Painting through the sieve of her imagination

Mary Pratt finds beauty others miss, and shares it with the world

Published on May 10, 2013

In the late ’60s, Mary Pratt decided to give up painting.­ Tired of being criticized for painting from photography, she joined a group of women from near her home in Salmonier who went down to Placentia a couple times a week to learn how to sew. She had a sewing machine herself and had made baby clothes and such for her own children, so she figured she’d give up fighting those who didn’t think she should be using a camera, and be a seamstress instead.

Then, at Christmas, her then-husband, artist Christopher Pratt, gave her a little envelope with a slide inside, of chicken pieces on a Coca-Cola box.

“He said, ‘Now, you’d better paint this; you better finish this painting or I’m going to be visiting you at the Waterford with flowers,’” Mary recalls, smiling. “And (my daughter) Barbie, who was just a little thing, said, ‘Mummy, if you aren’t a painter, what can you be?’ It was so innocent and such a sweet observation, that I thought, I can’t do this to the girls. I’ve got to show the girls that I can cope with this.

“Partly because of an obligation to my children, the girls especially, I thought, You can’t give up, you’ve got to get on with this. I wanted to, anyway. I didn’t like all the objections.”

Mary didn’t know at the time that many artists were working from photography. What they weren’t doing, was finding beauty in the same things as Mary Pratt.

Known for her photorealism oil paintings, Pratt has a reputation for finding beauty in the mundane. From eviscerated chickens to fish heads, a baby in the bath and the sun shining through jars of jam, she can take everyday, overlooked objects and translate them into something of awe. It’s the light, she explained, and the way it hits certain objects, making them unexpectedly pop.

At first, people didn’t quite get it.

“My mother had seen a reproduction of the chickens and she said, ‘Why would you do such an ugly thing?’ I said, Well, I thought it was beautiful. People would come in and somebody said, ‘I’ve wanted you to paint my daughter’s portrait for years,’ and he looked at the thing of the chickens and he said, ‘If I get her tonsils out, would you paint them?’,” she said, laughing heartily. “I guess my idea of what’s beautiful may be different from yours, but to me (the chicken) was truly lovely.”

Pratt, born in Fredericton, N.B., has a degree in fine arts from Mount Allison University, and has been living in this province since 1963. Her first solo exhibition was held in St. John’s four years later, and since then, she has shown her pieces around the continent. In 1996, she was named a Companion of the Order of Canada.

A retrospective exhibition of Pratt’s work will open at The Rooms tonight and will run until Sept. 8, after which it will tour across the country. Stops include the Art Gallery of Windsor, Ont., the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg, Ont., the MacKenzie Arts Gallery in Regina, Sask., and the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia in Halifax, where the tour will end in January 2015.

Instead of a chronology of the artist’s career, the exhibit will showcase selected pieces from the past 50 years as, according to The Rooms, an interwoven conversation in themes.

“Works … will be assembled, showcasing Pratt’s ‘tougher’ paintings (to use her own description of them) alongside works that embody the intensity with which she views her domestic surroundings,” explains a brochure from The Rooms.

Paintings, on loan from her own collection, public and private collections across the country and The Rooms vault, will be grouped together by period and there will be some mixed-media pieces, as well, though not many, according to Pratt. Since they’re done in chalk, owners often aren’t keen on lending them out for fear of wear.

Pratt continues to paint from photography, using a projector to display the image onto board.

“You pop the slide into a viewer and there’s a light behind it, so the light comes through much as the sun would come through a petal,” she explained. “I am just terribly faithful to what I see. I don’t try to change anything, I don’t try to say anything; when I see it, it’s just wonderful to me. I think the sieve of my imagination is good enough.

“When I used to paint from life, I’d sit there and cry, because the thing impressed me so much subjectively, and you just can’t paint like that properly — not the way I want to paint, anyway. You have to be objective, and if you’re in tears, you just can’t. Things that appealed to me really did affect me that much.”

She had never planned to use photos, she said, until Christopher took a picture of a supper table.

“Boy, when that slide came back and he said, ‘Now there, isn’t that what you wanted?’ I said, Yes, Buddy, thank-you very much, you’ve done me a great favour.”

Art enthusiasts may not have gotten Pratt’s vision when she first started, but they quickly caught on, and she has long been one of the country’s most recognized and prestigious visual artists. At 78, Mary is still working out of her home studio in St. John’s when she can: a back condition, caused by years of an awkward painting position, has caused her back to be twisted and limits her to working only an hour at a time. It doesn’t matter, really, she said, as long as she’s got her family around her — and then she broke off into a story about a grandchild.

“He came up on Valentine’s Day and brought me these oranges,” she said. “I said, That is really sweet of you, but I can’t eat oranges, and he said, ‘Well, one of them is a blood orange.’ Well, I cut into it and it was brilliantly red, so I did a lot of photography, which I haven’t been able to get at yet. It was something else, with the sun shining through this red orange.”

Organized as a partnership between The Rooms and the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, the Mary Pratt exhibit will open with a reception at The Rooms tonight at 7:30 p.m. A curatorial tour and discussion will happen Saturday at 3 p.m., and a gallery tour in French will take place Sunday at 3 p.m. That evening, Mary will sit down with Seamus O’Regan for a discussion, which is open to the public but already sold out. A panel discussion with artist Bill Rose, historian Victoria Scott and author Bernice Morgan, who will explore themes related to Mary’s artwork, will take place Wednesday at 7 p.m. Twitter: @tara_bradbury