of typhoid and scarlet fever respectively. She had one brother, Ted.

Encouraged by her open-minded mother to draw and paint and especially to appreciate the prairie environment, Annora’s own awareness of art began with Fort Macleod’s progressive Fortnightly Club (est. 1908): a local women’s group whose purpose was and (still is) the study of arts and humanities. As an inquisitive child Annora was introduced to the great (male) artists of countries like England, Italy, Japan and the so-called “Mad Men” of Paris like Vincent VanGogh through books sent by rail from the extension library of Montreal’s McGill University.

From 1925 to 1929 Annora attended the Ontario College of Art (OCA) in Toronto. The aspiring young artist was to later say that that was when “my real life really began”. There, she trained with C.W. Jefferys and Robert Holmes, and the always passionate Arthur Lismer and J.E.H. MacDonald of the Group of Seven. Brown did well at OCA with scholarships and prizes and graduated with a keen awareness of how the Canadian west “was as little known as the Antarctic ice cap”.

ANNORA’S WORLD

Brown returned to her home province in 1929 and was hired to develop an art program for Calgary’s Mount Royal College. Instead of marriage and a family, she typified a new breed of woman: short hair, driving a (second hand) Model T Ford and, above all, living independently.

Four years later she had to return to Fort Macleod to look after her now invalid mother. So, in the midst of the Dirty Thirties and a difficult financial situation for her family, a disappointed Brown set herself to learn “all she could about the country in which I live”.

With sketchbook in hand, Brown illustrated six books and numerous magazine articles. She sold miniature paintings in tempera of local wildflowers for a dollar a piece and designed stencils for needle work and hooked rugs. Later, there were community art classes taught in Lethbridge, Medicine Hat, Brooks, High River and the Crowsnest Pass for the University of Alberta’s extension department. At the time, she was one of the lucky few in the province to earn a living from her art.

Nonetheless, Annora was aware of how many townspeople regarded her as “an oddity”. From early on she knew she had an “ability to fit myself into the mould of convention” even as she strove to realize, in paint and in drawing, their world, their churches, isolated homesteads, the surrounding landscape, and even the grain elevators which were never admired as an artistic subject. The tragic dust storms of the Thirties were also a subject but few of these paintings ever sold and few have survived.

NEARBY NEIGHBOURS

Growing up in a small town in Treaty 7 Territory, east of the Piikani (Peigan) Reserve and north of the Kainai (Blood), Annora Brown was more familiar than most with the region’s Niisitapi (Blackfoot). As a young girl she recalled being present for the Chicken Dance, Grass Dance, Owl Dance, Women’s Dance, and the “dances we were invited to join”; all performed annually in Macleod on July 1st.

“The harsh conditions of Reserve life and imported diseases would have taken its toll on what Brown witnessed. For instance, from a population of 2,488 in 1878, the Kainai were reduced to 1,111 by 1920.”

Later Brown created eloquent watercolours, oils and drawings about Niitsitapi tipis, tools and traditional dress as well as some portraits. Her work capturing the First Nations in Southern Alberta began in the 1930’s and continued well into the post-war period. Pincher Creek photographer Gordon Crighton, a good friend, also joined Brown in this effort, visiting the reserves with her where the Niitsitapi women introduced them to their culture.

In 1955 her Prairie Chicken Dance (Blood Indian Reserve) featured in this retrospective was the first painting acquired for the new provincial art collection. Around the same time, her very original wildflower book titled Old Man’s Garden was published. The book’s titled “Old Man” honours the Niitsitapi creator, Napi (The Trickster).

AN ECOLOGICAL HOMELAND

From an early age, Annora Brown had a keen sense of how even in a small frontier town, the prairie was changed by settlement. With the introduction of trees she recalled meadow larks, curlews and ground-nesting sparrows were less visible than robins and other birds who perched in the treetops or nested in the shrubbery.

The automobile made it possible for more people to travel to her hometown. In some cases they came to pick the abundant Saskatoon berries along the coulees and Oldman River.
“They broke the shrubs and trampled the undergrowth as if wrecking crews were at work. Cars were driven wherever it was possible to take a car and weeds sprang up where the turf was broken. Our paradise took on the appearance of an after-the-battle scene.” Annora Brown

This awareness of the prairie environment and a passion for the natural world was a prevailing theme in her art. Nurtured first by her mother Elizabeth’s love of gardening and later Robert Holmes her design instructor at the Ontario College of Art, her attentiveness took many forms in art and involved many subjects.

Her compositions on display here revel in nature’s rich personality: a red robin defiant in the icy aftermath of a late snowstorm; the flash of an autumnal dogwood against the now calm waters of a prairie stream; mother and offspring sustained by wild vegetation and, as expressed by a later handmade print titled Chickadees, the eloquent relationships found in nature.

A SPIRITUAL HOMELAND

“It was a world not of solid matter but of light, space and spirit.”

For Annora Brown, there was something special about southern Alberta that neither words nor paint could fully express. Even the bleakest winter day had something to say to her.
As a young girl her favorite haunt was the roof of her house, near the chimney, where she could see, as she said, the “whole world” around her. Grown-ups sometimes expressed their sympathy for Annora “having to grow up in a place like this” but what she saw inspired the young artist.

This sense of identity, an appreciation for the unique geography and ecology of her homeland reinforced by her time as an art student in Toronto with instruction from Group of Seven member Arthur Lismer and personal exposure to Lawren Harris in his studio (he did not teach), she was exposed to ideas about art and life and their connection to the spiritual. Annora later summed it up as “Art striving for something beyond the physical”.

For her, this meant locations where colour and light could symbolize the interplay between the spiritual and the material. Places that often inspired included Waterton Lakes, the rolling and lonely foothills, the vast space of the prairie and the rocky outcrops where gale force winds signal the powerful and divine presence of Nature. All of this was interpreted by the artist with a new modern style that explored the expansive possibilities of colour and form.

WILD FLOWERS:A LIFETIME FRIENDSHIP

“As I gazed (on a Gaillardia) I suddenly felt a presence all around me, as if the spirits of the earth had come out to share the moment with me.” Annora Brown

Annora Brown once estimated that over half of her art was devoted to the depiction of wildflowers and native plants. It was a subject familiar to her from childhood when she and her mother, Elizabeth, would try to identify unknown plants only to find their flower books had no information on the prairie flora.

Later, as an artist who worked from a second floor studio in her Fort Macleod home, Brown could gaze down on a garden inhabited by dozens of species gathered from the prairies, the foothills and the mountains. Her garden was a living laboratory but with uncultivated flowers never to be picked for a vase.

In 1954, Old Man’s Garden was released. Annora started the book in the Dirty Thirties but was unable to find a publisher during those years. A western Canadian Classic, the book is a series of stories, native legends and descriptions of medicinal and food uses associated with the flora in the area drained by the Oldman River. After the publication of Old Man’s Garden, Brown was commissioned in 1958 by Calgary’s Glenbow Foundation (now Museum) to create 200 watercolours about her beloved subject.

Explaining she was not a botanical illustrator, her approach to this vast and varied subject was informed by her modern art training which was less concerned with exacting scientific detail than with conveying what she felt about their character and presence.

ANNORA BROWN LEAVES OLD MAN’S COUNTRY

In 1965 the artist retired to Deep Cove near Sidney on Vancouver Island to continue to paint and garden. By then, Annora was selling larger sized watercolours and with the help of a loan from a fellow artist, Catherine Whyte of Banff, was able to purchase a home with enough studio space for herself and her old friend Gordon Crighton.

As a respected artist and teacher with five summers instructing at the Banff School of Fine Arts (1945-1950), working along with some of Canada’s top artists, Brown had established herself as a recognized artist. More importantly, she had given “voice” to a region that had been rarely present in Canadian art. Still, in the context of her time in Fort Macleod, her bold watercolours and oils with their strong design and deeper colours must have been radical to many in Alberta.

Her attention to the unique aspects of Old Man’s Country like the Niitsitapi, the character and isolation of its small rural communities as well as its unforgettable environment was expressed mainly through her focus on wildflowers and native plants. Her art spoke of an era before large-scale farms and ranches, the crisscrossing of major highways and communities in a state of transition and decay.

When Annora Brown received an Honorary Doctorate of Law from the University of Lethbridge, an exhibition in her honour was also held in Fort Macleod. There she shared stories of sketching trips and her still high regard for the beauty of the region. She died in 1987 in Deep Cover at the age of eighty-eight.

THANK YOU

Guest curated by Mary-Beth Laviolette, Annora Brown: Daughter of the Prairies is the first respective of this dedicated artist who inspired many by her strong sense of place. Private lenders and public collections like the Glenbow Museum, Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, University of Alberta Museum and the Alberta Foundation of the Arts generously loaned artwork for the exhibition.
Paintings from the Gallery Exhibit at Galt Museum 2016
Click on thumbnails to see larger examples of Ms. Brown's works from the Galt Museum Exhibit.
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Windblown Tree at Lee Lake
Collection of Glenbow Museum
Used with permission of Annora Brown Estate
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Foothills Village
Collection of Glenbow Museum
Used with permission of Annora Brown Estate
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Wind Whipped
Gift of Catherine Robb Whyte, Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, Banff, Alberta
Used with permission of Annora Brown Estate
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Foothills Country
Gift of Emma Read Newton, University of Alberta Collections
Used with permission of Annora Brown Estate
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Prairie Chicken Dance
Alberta Foundation of the Arts (Jubilee Collection)
Used with permission of Annora Brown Estate
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Wild Rose
Courtesy of Colleen & Gerald Brooks
Used with permission of Annora Brown Estate
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Chickadees
Gift of Catherine Robb Whyte, Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies
Used with permission of Annora Brown Estate
Picture courtesy of Mary-Beth Laviolette
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Lonesome Land
Gift of Emma Read Newton. University of Alberta Collections
Used with permission of Annora Brown Estate
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Prairie Sunset
Gift of Emma Read Newton. University of Alberta Collections
Used with permission of Annora Brown Estate
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St. Martin's Anglican Church
Collection of Glenbow Museum
Used with permission of Annora Brown Estate
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Untitled (stooks)
Courtesy of a private lender
Used with permission of Annora Brown Estate
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Wild Sunflowers (near Macleod)
Gift of Emma Read Newton, University of Alberta Collections
Used with permission of Annora Brown Estate
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Cow Parsnip
Gift of Emma Read Newton, University of Alberta Collections
Used with permission of Annora Brown Estate
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Small Flora Paintings
Courtesy of private lender
Used with permission of Annora Brown Estate
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Untitled
Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies
Used with permission of Annora Brown Estate
Western Wood Lily
Courtesy of Arctos & Bird
Used with permission of Annora Brown Estate
Crocus (Prairie Anemone)
Courtesy of Arctos & Bird
Used with permission of Annora Brown Estate
Foothills Meadow
Courtesy of private lender
Used with permission of Annora Brown Estate
The Robin
Courtesy of Colleen & Gerald Brooks
Used with permission of Annora Brown Estate
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Untitled (Windy Day In a Meadow)
Courtesy of Colleen and Gerald Brooks
Used with permission of Annora Brown Estate
Untitled ((Image of Waterton Lakes)
Unknown
Used with permission of Annora Brown Estate