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Thinking About Alberta Women Artists

Updated: Mar 18, 2021

For my money, empty has been the COVID-19 keyword. We’ve all been realizing just how lonely the spaces we inhabit look when no one else is around. Empty art galleries, I think, are especially sad to think about. The great thing about the University of Lethbridge Art Gallery is yes, the doors are shut tight for now, but there is always action behind the scenes from programming to conservation. We’re able to share some of that continuing work to keep us all connected. While this may not be the silver lining everyone hoped for in all this uncertainty, it does create an opportunity to try new things. It just takes a bit of creativity and, in some cases, a halfway decent internet connection.

Main Entryway to the Dr. Margaret (Marmie) Perkins Hess Gallery. University of Lethbridge Art Gallery photograph.

From June to November 2020, my project was geared at sourcing all information possible on each Alberta-based woman artist represented in the collection. For anyone new to these parts, the university’s art collection is big. Massive, even. By the time I was done developing a series of written biographies, the list contained seventy-five names. My job was to not only find reliable sources covering how these women made their mark in the arts but to bring these sources into a single place should questions arise. Maybe a student is interested in the history of painting in Calgary, or staff want to put together a show that has some local flavour. Maybe you saw that show and just have to know everything there is to know about who made that one piece you can't get out of your head.

Tracking down information was the biggest challenge for this project. Most Canadians don’t know any Canadian artists. Local and female artists tend to be underrepresented and understudied. These are upsetting, simple facts. Also tricky is remembering that the internet is a relatively new source of information, and that quite a few of the pieces collected here predate the world wide web by many years. For all those difficulties, finding a good lead or some appreciation for an artist was rewarding. There are people and institutions in Alberta going the extra mile to show off their local talent by any means they can. So, in a way, that made the project an extra juicy problem to sink my teeth into.

“Positive image, by candle light using Galaxy Pinhole Projection Device”, 2002, silver gelatin print, by Dianne Bos (Canadian, 1956- ). University of Lethbridge Art Collection, gift of the artist.

Instead of focusing on what I couldn’t always find, let’s look at what I did. Was there an obvious, common thematic thread tying these artists together, making it clear that there is a uniquely Albertan approach to art? Absolutely not. If anyone happens to find one, please let me know. I'd love to hear it. The variety in this single gallery collection is staggering. There is a little bit of every media type—paintings, prints, sculptures, photographs, ceramics, sketches, studies, and then some. Some pieces have been shown in past exhibitions while others have been waiting for an audience. There are hidden gems tucked in every possible corner, like when I was researching Dianne Bos and got lost in her photographs. Not only am I a sucker for pinhole photography, but the pinpricks of light in some are absolutely hypnotic the longer you stare at them. Little treasures like these photos are all over the place—we just have to be willing to get lost for an afternoon or two!

“Crest”, 1989, oil, by Barbara Milne (Canadian, 1956- ). University of Lethbridge Art Collection, gift of W. David Duckett.

Media was one challenge. Finding the single most popular type of subject material was another. Everything from figure studies to abstraction, floral arrangements to birds, industrial neon signage to pop culture personalities. Of course, I found plenty of what we might expect to see in a Canadian gallery: the landscape. Usually Alberta’s, rendered in as many different ways as there are artists looking at it. Easily my top favourite painting encountered is a Barbara Milne. While it uses the classic art standbys of oil and a landscape, there is nothing ordinary about the painting. We see an artist taking the time to show off light and time in a reflective mass of watery colour. This painting is proof that no one will take in the same sights and unique moments in quite the same way, united only by the desire to share their vision with an audience.

When the art itself isn’t giving a clear theme to follow, the artists might have the answers. About halfway through my research, I realized that there was, in fact, a common thread. Forty-five of these artists shared a prominent aspect of their biography—arts education. This went beyond the places they attended and the sources from which they took on new ideas. These artists taught and lectured on art at all levels, from community centres and public classrooms to university departments and international workshops. In a world of dwindling funds and keeping ourselves connected in whatever ways we can, arts education seemed like a timely link to unearth.

That education has formed a network of connections across the province where many artists—emerging or established—cross paths with one another in about a thousand different ways. This series emerged to look at a handful of the women in Alberta who have devoted their careers to both creation and education. While I’d quite happily show off everyone I have come to know through this project, we’ll be looking at just a few of the names attached to pieces within the gallery collection over the coming weeks.

Kelsey Black

Collection and Outreach Assistant

Acknowledgements and Sources

Make sure to take a browse through the gallery’s collection online!

Many thanks to Dianne Bos and Barbara Milne for allowing me to include images of their work.

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