Blind Contour Homage #31 “Oil Refinery” – Ella May Walker
Walker was an artist with an eclectic range of talents. Born in Minnesota in 1892, she moved to Saskatchewan as a child, studying piano and eventually earning a music degree from McGill University. Upon moving to Edmonton with her husband in the 1920s, she refocused her attention from music to art when she met the Group of Seven member, Arthur Lismer. By the 1940s, she had become an accomplished sculptor and painter, moving between many mediums, including oil, watercolour, gouache, pastel, tempera, and charcoal. She was also an athlete and a “part-time nudist”—a passionate, determined, and avant-garde woman for her time and location.
Walker’s paintings and sculptures tell stories of Edmonton’s pioneer days and depict landscapes from a city undergoing growth and change. Her fascination with the history of the region would lead her to make speeches accompanied by her own illustrations. From the mid-1930s to the late 1940s, she exhibited almost yearly, including several solo exhibitions at the Vancouver Art Gallery, Saskatoon Art Centre, and the University of Alberta.
In 1942, inspired by her paintings of historical and contemporary subjects, Edmonton Mayor John Wesley Fry encouraged Walker to write a book. Her collection of short stories, Fortress North, portrayed the growth of Edmonton from its early days as a fort to its urbanization in the 1940s. Her stories were illustrated with her paintings and drawings of historical and contemporary scenes. To complete the book, Walker conducted extensive research, interviewing pioneers and First Nation’s people, and exploring the Provincial Archives of Alberta. Determined to create the most accurate reflection of the city, she reportedly wrote letters to federal ministers and the Prime Minister in search of information. This research would lead her to write several articles for the Edmonton Journal and The People’s Weekly about Edmontonians both past and present.
Among Walker’s many contributions, one of the most significant was her involvement with the Archives and Landmarks Committee, whose primary goals included identifying places, sources, material, and events of historical interest in the city. Upon her recommendation, many historical landmarks in the city were preserved.
On April 6, 1960, just a month before her birthday, Walker died after living with cancer for two years. Fifteen years later, the city would recognize her contributions to the City of Edmonton Archives, which helped shape Edmonton’s growth and expansion. Her sons donated works of art and records to the city’s archives, and established a scholarship in her name. Awarded annually to a student in the Faculty of Extension at the University of Alberta, the scholarship is a fitting tribute to a woman who dedicated much of her life to educating through art.
Born: Minnesota, 1892
Died: April 6, 1960 Edmonton