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Carbon Copy

In equal balance justly weighed

Slouching toward Democracy

Where have all the wise men gone?

By Populist Demand

When urban and rural voters went separate ways

Kitchen Stuff Plus

The world through Mary Pratt’s eyes

Keith Garebian

Mary Pratt: A Love Affair with Vision

Anne Koval

Goose Lane Editions

320 pages, hardcover

This lavishly illustrated biography gives the painter Mary Pratt her due. Combining art criticism and journalistic narrative, Anne Koval makes a strong case for Pratt’s work as “sideways autobiography,” to quote the curator Mireille Eagan. Tracing the artist’s life from her early childhood in Fredericton to her final years in St. John’s, the book benefits enormously from the author’s direct access to her subject as well as to Pratt’s family, friends, and colleagues. Koval has also made good use of Pratt’s papers at Mount Allison University, where she is a professor.

Pratt’s still-life paintings are more sophisticated than Frida Kahlo’s or Joyce Wieland’s, and they represent a form of subtle self-fashioning that’s steeped in jouissance, even more so than Georgia O’Keeffe’s. Koval draws liberally upon Pratt’s own words (the author first met the artist only three years before her death, in 2018) alongside the perspectives of such poets and non-fiction writers as Margaret Atwood, Dionne Brand, Mark Doty, Gwendolyn MacEwen, Jane Munro, Michael Ondaatje, Adrienne Rich, and especially Alice Munro, whose craft shares qualities with the painter’s. As a result, Mary Pratt: A Love Affair with Vision is simultaneously authoritative and candidly subjective.

A playful artist, she transformed the common into the extraordinary.

Silas Kaufman

Koval does include the occasional humdrum account of how Pratt had to struggle through daily domestic drudgery to find a room of her own where she could create. She buys into some lopsided feminist biases, such as the feminist writer Germaine Greer’s imperious claim that only women know how to paint flesh in a realistic way. And perhaps she cites the work of Hélène Cixous, Julia Kristeva, and Luce Irigaray more than necessary. Thankfully, however, Koval does not overindulge in such academic whims or theories. I do wish the book had reproduced Bowl of Jello (1998), to illustrate why Pratt suggested Spiritus Mundi as an alternative title, one that invoked both Northrop Frye and William Butler Yeats. But even without that image, Koval succeeds at presenting a “complex and comprehensive interpretation” of a prominent Canadian artist.

Recalling a “strangely dizzy” sensation upon viewing a Pratt retrospective in November 2014, which the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia had organized around several key themes (still life, domesticity, divorce, and so forth), Koval describes her brush with Stendahl syndrome, the rare psychosomatic condition that the nineteenth-century French author allegedly experienced in Florence. As she researched and wrote this book, Koval came to realize just how much she shared Pratt’s “love affair with vision.”

Mary Frances Pratt was born in Fredericton, on March 15, 1935. Her father was William John West, a lawyer and future provincial attorney general and, later still, a New Brunswick Supreme Court judge. Her mother was Katherine “Kay” McMurray, a stenographer with a background in music, painting, and colour-tinted photography. Mary’s father taught her how to garden, while her mother taught her how to preserve fruit, make jellies and jams, and live primly while fitting into the upper echelons of Fredericton society (mockingly called “snob alley” by classmates). Mary’s innate rebelliousness showed itself early: she walked barefoot downtown, kissed boys on the steps of her house, thumbed her nose at inquisitive neighbours, hurled insults at her mother, and once threw her shoes at her father.

Pratt always had a special painter’s vision: she was able to see colours others couldn’t. Red was a favourite. Her mother made her a red sweater, and Mary loved making redcurrant jelly. She was enchanted by Susan Hayward’s red dress in the 1952 musical With a Song in My Heart. The same colour dominates many of her paintings, its natural flamboyance adding flair to even the most domestic subjects. (That said, I don’t share Lisa Moore’s expansive feminist view that Pratt’s depiction of red jelly somehow suggests “sacrificial blood, or menstruation” any more than I would claim that blancmange suggests semen.) Pratt also experimented with looser techniques in mixed brush strokes, where her reds register as dark drama worthy (to my eye) of Rembrandt or Ingmar Bergman.

As a teenager, Pratt studied with John Todd, a  local artist at the University of New Brunswick Art Centre. Trained as a commercial artist in New York, he encouraged her to pay attention to photography and advertising. “The ideas and concepts that Mary absorbed from these sources descended from images of desire, from the panoply of illusory worlds that post-war industrialization promised,” the curator Tom Smart has observed. As an MFA student at Mount Allison, where Lawren P. Harris was head of the School of Fine and Applied Arts, Pratt studied under Ted Pulford and Alex Colville, the latter demonstrating how “you could just look at the world in its wonderful simplicity and find in that simplicity lots and lots to think about.” She became obsessed with the materiality of things: unmade beds, carpets, glass bowls, ketchup bottles, casserole dishes, microwaves, freshly baked bread, cutlery, eviscerated chickens, gutted fish, moose carcasses, fruit, jellies, empty eggshells, aluminum foil, women’s dresses, and dollhouses.

Many of the things that Pratt valorized in paint appealed to other women, but her attention to them prompted male critics to dismiss her as a mere “kitchen artist.” Robert Fulford sounded more derogatory than laudatory when he described her as “the visual poet of the kitchen,” and John Bentley Mays denigrated much of her work for being sentimental and cozy. Pratt’s second husband, the American artist and art historian James Rosen, also didn’t think much of her output (their union lasted just four years). Although much of it was meticulous photorealism, rendered with the mechanical aid of a Caramate projector, her art was easy to misread. Because she used slides as visual aids, the critic Hubert de Santana mockingly called her “a pioneer of the ‘Kodak’ school of Canadian painting.” But, as Koval shows, Pratt explored how playing with light could illustrate an unmade bed, the stretched lines of Saran Wrap, the colours reflected in crumpled tinfoil, or the luminosity of red jelly. She looked for life in shadows and textures. The House inside My Mother’s House, Pratt’s all-glass sculpture from 1995, suggests an “infinite containment,” which Koval likens to the “secret recesses of the heart: center within center, within within within.” (Here she quotes Susan Stewart and, despite the American professor’s failure of language, the connotation is an apt one.)

Pratt embodied the imagery she explored. Especially in warm colours, scenes had a visceral impact on her: “almost like one’s first encounter with sex,” as she once put it. “When light comes in through the window and hits something, that’s an erotic experience,” she explained. “It’s like the transfiguration in earlier art, but there’s no angel — and no virgin. The sexual experience is reduced to its kitchen equivalents.” In this way, Pratt’s warm eruptions of joy were radically at odds with the art of Christopher Pratt, her moody first husband, with whom she had five children, including one who died in infancy. She avoided his focus on architecture and masculinity. She acknowledged his cleverness, while claiming he couldn’t see or understand the world that she saw with more compassion and generosity.

Throughout her life, Pratt was able to cope with the burdens of financial deprivation, motherhood, grief, domesticity, and alienation, especially during the family’s years in rural Salmonier, near St. Mary’s Bay in Newfoundland and Labrador. Christopher’s infidelities were another matter, though Mary’s portraits of Donna Meaney (one of his lovers) boldly defy the male gaze. These are intimate, haunting representations of female trauma, resilience, and insecurity. Her pencil and oil Cold Cream (1983), for example, shows Meaney with the stuff slathered over her face, invading her hairline, her head wrapped in a red towel like an improvised turban. It is a portrait of the grotesque and the vulnerable, with the mistress being half surprised at what she reveals of herself.

Pratt’s art is capable of a mysterious seductiveness. While The Dining Room with a Red Rug (1995) illustrates a precise positioning of furniture, it is also a depiction of human absences. Self-Trussed Turkey (1994) didn’t turn out quite the way Pratt planned, but it is far more interesting for that. In it, a bird’s raw pink flesh is highlighted against a deep-green background that imparts, as Koval argues, a Freudian unheimlich quality or strangeness in the ordinary. Familiar objects and spaces associated with the home and middle-class domesticity seem “haunted by a sense of melancholy and mystery.”

Describing My Parents’ Bedroom, The Dining Room with a Red Rug, and The House inside My Mother’s House (all three works from 1995), the critic Maria Kubacki has noted how “the unspoken elements of family life are palpable” in their heavy atmosphere, “suffused with a sense of childhood mysteries, secrets, and traumas.” Perceptive observers — chiefly women for many years — recognized that Pratt’s paintings weren’t mere copies of photographs but could be charged with “perceptually ‘felt’ sensations” that extended “beyond the visual.” Pratt herself explained, “For a realist, my work is very abstract in detail.” No doubt she was referring to patterns, repetitions, and generalizations, as well as to a subtle eroticism embedded in perfect textures. Acknowledging it was difficult to articulate this erotic charge, she remarked, “I think the world comes to me through my senses, and that’s why I get this charge. The world doesn’t come to me through my eyes exactly; it comes to me through every bit of me.” Quoting the American poet Mark Doty, Koval concludes that Pratt’s painting relates to timelessness through things frozen in time: “That points to immensity through intimacy. An art of modest claims that seems perennial, inexhaustible.”

What Pratt saw intimately was often a world of sacrifice. Service Station (1978) shows a moose carcass trussed upside down, legs bound to a metal crossbar of a tow truck in a garage, reminiscent of a crucifixion. When she showed beauty in raw flesh, Pratt drew upon Rembrandt; when she portrayed transfiguration, she invoked Jean-Siméon Chardin. Service Station, Koval explains, “updates the genre of still life, or the game piece, to the twentieth century, whereby the tow truck adds a garish, contemporary twist that aligns her work with several modernist painters.” Chaïm Soutine, Graham Sutherland, Lucian Freud, and Francis Bacon come to mind, though, of course, there are many distinctions between Pratt’s art and theirs.

Pratt also demonstrated how sacrifice can be registered without naked flesh and blood. In Wedding Dress (1986), colour, lighting, and arrangement conspire to create a ghostly image of a hanging female, minus the body. After Mary’s divorce from Christopher, her painting became increasingly autobiographical in its psychological import. Bonfire with a Beggar Bush (1989) virtually crackles with the sound of fire. Its bold colours — dominated by red — mimic the movement of flame while marking her cathartic release from marriage. Equally emblematic is Threads of Scarlet, Pieces of Pomegranate (2005), which shows one fruit whole and another split open, its juice spilling like blood.

Perhaps the supreme achievement of this biography is the case Koval makes for Pratt’s unparalleled emptying of herself into things. She assented to the invisible with a hunger to truly see — and thereby to truly be — and this desire animates every work she made. Prompted by the spiritual poet Christian Wiman’s recent assertion in Zero at the Bone that even dead matter can be living spirit, I realize that Pratt, like all genuine artists, didn’t pursue the physical world per se. She pursued the force that compelled her to pursue. To borrow Wiman’s words, Pratt’s art is “the formal fruition of the hunger to truly see.”

Keith Garebian has just published his eleventh poetry collection, Three-Way Renegade, as well as a memoir, Pieces of Myself.

Related Letters and Responses

Barbara Cameron Vancouver