Blind Contour Drawing #39 “Pemberton Valley” Emily Carr

Emily Carr is one of the most widely celebrated and recognizable Canadian painters. Strongly associated with the Group of Seven, many of her works represent the cultural identity of British Columbia—its natural landscapes, its historical development, and its indigenous heritage. But Carr’s legacy was not always so certain.

The eighth of nine children, Carr was raised by a domineering British father, who taught her that women ranked well below men, and who developed in his daughter an abhorrence of physical intimacy. Upon her parents’ deaths, Carr was left with a strict and controlling sister, who rebuked Carr for her interest in art. Thereafter, Carr rejected traditional expectations, making up her own rules and manners as she forged a new path.

In fact, it is hard to know whether obstinacy and eccentricity helped or hindered her success. During much of her lifetime, public response to Carr wavered between two unfortunate extremes: disregard and dismay. Despite her fine arts education in San Francisco, London, and Paris, Carr’s paintings were at first unpalatable to western Canadian audiences, who resisted the revolutionary modernist and post-impressionist trends she’d learned in Europe. And because her physical and mental health frequently suffered (she spent many months in European “sanatoriums”), she gained a reputation for volatility. Her reception was probably not helped by her public behavior: she smoked and swore, walked around with a pet monkey on a chain and a rat in her pocket, and had a hot temper, which was frequently unleashed upon the tenants of her boarding house, “The House of All Sorts.” This ignominy, as well as the economic hardships of World War I, meant that Carr struggled to make ends meet. She produced very little art in her middle age, partly because students would rarely study with her, and partly because she had to work so hard as a landlady.

Despite these antagonisms, Carr persisted in pursuing her own passion for western landscapes and indigenous cultural heritage, and this tenacity was ultimately rewarded by broad celebration in her final years. When fame finally materialized, the work she had produced over her lifetime came to light, including the paintings produced as a younger woman during her frequent sojourns to First Nations communities along the west coast, where she painted totem poles in their natural settings. She was determined to document the poles before they disintegrated, and to record the indigenous people she encountered, recognizing the threat to their culture and lives by disease, poverty, and government policies.

In 1927, Carr’s work was “discovered” by Marius Barbeau and Eric Brown, who convinced Carr to allow her paintings to be featured in an exhibition on West Coast indigenous art at Canada’s National Gallery. Carr’s visit to Ontario for this grand entrance into eastern Canada’s art scene enabled her meeting with Lawren Harris and other Group of Seven members, who guided Carr’s transition from totem pole pieces to landscape paintings of the mountains and forests of the lower mainland and Vancouver Island, which were painted while she travelled through wilderness campsites in her caravan, “The Elephant.” In her sixties, she turned to creative writing; her essays and short stories were published in seven highly successful collections before and after her death in 1945. It was only in these final years that Carr earned enough to survive without renting out rooms, breeding dogs, or taking on art students. At last, she was rewarded with the recognition her work merited: in addition to receiving the Governor General’s Award for non-fiction, her paintings were bought by Canada’s National Gallery and the Vancouver Art Gallery, and are still exhibited in esteemed galleries around the world.

Born: 1871, Victoria, B.C.
Died: 1945, Victoria, B.C.


Forster, Merna. 100 Canadian Heroines: Famous and Forgotten Faces. Dundern Press, 2004.

Klerks, Cat. Emily Carr: Adventures of a West Coast Artist. Heritage House, 2015.

Shadbolt, Doris. The Art of Emily Carr. Douglas & McIntyre, 1979.

Thom, Ian M. Emily Carr Collected. Douglas & McIntyre, 2013.

BCD #41

Blind Contour Drawing #41 “Waterhole” 1975 Wynona Mulcaster

Wynona “Nonie” Mulcaster lived her life equally devoted to three pursuits: horses, art, and education. She recalls how her desire to create art was challenged when, in Grade 2, she was caught drawing in class. After her picture was thrown in the garbage, she drew in the playground outside—a seven-year-old rebel. She remembers the indignation she felt throughout her youth at not having the means to develop one of her passions.

Mulcaster was born in Saskatchewan, a province that in the 1930s and 40s was dominated by drought, depression, and war—art education and galleries were almost nonexistent. But Mulcaster was determined, and she convinced her lawyer father to hire an art teacher so that, at age 17, she could learn how to draw a horse. Here, Mulcaster’s passions merged. She had been horseback riding from childhood, and owned her first horse by the time she was 13. Horses feature frequently in the prairie landscape paintings for which she eventually became famous.

But to Mulcaster, the missing piece in Saskatchewan’s two worlds of art and riding was education. She recalls: “I went into art education because I was indignant that after 12 years of schooling … I had never been introduced to art. I only discovered art after leaving the schooling situation.” And, after earning a BA in Art and English from the University of Saskatchewan, she took on multiple teaching jobs—from rural Saskatchewan schoolrooms to the Saskatchewan Teachers’ College to the University of Saskatchewan, where she influenced later painters such as Robert Murray, Otto Rogers, and Allen Sapp.

Meanwhile, Mulcaster developed Saskatchewan’s horseback riding culture, founding the province’s first pony club in 1945, and helping to train several Olympians. These endeavours were a labour of love: she taught all of her riding lessons for free. As a tribute to her influence on Saskatchewan’s equestrian culture, she was inducted into the Saskatoon Sports Hall of Fame in 1994.

For the last forty years of her life, Mulcaster lived mostly in Mexico, returning to Saskatchewan for summers. Until the end of her life, she rode her horse every morning, and painted for most of the day. Delighted when her audience struggled to determine whether her pieces portrayed the landscapes of Mexico or Saskatchewan, she admits that geography matters less to her than “a gritty feeling of dry struggle.” For Mulcaster, the land and its horses evoke feelings that transcend the specificities of place.

Yet, despite her ambiguous sentiments about geographical exactitude in her paintings, Mulcaster effectively and dramatically transformed Saskatchewan’s artistic, equestrian, and educational landscapes.

Born: April 10, 1915, Prince Albert
Died: August 25, 2016, San Miguel de Allende, Mexico



Heron, Laura Lee Dale. “German Expressionism and the Child Art Movement in the Career of Wynona Mulcaster.” Master’s Thesis, Concordia University, 1995.

MacPherson, Colleen. “Artist Finds Passion in Land.” Star-Phoenix, 22 June 2005, D2.

“Noted Saskatchewan Artist Wynona Mulcaster Dies in Mexico at Age 101.” GalleriesWest, 7 September 2016. http://www.gallerieswest.ca/news/noted-saskatchewan-artist-wynona-mulcaster-dies-in-mexico-at/

“Prairie Gold: Sports Heroes from Saskatoon.” Saskatoon Public Library, 1983. http://spldatabase.saskatoonlibrary.ca/ics-wpd/exec/icswppro.dll?AC=MENU_QUERY&XC=/ics-wpd/exec/icswppro.dll&TN=LH_SHOWS&SN=pg+PanAmerican+Games&RF=www_PG%20Full%20Record&EF=&DF=&MR=20&RL=0&EL=0&DL=0&NP=255&MF=

BCD #40

Blind Contour Drawing #40 “Spectators” Helen Kalvak

Helen Kalvak didn’t begin formally producing art until quite late in her life, when she was in her early sixties. She had spent her first several decades on the land—living in igloos and hunting seal in the winter, fishing and hunting caribou in the summer. By the end of her life, she was one of the few remaining Inuit women who had spent the majority of her years immersed in the traditional lifestyle of her people. Her knowledge and the art she produced therefore offer a repository of knowledge about Inuit customs, giving later generations insight into their spiritual and cultural history.

Born in a skin tent in the Northwest Territories, Kalvak learned skills taught to girls, such as sewing and food preparation, as well as skills normally only passed on to boys. Because Kalvak had no brothers, her father taught her to hunt; when she was eleven years old, she killed her first caribou using a bow and arrow she crafted herself. Her father also trained Kalvak as an angatkuq, a spiritual healer; after achieving difficult accomplishments in the wilderness, her face was inked with tattoos indicating power and beauty.

Kalvak eventually married Edward Manayok, an Inuit singer and drum dancer; together, they raised their children in the same semi-nomadic lifestyle in which she had been brought up. It wasn’t until her husband’s sudden death that Kalvak moved “off the land,” settling in Ulukhaktok (formerly Holman). There, she became one of the founding members of the Holman Eskimo Cooperative, helping a Catholic priest establish a print shop.

Using graphite on paper, Kalvak portrayed stories her parents had told her in her childhood, often focusing on the roles of Inuit women as healers, sorcerers, and transformational figures. Her pictures provided templates for sealskin stencil designs on kamiks, parkas, and mitts, while prints of her drawings—over 150 of them—helped the cooperative survive. She was interested in ideas of spirituality and traditional life, approaching her craft as a spiritual exercise. Artist Leo Bushman recalls that Kalvak began her artistic process by humming or singing, moving “as if she were warming up for a dance instead of a drawing session.” She remained devoted to her art practice until Parkinson’s Disease made using her hands impossible.

Kalvak’s pieces have been sold internationally, and she became a member of the Order of Canada in 1978. In 1979, Canada Post used her piece The Dance on the 17-cent stamp. She is therefore one of the few women whose lifetime straddled distinct periods and societies. Jessica Tomic-Bagshaw notes that Kalvak was “both traditional in her experiences and exceptional in her ability to survive the upheaval of her culture.”

Born: 1901, Ahiryuak Lake, NWT
Died: 1984, Ulukhaktok




“Helen Kalvak, 1901 – 1984.” Virtual Museum, http://www.virtualmuseum.ca/Exhibitions/Holman/english/artists/index.php3#c9

“Helen Kalvak, Holman Island, NWT.” Quintana Galleries, https://web.archive.org/web/20070911222509/http://www.quintanagalleries.com/htmls/artists/pages/Artists-713.htm

Tomic-Bagshaw, Jessica. “Helen Kalvak: Pioneering Inuit Print-maker.” Framing Our Past: Canadian Women’s History in the Twentieth Century, edited by Kate O’Rourke, Lorna R. McLean, and Sharon Anne Cook, McGill-Queens UP, 2001, pp. 60 – 61.


Blind Contour Drawing #37 “Wolfman” Kitty Smith

After several interviews with Kitty Smith, author Julie Cruikshank realized that the best way to connect with Smith was through stories. “To a large extent,” Cruishank observes, Smith’s “evaluation of other people … is based on their storytelling abilities.”

Storytelling is inseparable from Smith’s life and livelihood. She understands her own personal history as intertwined with the history of her communities and the cultural origin stories—tales of wolves, crows, women, and children—that nourished her upbringing. Spoken in her first languages of Tlingit and Athapaskan (Tagish) and—later—in English, these narratives are Smith’s method of talking about people and places.

Born in 1890 near the mouth of the Yukon’s Alsek River, the early years of Smith’s life were dramatically impacted by the Klondike gold rush, which peaked between 1896 and 1898. Her mother’s brother, along with three other Tlingit men, was accused of shooting a white prospector. Smith explains the shooting itself as customary revenge for the poisoning of two Tlingit men by prospectors, but the punishment on her uncle was severe: all four men were tried for murder; her uncle and another man were executed, while the other two died in hospital. Smith’s mother travelled to Marsh Lake, the home of her own mother’s family, rocked by shock and grief. While there, she died of an influenza epidemic.

Left without a mother, Smith was largely raised by her father’s family, who taught Smith to be a skilled trapper as they travelled along Yukon rivers. Raised to a high status through a potlatch ceremony, a strong marriage was secured for her once she finished a lengthy seclusion through puberty. However, Smith was dissatisfied with the marriage; her husband, she claims, was unfaithful and unskilled. She made the decision—shocking for the time—to leave him and to live with her mother’s family, a “Crow” family, according to Tlingit kinship affiliations. Here, she developed close bonds with her grandmother, who eventually secured a better marriage with Billy Smith. The couple had six children, to whom they taught hunting, trapping, fishing, sewing, and other skills.

But Smith never relied on her husband as a means of support. At a time when women were neither primary breadwinners nor carvers, Smith was both, and she was fiercely independent. In the 1930s, she realized how much Canadian soldiers would pay for winter gear, so she used muskrat skins to sew mitts and mukluks. She also began carving small poplar totems of the animals that populated the stories she grew up with. Her husband would sometimes write short pieces to accompany the figures, such as “The Wolf Man,” which she affixed to the bottom of her Wolf Man carving. Later, she published a book of stories, entitled Nindal Kwädindür / I’m Going to Tell You a Story. The collection is as much homage to her reverence for narrative as are her carvings.

Smith died in 1989. At that time, she was one of the last people to remember the impact of the gold rush and the construction of the Alaskan highway on Tlingit and Athapascan people. But although her early life bore the ruptures brought by western economic and environmental intrusions, she remained steadfastly devoted to and defined by the stories and relationships of the multigenerational lines of her family.

Born: 1890, Yukon
Died: 1989



Cruikshank, Julie. Life Lived Like a Story. U of British Columbia P, 1990.

“How People Got Fire: Study Guide.” National Film Board of Canada. http://lss.yukonschools.ca/uploads/4/5/5/0/45508033/hpgf_guide.pdf

Kwanlin Dün First Nation. Listen to the Stories: A History of the Kwanlin Dün People. A Kwanlin Dün First Nation Publication, 2013.

Tukker, Paul. “Flea Market Find Inspires New First Nations Art Exhibition in Yukon.” CBC News, 14 May 2017, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/north/kitty-smith-carving-flea-market-exhibition-whitehorse-1.4113543


Blind Contour Drawing #36 “The Kemmel Road, Flanders” Mary Riter Hamilton

Mary Riter Hamilton’s life was marked by both personal and historical tragedies, events that pushed her to produce remarkable paintings while also impacting her health. Shortly after she was born in 1873, Hamilton’s family moved from Ontario to Manitoba, where she spent her childhood. After training as a hat maker in her teens, she followed her employer to Thunder Bay, Ontario, where—at the age of 18—she met and married Charles W. Hamilton. Within four years, both her infant child and her husband had died.

Hamilton never remarried. After her husband’s death, she travelled in search of an art education, having always enjoyed drawing as a child. She studied in Toronto before moving to Europe to train at the Académie Vitti in Paris, only coming home in 1911 when her mother fell ill.

From the time she returned to Canada until the end of the First World War, Hamilton struggled to support herself. She moved to Victoria, BC, setting up shop as a portrait artist and selling her own paintings to survive. When the war began, she begged the Canadian government to send her to Europe as a war artist. But because she was a woman, her request was denied.

It wasn’t until 1919—just after the end of the war—when her opportunity to return to Europe arose. She was hired by the Amputation Club of British Columbia “to paint the battlefields of Europe, a tribute to those who were killed, maimed and wounded in the Great War.” And since she arrived so soon after the end of the war, she was able to capture the sorrow and despair that still populated the terrains she covered—the Somme, Vimy Ridge, Ypres.

For three years, Hamilton endured perilous dangers living in a tin hut with Chinese workers hired to clear the western front of war debris. Unexploded landmines and shells littered the devastated fields she painted. Travelling bands of uprooted criminals and looters—as well as rats and disease—constantly threatened her safety. She frequently had little to eat, while rest and comfort were hard to come by. Yet, she set up her easel on the battlefields, accompanied by her dog, Old Bob. She used whatever materials she could find; when she ran out of canvases, she turned to paper, wood, and even cardboard. In this time, she produced over 350 paintings—the largest collection of Canadian World War I paintings produced by a single artist.

While the European response to Hamilton’s war paintings was reverential and supportive (her pieces were displayed together to large crowds in Paris), “Canada was less enthusiastic and authorities offered little praise.” Indeed, when Hamilton returned home, the public showed little interest in her war paintings, perhaps in a desire to move on from the losses of war. In the end, Hamilton refused to sell any of these pieces, donating the entire collection to the National Archives of Canada.

Her experiences on the battlefields in Europe took a major toll on Hamilton’s health. She spent the rest of her life in Canada in and out of hospitals and psychiatric wards, painting whenever she could in order to support herself. Although her work was admired, it was not until after her death that Hamilton became celebrated as one of the most important Canadian artists of her time.

Born: February 11, 1873, Teeswater, Ontario
Died: 1954, Vancouver



Gwiazda, Emily. “Mary Riter Hamilton.” The Canadian Encyclopedia, 2018. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/mary-riter-hamilton


McLeod, Susanna. “Painting ‘Placed Watered with the Best Blood of Canada.’” The Kingston Whig Standard. 21 July 2015. https://www.thewhig.com/2015/07/21/painting-placed-watered-with-the-best-blood-of-canada/wcm/2891f626-c75e-8f8a-e4bb-502daeb83349


Blind Contour Drawing #35 “Sunday Morning” Helen Parsons Shepherd

In her early days, contemporaries found Helen Parsons Shepherd’s desire to be an artist objectionable not because she was a woman, but because she was a Newfoundlander. Her parents regarded creative activities as hobbies; her father, a poet in his spare time, worked professionally as a lawyer. Before Parsons Shepherd helped transform Newfoundland and Labrador’s cultural landscape, St. John’s had no art scene to speak of—not a single commercial gallery or art school.

Discouraged, therefore, from studying the one interest she had been passionate about since childhood, Parsons Shepherd drifted along various career paths, attending one year at Memorial University College, then studying for four months at a nursing school in Montreal, then clerking for a year in her father’s office. Finally, perceiving the aimlessness of these pursuits, her father relented and, in 1944, paid the tuition for his daughter to attend the Ontario College of Art; she was only the second Newfoundlander to enroll.

At OCA, Parsons Shepherd met fellow student Reginald Shepherd, whom she would marry. Upon graduation, the couple returned to Newfoundland, determined to survive as artists in a province without an established milieu. Despite the risks, they purchased a three-story Victorian house, renovating the lower two floors into the structure that opened in 1949 as the Newfoundland Academy of Art, the province’s first art school. “We had nothing to lose,” Parsons Shepherd asserted in the face of the challenges before them.

Indeed, they gained a great deal. From an enrollment of 21, the school soon expanded to 120 students, aged 8 to 80. Parsons Shepherd taught classes at the school, as well as at four local convents. For eleven years, the academy emboldened the development of the city’s creative community.

However, thanks to the limited financial support offered for art education in Newfoundland, the academy struggled to hire and keep teachers. In 1961, the academy closed. Parsons Shepherd and her husband decided to focus solely on their own art, which had been neglected under the demands of operating their school.

Although Parsons Shepherd is remembered for her remarkable still life paintings and her images of Newfoundland street scenes, she earned a successful livelihood as a portraitist, commissioned to paint so many elite public figures—including Prince Philip in 1976—that she became informally celebrated as St. John’s “Court Painter.” Working from photographs and using notes taken during hour-long conversations with her subjects (who provided locks of hair to ensure Parsons Shepherd’s colour matches), her portraits captured a person’s distinguishing energy. Her biographer Ronald Rompkey remarked, “As a portraitist, she understood the person. She didn’t just paint a picture, she would bring something out.”

Parsons Shepherd remained an artist her entire life, committed to creative exploration till the end. She was an artist with a singular passion, breaking down the barriers of Newfoundland conventions so successfully that her once reluctant father eventually celebrated her paintings in much of his later poetry.


Born: 1923, St.John’s, Newfoundland
Died: 2003, St.John’s, Newfoundland





“Helen Parsons Shepherd.” Heritage: Newfoundland and Labrador. https://www.heritage.nf.ca/articles/arts/helen-parsons-shepherd.php


Rompkey, Ronald. Reginald Shepherd, Helen Parsons Shepherd: A Life Composed. Breakwater Books, 2005.


Sullivan, J.M. “The ‘Court Painter’ of Newfoundland Founded the Province’s First Art School.” The Globe and Mail, 4 July 2008.


Blind Contour Drawing #33 “Mother Earth Struggles for Survival” 1975
Daphne Odjig

If ever an artist felt grateful for an illness, it was Daphne Odjig. In 1932, at the age of 13, Odjig was hit by rheumatic fever and forced to withdraw from school, dashing her ambitions of becoming a schoolteacher. However, her disappointment quickly gave way to delight; living at home on Manitoulin Island’s Wikwemikong Reserve gave her an opportunity to grow close to her paternal grandfather, an Odawa-Potawatomi stone-carver, and her mother, and Englishwoman who had met Odjig’s father when he was based in England during World War I. Odjig’s adolescence was nourished by her connections with her parents and grandfather, each of whom encouraged Odjig’s creative interests.

But Odjig’s grandfather and mother died when she was just 18, and she set out for other parts of Ontario, moving to Toronto during World War II. It was in early adulthood that Odjig first encountered racism, and the shock triggered a withdrawal from her heritage. She spent her years in Toronto visiting art galleries, exploring European paintings and admiring the Cubist styles of painters like Picasso. But she gave herself the last name “Fisher” (an Odawa translation of “Odjig”) and felt, for the first time in her life, isolated.

The retreat from her indigenous origins did not last long. After marrying her first husband, Paul Somerville, and moving to British Columbia to raise their two sons, she enrolled in art classes, where she was encouraged to paint “realistic” pieces. While she briefly followed this advice, she soon decided that she wanted to paint how she felt, a decision that catapulted her towards innovative new styles.

In 1962, Odjig married her second husband—two years after Paul died in a car crash—and after they relocated to Winnipeg, a new phase in her artistic production and motivation began. Over the next two decades, Odjig’s style grew to amalgamate her First Nations spiritual heritage with the modernist techniques she had admired years before. Her pluralist approach and two-dimensional representations of indigenous mythology, colonial history, and personal and collective memories relied on vibrant colours and a dark “formline” that anchored the works’ meaning in place. On her formline, Odjig remarked: “If you looked at my painting before I got my formline on, you probably wouldn’t distinguish what I’m doing. But by the time I got my formline on, everything is in balance, and it’s there.”

Odjig’s art punctured the boundaries separating First Nations art and a broader Western audience. Picasso called her a “remarkable artist,” and she was awarded with every accolade available to artists, including the Order of Canada. She was one of four artists in the world chosen to paint a memorial to Picasso by the Picasso Museum in France, and her pieces have been featured on Canada stamps.

Yet, to Odjig, true success was achieved by her activism, which operated as an extension of her role as an artist. In 1974, after serving a six-month artist residency in Gotland, Sweden, she and her husband returned to Winnipeg to open Odjig Indian Prints of Canada, a craft shop and small press that eventually morphed into the New Warehouse Gallery, the first Canadian gallery to exclusively represent First Nations art.

As curator, Odjig encouraged young artists by buying and selling their work. She organized the Professional Native Indian Artists Association, more famously known as the “Indian Group of Seven,” and illustrated a range of books, from school readers to a collection of First Nations erotica. Before her breakthroughs, the mainstream art world saw indigenous art as “exotic handicraft or cultural artefact more properly housed in a museum than in a public gallery.” But Odjig’s collaborative intervention with other First Nations artists changed the field of possibilities. “We acknowledged and supported each other as artists when the world of fine art refused us entry,” she explained. “Together we broke down barriers that would have been so much more difficult faced alone.”

Perhaps Odjig’s journey as an artist and activist is best captured by Roots, her triptych about the disintegration of identity that occurs as a result of abandoning heritage, and the potential for regrowth upon rediscovering those lost origins. “You find out who you are and are proud. … Only when you discover yourself can you be secure.”

Born: September 11, 1919, Wikwemikong Unceded Indian Reserve on Manitoulin Island Ontario
Died: 2016, Kelowna


“Daphne Odjig.” NativeOnline. http://www.nativeonline.com/daphne_odjig.htm

Devine, Bonnie. “Daphne Odjig: 1919 – 2016.” Canadianart, 6 October 2016. https://canadianart.ca/features/daphne-odjig-1919-2016/

Fernandes, Andrea. “The Grandmother of Canadian Native Art: Daphne Odjig.” Mental Floss, 28 June 2009. http://mentalfloss.com/article/22099/grandmother-canadian-native-art-daphne-odjig

Lahey, Anita. “Odjig’s Lyrical Line.” Vernissage, Fall 2007 (excerpt). https://www.gallery.ca/sites/default/files/documents/news/Biography_Daphne_Odjig.pdf

Nathoo, Zulekha. “‘Indian Group of Seven’ Artist Daphne Odjig Dead at 97.” CBC News, 2 October 2016. https://www.cbc.ca/news/entertainment/daphne-odjig-dead-1.3788123


Blind Contour Drawing #34 “Stained glass installation – Champ-de-Mars metro station in Montreal” Marcelle Ferron

From her earliest years, a resistance to conformity and a determination to bridge the domains of art and life characterized Marcelle Ferron’s life. At age three, repeated hospitalizations due to osseous tuberculosis forced her to internalize an awareness of death and to believe in the urgency of living well, even as the illness left her with a “bad leg” and lifelong struggles with her health. At age seven, her mother died and her father moved Ferron and her siblings to rural Quebec, where they benefited from outdoor activities and his well-stocked library.

Encouraged in her passion for painting, Ferron enrolled in Montreal’s École des Beaux-Arts; within a year, she withdrew over disagreements with the institution’s approach to modern art. Seeking new styles and a mode of artistic engagement with the world, Ferron became associated with the Quebecois group known as the Automatistes, artists who worked to suppress conscious control and let the unconscious mind take over creation.

Through the Automatistes, Ferron joined several avant-garde artists in 1948 to sign the Refus Global, an anarchistic manifesto that called on the Quebec clergy and mainstream society to reject traditional social values. The manifesto shocked the public and left all of its signatories blacklisted, thanks to statements like: “To the devil with holy water sprinklers and the ‘tuque.’” Yet, although the CBC calls the Refus Global “one of the most important and controversial artistic and social documents in modern Quebec society,” it sparked enormous ideological change, eventually leading to the province’s Quiet Revolution.

Ferron’s existentialism and anti-establishment values informed her private life, too. Refusing to submit to social expectations that would have her embrace domestic life, Ferron left her husband in 1953, moving with her three daughters to Paris, where she stayed for thirteen years. During her time in Europe, Ferron became part of the Parisian café scene, where she hobnobbed with well-known artists. Support for her paintings and regular exhibitions in reputable galleries meant that, by the time she returned to Quebec in 1966, she enjoyed international renown.

Never satisfied with mere acknowledgement of her talent, Ferron was determined to reach a wider audience with her art. Her friendship with the painter Paul-Émil Borduas led her to adopt the belief that “the artist’s role was social,” and she persistently searched for ways to transcend the political limitations of a parlor artist. She found a new means to articulate her ideas after finding inspiration in the windows of European cathedrals. She studied stained glass with the Michel Blum in Paris before returning to Montreal to invent “a method that allowed her to build walls of light by inserting sheets of antique glass between two walls of glass, the surfaces between joined by invisible joints that she, herself, perfected.”

Ferron’s glass technique led to tremendous success, and established her as one of the most preeminent public artists in Quebec. Her stained glass dominates several spaces in Montreal, including the Champs-de-Mars and Vendome metro stations.


Born: 1924, Louiseville
Died: 2001, Montreal



“Celebrating Women’s Achievements: Marcelle Ferron.” Library and Archives Canada. https://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/women/030001-1160-e.html


Lambton, Gunda. “Marcelle Ferron.” Stealing the Show: Seven Women Artists in Canadian Public Art. McGill-Queens UP, 1994, pp. 15 – 33.


“Refus Global: Revolution in the Arts.” CBC Archives. https://www.cbc.ca/archives/topic/le-refus-global-revolution-in-the-arts



Blind Contour Drawing #32 “Interior” Molly Lamb Bobak

In her seventies, artist Molly Lamb Bobak recalls Mary Williams with warmth and admiration: “She never kept a lot of baggage with her,” she reminisces, admiring the independence of her mother, who lived with but never married Bobak’s artist father, Harold Mortimer-Lamb—an unconventional arrangement for the 1920s.

Like Mary, Bobak’s later life was filled with gardening and living lightly. She parted with most of her paintings once she’d finished them, so that a 1990s retrospective of her life’s work prompted her delight at being reunited with “old friends.”

Bobak is remarkable for the vibrancy of her attitude as she broke barriers set before female artists of her generation. After graduating from Vancouver’s School of Art in 1941, Bobak registered in the Canadian Women’s Army Corps (CWAC), jokingly called the “Quacks.” For three years, she travelled from training camp to training camp across Canada, at every opportunity begging her commanders to be considered for the position of war artist, a role no Canadian woman had ever held.

During these mid-war years, Bobak kept a most unusual diary, formatted as a mock newspaper and filled with sensational headlines about her daily experiences. Her first caption—“GIRL TAKES DRASTIC STEP!”— about enlisting is followed by years of entries that, on one hand, caricature her attempts to navigate military rules and, on the other hand, critique the institutional norms she was constrained to obey. The light-hearted sketches illustrating these journals are matched by the paintings she produced during this time; on one colourful canvas, she portrays herself skipping with a case of beer through the streets of Toronto.

At last, Bobak’s appeals landed on listening ears; in 1945, she became Canada’s first female war artist, and was sent overseas to document Canadians’ experiences at war. Bobak’s art from this period offers a glimpse of women in the war that no other Canadian artist could provide: images of Canadian servicewomen working as typists, drivers, seamstresses, launderers, dishwashers, and clerks—the only jobs available to women serving in the army.

Along with these portraits of military women, Bobak’s art is remarkable for her emphasis on community and friendship. Her scenes are public: women in the foreground, soldiers gathering in crowds—in bustling city squares, on fields, in gas masks, or at a canteen. These pieces focus on the energy of camaraderie that characterized her military service, as well as much of her life afterwards.

It was during the war that Molly Bobak met her husband, painter Bruno Bobak. Returning to Canada, they both worked as artists in Vancouver, travelling back to Europe for several years before finally settling in Fredericton.

Even in these post-war years, Bobak remained interested in the idea of crowds. She was frequently drawn to flowers, insisting that they were not so different from her earlier subjects: “Poppies are like crowds. They move in the wind. You don’t organize them; you don’t settle them into something. You paint them as they are: blowing or moving or dying or coming to birth. That’s how it is with my crowds.”

After her death at the age of 94 (outliving her husband by only two years), a friend celebrated her life and work, as well as her zeal for friendship and inclination to laughter: Molly’s art, he remarked, “expressed the sheer joy of living in a community.”

Born: 1920, Vancouver
Died: 2014, Fredericton



Freedman, Adele. “A Loyalist Bastion Bathed in Light.” The Globe and Mail, 1982 April 10.


“Molly Lamb: A Retrospective.” CBC Digital Archives. 1993 November 29. https://www.cbc.ca/player/play/2414705964


Schaap, Tanya. “‘Girl Takes Drastic Step’: Molly Lamb Bobak’s W110278—The Diary of a CWAC.Working Memory: Women and Work in World War II, eds. Marlene Kadar and Jeanne Perreault, Wilfrid Laurier UP, 2015.


Smart, Tom. “An Artistic Duo with Extraordinary Gifts.” Telegraph-Journal, 2018 June 23.


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