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Especially prior to the 1930s, it was difficult for anyone, let alone women, to become a professional artist in Alberta. Art schools and an artistic community simply did not exist for many years and those who want to pursue an artistic career had to travel outside the province and often even outside Canada to receive training. Gradually this changed in the 1920s and 1930s as schools and places of exhibition for artists were opened: in 1924, the Edmonton Museum of Art (later the Edmonton Art Gallery) was established and by 1927 the Provincial Institute of Technology and Art (later the Alberta College of Art) in Calgary began offering art courses. In the late 1930s, the University of Alberta started developing a fine arts program and the Banff School of Fine Arts was opened. However, it still remained very difficult for Albertans to receive training and make a living as an artist.

Featured Women
Elsie Park-Gowan

Elsie Park Gowan

Elsie Park Gowan (nee Young) was born in Helensburgh, Scotland on 9 September, 1906 and came to Edmonton, Alberta in 1912. She grew up in Bawlf, Alberta and attended Normal School in Camrose.  Gowan taught at Rocky Mountain House and at the age of 22, she attended the University of Alberta. 

Upon completion of her studies, she taught High School at Lacombe where she began her playwriting career producing Homestead and The Hungry Spirit.  The former is based on her experiences in rural Alberta and the latter champions a woman's right to education and a career. She was also a pioneer in radio drama writing works for both CKUA and the CBC.

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Handigraft class in Fort MacCleod taught by Annora Brown (third person to the right of the Clothes pole). Glenbow ArchivesDespite the odds, some women did pursue careers as artists. An example is Annora Brown, who was born in 1899 just outside of Red Deer and grew up in Fort Macleod. Her mother, Elizabeth Brown, a schoolteacher who had taken art classes as a young women in Ontario encouraged her daughter to draw and paint. Annora Brown followed suit and went to the Ontario College of Art, where she studied under the well-known Canadian artists, Arthur Lismer, Lawrence Harris and J.E.H. MacDonald who encouraged an interest in representing Canada in its different regions. When she returned home, Brown became committed to developing art schools in Alberta. She taught at Mount Royal College in Calgary; however, she was soon obliged to move back home to care for her ailing parents. Despite her nursing obligations, she maintained a studio and continued to teach art; working for the Department of Extension at the University of Alberta, she travelled to Lethbridge, Medicine Hat, Brooks, High River and Crowsnest Pass teaching some of the first art classes in these areas. She later worked at the Banff School of Fine Arts and in 1971 she received an honorary doctorate from the University of Lethbridge. Throughout her artistic career she remained devoted to painting scenes of Southern Alberta, the native people around Fort Macleod and Alberta's natural wildflowers. Her career exemplifies how Albertan artists had to become pioneers: opening their own schools, developing their own support networks and, thus, clearing the path for future generations of artists.

Cast of "The Fruit of His Folly" in Olds.  Glenbow ArchivesMany women became involved in the arts in less professional ways. One of the most popular forms of early artistic expression in Alberta was theatre and musicals. Communities, church groups and women's organizations all put on plays in which women were often heavily involved. For instance, the Wauneita Club, a women's group at the University of Alberta, frequently organized plays to show at their meetings. Women schoolteachers organized plays with their schoolchildren, especially at Christmas time. Women's organizations sponsored travelling theatrical productions, like operas, to come to the smaller communities in Alberta. Also, women were often involved in church choirs and in organizing musical productions. The Red Deer Quota Club, for exampled organized concerts and recitals for local musicians and students from the University of Alberta.

One common way in which women expressed their creativity was through crafts. Because crafts usually served a utilitarian function - meant to either be used in the home or sold for money - women felt more comfortable taking time out of their days to create crafts. However, they were created to a much higher standard than was necessary for utility purposes - often with intricate details and decorations. A common form of handicraft was needlework often done on clothing, linens or bedding. All these could be used in the women's homes, given as gifts or sold at markets. There were often contests for needlework at fairs and women vied for the top prizes. Other handiworks including weaving, basket making, leatherworking and beadwork, many of which were first produced in Western Canada by Aboriginal women. Quilt making was another important craft especially since it allowed women to work communally in quilting bees. Also, the scraps of fabrics saved over many generations used to make quilt often symbolized for women their family history.

Handicraft exhibition at the University of Alberta.  Glenbow ArchivesWomen's handicrafts did not go unnoticed by society. Donald Wetherell and Irene Kmet argue in their 1990 book, Useful Pleasures, that handicrafts became handicrafts become particularly popular in the interwar years because they represented an "antidote to industrialization and man-made goods." In other words, for a society that was starting to first experience a consumer culture with mass-made goods, the existence of handmade, time-intensive crafts was refreshing. This appreciation for crafts was made apparent in 1933 when the Alberta board of the Canadian Handicrafts Guild and the Alberta Women's Institute sponsored a handicrafts exhibition at the University of Alberta, including 250 entries from around the province.

Despite the numerous obstacles to creating art in Alberta, many women found a way. Some, like Annora Brown, became artistic pioneers: managing to receive artistic training, develop a career and open schools and programs for future artists. Many more found ways to incorporate creative forms of expression into their busy lives. Projects such as theatre and handicrafts provided both a creative and social outlet for women and allowed them to gain recognition as artists in their own right.

Sources and Suggested Readings:

  • Evenden, Kirstin. "A Sense of Place in Alberta: The Art and Life of Annora Brown." Framing Our Past. Eds. Sharon Cook, et al. Montreal: McGill University Press, 2001.
     

  • Stuart, E. Ross. The History of Prairie Theatre: The Development of Theatre in Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan 1833-1982. Toronto: Simon and Pierre, 1984.
     

  • Wetherell, Donald and Irene Kmet. Useful Pleasures: The Shaping of Leisure in Alberta 1896-1945. Edmonton and Regina: Alberta Culture and Multiculturalism/Canadian Plains Research Center, 1990.

 

  
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