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Thinking About Marion Nicoll

Welcome to our first post highlighting Alberta women artists and their roles as educators. Perhaps the best place to start in thinking about arts education is with the types of learning opportunities available in Alberta. There are so many entry points to art, whether to try our hands at producing or to keep looking at how others perceive the world, and they form a series of broadly accessible tiers. Community centres, artist clubs, post-secondary departments, dedicated art schools, private lessons—the sky is the limit. It is the setting of the dedicated art schools that bring us to the artist in this first post, as she is tied deeply into the history of the Alberta University for the Arts.

Imagined Space: Abstract Art from the Canadian Prairies (detail), 2016. University of Lethbridge Art Gallery photograph. This exhibition was a showcase of artists working in abstract styles on the Canadian prairies.

Marion Nicoll (1909-1985) was the first female instructor at AUArts, all the way back when it was known as the provincial Institute of Technology and Art. Not only was she the first woman teaching classes, but she also taught there for over thirty years while art in Canada continued to evolve and expand. She started her own formal studies when she was quite young. Over time she pursued her own education, completing courses with the Ontario College of Art, the Provincial Institute of Technology and Art, the Emma Lake Artist Workshop in 1957, and the Art Students League in New York City. The Arts Students League has offered art classes and professional development throughout its long history, and many of its founding members were women. Marion Nicoll attended with her husband Jim Nicoll, an engineer and another Calgary artist.

Nicoll is considered one of Alberta’s most influential woman artists for two major reasons. First, while paving the way for female instruction on an institutional level, Nicoll was a mentor to subsequent generations of artists. She appears again and again in the biographies of those inspired by Nicoll’s life and work or by students of the late great painter. Second, she was one of the first artists bringing abstraction into the province. The history of abstraction is a messy series of converging timelines, coming relatively late to Canada’s art world. We do know that Nicoll moved from figurative works sometime in the 1950s to devote herself to automatic drawing and spontaneous composition. Severe arthritis in her later years led to explorations of the intersection between abstraction and printmaking. Old Man Dancing in the Moonlight shows off a little bit of Nicoll’s process while still working in figuration. It’s always fun to see how artists work their way to a final idea, particularly when we remember that everyone’s approach is constantly evolving.

“Old Man Dancing in the Moonlight”, 1946, drawing, by Marion Nicoll (Canadian, 1909-1985). University of Lethbridge Art Collection, gift of Mr P. Ohler, Calgary 1982.

Marion Nicoll held membership in various art groups and societies. Nicoll was the first female artist from the prairies to join the Royal Canadian Academy. She was also a member of the Alberta Society of Artists and the Print and Drawing Council of Canada. The biggest local art society Nicoll involved herself with was the Calgary Group, where she found herself in excellent company. The group promoted non-objective art in Western Canada at about the same time it was pushing through Eastern Canada. The University of Lethbridge art collection has pieces from quite a few of the members that are worth a look—Jock Macdonald, Maxwell Bates, Janet Mitchell, Luke Lindoe, and Vivian Lindoe. While maybe not from her time working directly with this group, Landscape by Bulldozer shows off Nicoll’s approach to abstraction. The division into four sections of colour is striking, and the white shapes and dark lines slashed over top add another layer. The title and the colour choices remind us as viewers that there are landscape references, but at the same time the dark lines tell us that we are looking at the layers of a drawing. The painting is like a bridge between realism and abstraction, in that sense.

“Landscape by Bulldozer”, 1965, ink, by Marion Nicoll (Canadian, 1909-1985). University of Lethbridge Art Collection, gift of Ron D. Bell, 1989

Our gallery maintains some lovely examples of Marion Nicoll’s abstraction and works in progress using a few different mediums. A number of her paintings are housed at the Glenbow Museum, and the Alberta Foundation for the Arts has an online selection of her endeavours with realism. The stylistic difference forms a huge divide between her early and later career. It is easy to get a sense of how she moved from real-world influences and into a world of shapes and colours. Marion Nicoll is the first great trailblazer I found through my project of writing biographies for Alberta women artists in the ULAG collection. Her place in Alberta art history is special because she influenced so many students that came through what is now AUArts.

Kelsey Black

Collection and Outreach Assistant

Acknowledgements and Sources

Many thanks to the Glenbow Museum for allowing the inclusion of Nicoll’s artworks.

Check out these links for more of Marion Nicoll’s work:

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