Personal landscapes

Joan Sullivan
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In her latest exhibition, painter Barbara Pratt explores the country and her own creative space

Painter Barbara Pratt has a signature style: gorgeous objects meticulously observed and lushly presented. She did a lot of big paintings that were all about fabric, and then a lot of smaller ones that were all about flowers. They were good works, and they sold. Pratt was a success, and could, so to speak, rest on her laurels. But she wanted to make a change. She took her skills on a road trip.

A year ago, she and her friend Krista von Nostrand (a teacher, and also a painter) traveled by VIA Rail roundtrip from Toronto to Vancouver. The journey came courtesy of some vouchers Barbara’s mother Mary Pratt had earned for a VIA Rail commission, but was unable to use. Each leg meant about three or four days on the rail. “It’s a big country,” Pratt said, speaking in her studio, imagery from the trip on the easel and walls behind her. “The weather changes. You go through time zones.”

Pratt didn’t intend it as a work trip; “this was a holiday for both of us.” But she had such a fantastic time, and took so many photographs of that time, that when she returned and studied the images she was deeply inspired.

Result: her subject matter switched tracks.

“I absolutely love painting fabric, it taught me a lot about painting. It’s given me the opportunity to paint some pretty wild and wonderful creations, other designer’s creations. That’s the genesis of that work, being really inspired by those designers, what other people could do with their hands. It’s not so much about wanting to own the dresses, wanting to wear the dresses, although that would be kinda cool. (But) anyway I’ve spent the past twenty-plus years learning how to paint and I just felt that I really wanted to try something different.”

She had never done landscapes.

“Primarily because it’s done so well by other people. Gerry Squires come to mind immediately.”

But Pratt also had a private concern. “Always it was always a danger for me to look like my parents. I have not been too concerned about looking too much like my mom, because with my mom the subject matter is all over the place. Anything is up for grabs. You might as well give up if you try not to encompass some of the subject matter that she has covered. But my father now, it’s different. If I want to paint horizon lines and buildings people are automatically going to say ‘wow, she’s really drawing on what she learned from her father’ (Christopher Pratt).”

Pratt’s artistic pedigree — her brother Ned is also a strong visual artist, known for his landscape photography — seems an entrée, but it casts a shadow she has tussled with for years.

“I really, really wanted to find my own way, I wanted to be my own person, have my own discussion about — whatever. Painting flowers and painting dresses has been fulfilling a desire to work in the artistic field without encroaching upon territory that belongs solidly to my parents. And I think I’ve gotten to the point in my life when I’m not going to deny my parents anymore. I’m very proud to be their daughter. I’m very proud of what they have given to our culture, to the artistic community in Canada. I’m not going to pretend anymore that they haven’t influenced me. I guess I never did pretend. I was always up front about, you can see my mother’s influence through the colours I use, you can see my father’s influence through my sense of design, or whatever. That’s all true. But you can’t deny the fact that you are ‘the daughter of.’ I spent summers on the sailboat with my father. I spent my afternoons in my mother’s studio doing my homework. To pretend that there’s no other side of me is frustrating. There are so many things that I see, that I know are legitimate subject matter that I haven’t been tackling.”

This work neatly unites her background and her current passions. She took the photographs in the first place because she wanted to show her father.

“Because things that interest him were everywhere. Not just the horizons. But the lines, the lines of trains, the lines of tracks, the power lines, the light poles, the infrastructure around the rail stations. I wanted him to see this.”

But when she got home, she realized those photographs were hers.

“This is my eye. Yet it was because of him and his influence on the way I see that I did take them.”

And she felt she had built a certain reputation herself; she could stretch. “I’ve been working in a different way for so long I feel that what I have to say no longer gets mixed up.”

These paintings are still distinctly her work. There is a sensibility, a quality of looking, a compactness of surfaces, as in the manner in which a train’s metal is rendered so it could also be light, or liquid, that is very much hers.

“The work is different,” Pratt says, “but only in subject manner.”

The objects in these works are manmade, aggressive, dangerous, and moving. “Approaching Freight #2,” for example, is a scene at dusk, with a passenger train pulled to a sidetrack in deference to a freight train.

“Commerce does not stop,” Pratt explained. “Sometimes you can wait for a long time. All this is somehow coded by lights, which the engineer can read. In this particular instance, the freight approached, and it didn’t have its lights on. Maybe it just sat there for a minute. And the engineer, I think it was the engineer, got off our train and crossed the track and just stood there at a safe distance. I don’t know what he was doing. I’d seen this happen before, maybe he had to manually flick the tracks. And when (the fright train) started to approach its light were on and very, very bright. You couldn’t see it. And it was just so powerful, like a comet coming at you, but not fast, it’s, well, like a freight train. So huge and heavy and all this metal.”

The paintings are worked from the photos, and she often takes information from more than one.

“Some of the paintings in the show are a little out of focus, a little underexposed, the details are sparse; it gives the paintings an almost abstract quality that I love.”

Transferring the drawing is tiring. But mixing up the colours is a challenge she enjoys.

“Sometimes, everything is perfect, and, ‘Oh yes, I’m good at what I do’.” Even if it takes hours, she likes it. She always works on one thing at a time, and she knows when it’s done.

“For me, if I walk to the door there and turn around and look at a painting at the end of my work day, I’ll know. If I get this incredible rush, it’s been a good day. If I think, darn it, I’m going to have to go back at that…But it’s not a gee, what’s wrong with it, it’s never that.”

After this work, Pratt will take a break, “but I’d like to keep painting trains. But I haven’t turned my back on my other work.” Recently, at the grocery store, a Vogue cover caught her eye. Her interest in fabric still stands.

“I hope that people don’t mind if I bounce around a little in my subject matter. It’s OK for musicians. It’s OK for actors. Why shouldn’t it be OK for painters, too?”

“Train” will be shown at the Emma Butler Gallery Nov. 27 — Dec. 11.

Organizations: VIA Rail

Geographic location: Toronto, Vancouver, Canada

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