Blind Contour Drawing “Dishcloth on Line #3 ”
– Mary Pratt 1997
Mary Pratt had a fortunate beginning to life: she grew up on one of the most well regarded streets in Fredericton, New Brunswick. She was one of two daughters to a Harvard-educated provincial cabinet minister. Her maternal grandmother, Edna McMurray—one of Pratt’s primary influences—was the co-founder of the first Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire (IODE) chapter in New Brunswick.
As a young woman, Pratt attended Mount Allison University, studying Fine Arts under Alex Colville, Ted Pulford, and Lawren P. Harris. It was Colville who influenced the development of her style and her subsequent move toward realism. Harris was less enthusiastic; when Pratt married the artist Christopher Pratt in her second year of university, Harris was quick to inform her that a marriage could only hold one artist—and she was not it.
Despite his forewarning, Pratt kept up her practice even after moving to Scotland so that her husband could attend the Glasgow School of Art. Over the next several years—in Scotland and after their return to Canada—the couple had four children. Despite the limited time available, Pratt continued to paint. Frustrated by the busy obligations and limited terrain of motherhood, she eventually took inspiration from the domestic sphere, focusing on the ordinary things around her home in rural Newfoundland. She began to experiment with the use of light, noticing the charged quality of ordinary objects when they were regarded from new perspectives. Finding she couldn’t sketch quickly enough before the light changed, Pratt started taking photographs of objects that caught her eye. When the slides were returned months later, she would choose only those objects that seemed to carry what she called an “erotic charge.” Then, she would paint, using the photos that retained that special quality that she loved.
Although Pratt started to show her work in 1967, it was these portrayals of the mundane objects populating women’s domestic lives that brought her national recognition in the 1970s.
In 1996, Pratt was named Companion of the Order of Canada. In 1997, she was awarded the Molson Prize for visual artists from the Canada Council for the Arts. In 2013, she was made a member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts. She was awarded nine honorary degrees from various Canadian universities. Pratt was also the first Atlantic woman to have a solo exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada.
Yet, her numerous accolades accompany a life that was sometimes troubled. Her marriage was filled with turmoil, ending in 2004. She also suffered severe near-sightedness, which is reflected in the focal depth of her paintings. By middle age, rheumatoid arthritis made it difficult for her to walk and use her hand. Despite these challenges, Pratt continued to paint until her late 70s.
Photo: Graham Bezant / Toronto Star via Getty Images
1935 – Fredericton, New Brunswick
2018 – St. John’s, Newfoundland