Unfinished sketches

Joan Sullivan
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Rae Perlin's 100th anniversary celebrated at Leyton Gallery

This year marks the 100th anniversary of visual artist Rae Perlin's birth. Born in St. John's on Sept 11, 1910, Perlin left home for New York to follow a career in nursing, but her real vocation was art.

Although she graduated from nursing school and for years worked in the field, she put her earnings towards art studies. And these were noteworthy, including work with American Expressionist Hans Hofman in the late 1930s and exposure to Raoul Dufy and Marc Chagall when she studied in Paris and London in the 1950s.

Still Life by Rae Perlin- Submitted photos

This year marks the 100th anniversary of visual artist Rae Perlin's birth. Born in St. John's on Sept 11, 1910, Perlin left home for New York to follow a career in nursing, but her real vocation was art.

Although she graduated from nursing school and for years worked in the field, she put her earnings towards art studies. And these were noteworthy, including work with American Expressionist Hans Hofman in the late 1930s and exposure to Raoul Dufy and Marc Chagall when she studied in Paris and London in the 1950s.

This education was a first for a Newfoundland-born artist and remarkable and excitingly cosmopolitan one for anyone of the time. From New York she moved to the Left Bank in Paris and then enrolled at the London Polytechnic before returning to St. John's in 1959.

She went back to nursing for a time, but soon, and then for the rest of her life, concentrated on her artistic career - not just her drawings and paintings, but also her writing, which included art reviews. She lived to be 95, although her last decade was afflicted by Alzheimer's disease.

Perlin drew all the time and on almost any kind of paper. She left dozens and dozens of notebooks, and even much of her framed work is offset by an edge of perforated line. It suits her style, which was sophisticated and small scaled, with compositions that were spatially rich and precise, made of quick, exquisite lines.

Her reputation is both significant and subterranean. She was a pioneer, not just for women artists, but for a Newfoundland-born one. She pursued art seriously, which few had even considered possible before; and she learned from major figures and worked in important creative centres.

Yet she hated to "finish" her work. Many are not dated or signed. They are often tiny, and on any old kind of notepaper.

Yet this "sketchiness" is her signature and strength, giving the work energy, freshness and edge. It makes her drawings and paintings instantly recognizable.

The Leyton Gallery of Fine Art in St. John's is celebrating Perlin's anniversary with a small exhibition.

The work ranges over decades, from the 1950s and earlier to one of her last works, done in 1989.

There are still lifes, studies, portraits, figure drawings and street scenes. They are rendered in graphite, charcoal, watercolour, pen and ink and acrylic. The biggest is a triptych of a model drawn in three poses, while the smallest are pocket-sized, like a European cityscape that seems all tiny crosshatchings.

But even the littlest work has amazing depth and perspective. Perlin was adept at creating floating planes with lightly toned washes, balanced with outlines of objects, forms or faces.

One multi-media piece has a vase with flowers and two apples arranged with a cloth backdrop. The drapery is expressed in pink, yellow and green rectangles. The vase, flowers and fruit are nimble lines that sometimes vary between swift definitions and unfilled shapes, sometimes leaving them as briskly delineated white spaces. All the works have these miniature, assured juxtapositions giving perspective and volume: a line offset with a curtain of lemon, a vase standing out from a flume of gray or lilac or a face emerging through fleeting encircling marks.

Perlin could draw anything, capture it in her sparing elegance of essentials. She was serious, prolific, perhaps a little unsung - because she could so rarely bring herself to sign off on a piece.

The exhibition of Rae Perlin opens Saturday at the Leyton Gallery of Fine Art.

Organizations: American Expressionist Hans Hofman, Left Bank, London Polytechnic

Geographic location: St. John's, New York, Paris Newfoundland

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