Art association celebrates 50th year

Artists’ organization is descendant of groups that formed in 1800s

Published on October 30, 2010

The A1C postal district in St. John’s is considered to have more artists per capita than any other district in Canada.

Art-making in this province, however, has a history that stretches back long before postal codes.

While some of the earliest examples of art here were produced by aboriginal people, formal organizational support for artists is a relatively new thing.

The Art Association of Newfoundland and Labrador (AANL) was established to this end, and is celebrating its 50th anniversary with a weekend-long event in St. John’s.

Art clubs in St. John’s first started forming in the late 1800s, with groups like The Art Society (1894), The Ladies’ Reading Room and Current Events (1900-1923) and The Newfoundland Society of Art, which eventually fell apart around 1936, when its members started devoting their time to women’s suffrage and war work.

As time went by, art groups began growing outside the St. John’s area, including Grand Falls, Corner Brook and Gander.

Artists Reginald Shepherd and Helen Parsons Shepherd established the Newfoundland Academy of Art in 1949, offering classes in life-drawing, portraiture and for children, and holding annual exhibitions of students’ work.

Just a couple years later, the unrelated St. John’s School of Art opened, holding classes in oils, watercolours, pastels and outdoor painting.

The following year, the province established the Arts and Letters Competition, with awards for best portrait, landscape and mural.

In 1960, the Art Gallery Association of Newfoundland was formed as an initiative of the Canadian Federation of University Women, with the goals of encouraging a public interest in visual art, to arrange a minimum of two exhibitions per year and to lobby for the establishment of a provincial gallery.

The Memorial University Art Gallery was established a year later, with Christopher Pratt its first curator.

In 1967, the association, which counted about 60 members, changed its name to the Art Association of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Today, the AANL — the longest-running art association in the history of the province — has about 100 active members, and some past members who have become internationally well-known, such as Christopher Pratt, Mary Pratt, Dave Hoddinott, Julia Pickard and Ben Gillard.

Most members are from the St. John’s area, while others come from Corner Brook, Marystown and outside the province, and they represent all ages and skill levels — seasoned professionals and part-time artists.

Larry Mahoney is a past-president and current archivist of the association, and has spent time researching and compiling the history of art in this province as part of the AANL’s 50th anniversary celebrations. He said one of the association’s goals at the moment is to increase its public profile.

“Not a lot of people know about it, or maybe haven’t heard about it in a while and think it’s dead,” he said of the group. “One of the things we’re trying to do is to make people aware that the arts association is available to anybody who has an interest in art and who promotes art.”

In addition to holding exhibitions of its members’ work and offering a medium for artists to network, the AANL offers workshops on different topics, from glassworks to self-portraiture to gyotaku, the Japanese art of fish-printing.

“Anything in the world of art — you name it, we can get a workshop on it,” Mahoney said.

Members can also participate in studio tours, visiting prominent local artists in their own environment for an afternoon, learning about their technique and seeing their projects in the works.

For the anniversary celebrations, the association is holding an art exhibition and sale in galleries 2 and 3 West of the Arts and Culture Centre on Saturday and Sunday, from 11a.m.-5p.m. The opening reception will take place tonight between 5-8, and will include the unveiling of the AANL’s new logo, chosen by a contest among association members.

Most of the AANL members will have up to five pieces in the show, for a total of 233 artworks, said association president Susan Parsons.

“They’ve really been working hard for this,” she said. “People can expect to see a really wide variety of art pieces in every medium, from graphite, pastel, watercolours, mixed media — a huge variety of every size and every level, from starter paintings to a person who’s been painting for 50 years.”

Included in the exhibit is a collaborative painting project completed by 25 or so AANL members. A photo was taken of downtown St. John’s and divided into a grid, and each artist was given one square to paint in their own style.

Parsons said the members are excited about the event, which she said is the biggest celebration in the AANL’s history.

“A lot of planning has gone into it, and a lot of hard work,” she said. “I’m really proud that we’ve stayed together for 50 years.”