(Originally published on www.natureconservancy.ca in June, 2016. Reprinted with permission of the Nature Conservancy of Canada.)
As a student working in Waterton in the late 1950’s, I saw Annora Brown’s paintings and I was smitten. They were about us and about the raw beauty of our landscape. As a single professional woman from a small prairie town, I identified with this woman who gave so much of herself to her art, to her community, and to posterity. But when I discovered 260 of her paintings were stored in the Glenbow Archives and both of her books were out of print, my heart sank. Could I do something to fan the embers of this story back to life?
I made friends of people who knew her. I searched newspaper and museum archives. I read Patricia Alderson’s thesis about her work. I reread her autobiography, Sketches from Life, and wrote a dramatization of her story.
Forward ho! Come, share the journey.
Annora Brown (1899-1987)
(accomplished pioneer artist, writer, botanist, and conservationist)
With only her sketchbook and paintbrushes, Annora Brown fought to save the flora and fauna and preserve the historic culture of the Oldman and Waterton River regions of southern Alberta.
She was a prolific artist, whose paintings today grace homes and offices throughout the province and are occasionally shown as a collection in places like the Galt Museum Gallery (this summer) or reproduced on screen (such as at the 2016 Waterton Wildflower Festival, also this summer).
On her canvases you’ll find medleys of wildflowers, such as “The Windblown Tree at Lee’s Lake”, the “Western Wood Lilies in Waterton Park” or wild gaillardia blooming on the edge of cultivated fields.
These are samplers, alongside grain elevators, barbed wire fences and lone buildings that stood out against the prairie skyline during the 1940s and 1950s.
Annora was a compulsive conservationist, an avid historian and a passionate artist; she dedicated herself to listening to the soul of each of her subjects. In her paintings, she wanted viewers to be able to look into the heart of her subject, and so see beyond even what she was seeing.
Trying to capture those essences brought her release from her everyday pressures. In 1930, shortly after she had started a professional career in Calgary, her father called her home to Fort Macleod. Her mother had suffered a stroke and his health was fragile. Although she still owed a debt from attending the Ontario College of Art and her family had no income or medical coverage, she never questioned his request.
This young artist knew nothing about nursing or homemaking. She became exhausted and exasperated and longed for a few moments alone with her sketchbook. When she could get as far as the stone-pile down the alley, it was like an expedition. There, she could make pencil studies of the tiny flowers that peeked out along the edge of the rocks and refreshed her soul.
The 1930s were tough on everyone who experienced them. During those years, Annora made miniature paintings, each consisting of a single flower painted on a black 4” x 4” card. Women who longed for something of beauty could scrounge one dollar for this tiny piece of art, and she could scrounge some income. The fortitude of these women sustained her.
The conservationist part of her habitually stepped forward. “Those are not weeds!” she insisted when men suggested she hoe out the wildflowers transplanted in her garden. Over time, she engaged them in conversation and taught them about the food value of the dock and the medicinal value of the fireweed, and convinced them to stop mowing down the sunflower.
The Niitsitapi (Blackfoot) People were an important part of Annora’s world. She formed her memories of them as a youngster. The beat of the drums and the wail of their songs were often heard when they set up camp on the edge of town at Stampede time. Several of them were friends who came to visit her parents and fostered an insight into their culture.
With respect, she sought to understand their thinking and take note of their art and activities. With her paints she captured the colour and action of the Hoop Dance, the rhythm of the Prairie Chicken Dance and the likeness of life in their tipi encampments. The women were proud to show her the unique designs in their bead work and regalia. She used this information to illustrate many textbooks.
Over the years, Annora combined art and conservation while working on her book Old Man’s Garden. She researched notes collected by expedition botanists from exploration times and combined these with native understandings about the plants. Then she “gossiped” their secrets to the rest of the world. She told tales about 259 plants from the Waterton and Oldman River region, sketched them and identified their traditional and scientific names.
In one painting, Annora illustrated the harebell with scratchboard and pen. In the background of her ink sketch she drew a covered wagon and likened the delicate-looking flower to the sun-bonneted women who came west, who faced hardship and trials with the same courage as the men. Both the flowers and the ladies stood up to the fierce prairie sun and the hurricane winds with dignity.
By the 1930s, artists were capturing scenes from many Canadian landscapes. Their canvases depicted Quebec, Ontario, outpost Winnipeg and a little strip of the west coast, but in Annora’s autobiography, she said her part of the country “was as little known as the Antarctic icescape”. She resolved to change that.
In the 50’s, after researching and writing Old Man’s Garden in the 30’s, she finally found a publisher for Old Man’s Garden, a unique exploration of southwestern Alberta’s native vegetation, native folklore and history.
The Glenbow Museum then recognized her work and invited her to take on a contract that would have overwhelmed any hardy soul: they asked her to paint 200 rare flowers native to the foothills and mountains. This required special trips to find specimens of each when in bloom, to identify and paint them (in situ).
Annora trekked and climbed, worked through the elements and tried to out-guess the celestial calendar to catch the optimum viewing. Then she came back home to recreate from sketches and memory. Visitors repeatedly interrupted her work to buy out of her studio. There was a constant emptying of her paintings. The work was incredible. In the three years it took to fulfill her commitment of 200 watercolour paintings, she completed 500 flower compositions (which is an average of about three paintings per week). The importance of recognition paled when it was so overshadowed by exhaustion and depression, but she never let that affect the quality of her art.
Anyone who has seen these paintings will marvel at the pristine in-depth work. Occasionally they are displayed or lent to other public institutions by Calgary’s Glenbow Museum. The rest of her paintings hang in galleries in Montreal, Ottawa, Calgary, the U.S., UK, Australia and in private homes and offices across Alberta. Her “Prairie Chicken Dance” painting won an Alberta Jubilee prize.
Annora wanted to record the spirit of her surroundings. She paid tribute, in her unique way, to the women, the aboriginal people, the landscape and especially the flora and fauna of Alberta. In her later years she was described by Gray Campbell in his publication Butter Site Up as “a shy person, a little deaf, but only to idle chatter, never to the whispering of the wind through the grass.”
After a major showing at the Glenbow in 1971, the critic for Westart wrote “Annora Brown in the hand of the flower sower and the eye of time. For when the lily blooms no more, should man be yet alive, she will review for him the glory that was and advise him of the glory to be”.
Annora Brown: Conservation Through Art – Joyce Sasse (2016)
Our goal is to preserve and record the life and achievements of Ms. Brown. If you have any information, know where we can locate private / public paintings, would like to send us copies of books or you are willing to donate to help with costs for acquiring / re-matting paintings and prints etc., please contact us at
We Need Your Help
Picture courtesy of Mary-Beth Laviolette
Then enter “Annora Brown” into Keywords/Phrase
Or you may order prints at:
Digitized photographs of 260 Annora Brown paintings in the Glenbow Museum (wild flowers, Blackfoot culture & art, landscapes in the Oldman and Waterton River drainage area) can be viewed at:
Mountain Shooting Star 58.45.23 - Collection of Glenbow
Used with permission of Annora Brown Estate