ELAINE QUEHL, Quilt Artist, Teacher, Dyer, Designer

Monday, August 31, 2015

The Art of Mary Pratt

Yesterday we spent the afternoon at the National Gallery of Canada, viewing the Alex Colville, Chagall, and Mary Pratt exhibits. Until a few months ago, I had never heard of Mary Pratt, a Canadian artist living in Newfoundland. I learned of her when the Ottawa Citizen published an article this past April, called "The Erotic Jellies of Mary Pratt". Oh, the transparency, the light and shadow, the colour red, the joy of "Red Current Jelly", below. Pratt is the only living female artist ever to have a show of her work at the National Gallery while still alive (she is now 80). 

Red Current Jelly, 1972

I was especially taken by her comments about how photography informed her work and how it elevated her painting ability. I am quoting here from the Citizen article by Peter Simpson:
This Little Painting,” as it is referred to by Pratt and in the exhibition title, is 45 by 45 centimetres (18 inches or so), but it was made just as she began to use photography as a reference for her painting. That moment was the big bang in her development as a painter." 

The article goes on to say that, "She took a photograph, and discovered that “photography is a great teacher.” Though she downplays her photographic skills — “I don’t know what an F-stop is” — she recognized how “photography stills everything, so you can look at things, and see how they work.” She describes how a photograph showed her how on the oval lip of a jelly jar, “every quarter inch, the colour changes. The colour is transient and beautiful, and just breath-taking.

The discussion about photography as inspiration for artworks happens with regularity in some of the on-line art quilt groups I belong to. There is a significant contingent in those groups that looks down at the use of photography, and realistic art along with it.

Seeing the exhibits of Colville and Pratt brings me joy because of their success as artists using realism. While I am not overly fond of Colville's statue-like figures, I was moved by his story of success, which at the same time often brought harsh criticism. I think what the careers of Colville and Pratt highlight, for me, is that there will always be praise and criticism at the same time and we just have to keep trucking, making the art we need to and want to make.

Mary Pratt's work seems, to me, a celebration of the joy in the everyday. It captures ordinary moments in an ordinary life and elevates them to the extraordinary.
Jelly Shelf, 1999.

Smears of Jam, Lights of Jelly, 2007


  1. I have loved Mary Pratt's work for years and years. Simply spectacular!

  2. Her paintings are so beautiful! Such glowing light in those jars.

  3. I saw this exhibit a few weeks ago and while I couldn't get enough of Red Currant Jelly and Smears of Jam..., Jelly Shelf neither inspired nor moved me. After much thought I concluded that Jelly Shelf didn't bring anything new to me; it looked like jam jars I've seen on numerous store shelves. So for me, this is one place where a style with less realism might have been better. Smears of Jam showed me something new and Red Currant Jelly amazed me. I don't know how long I looked at all that blue in the painting before I realised it was foil. I felt I could look at that painting for hours.

    1. I have to agree Suzanna. Red Currant Jelly blew me away, even when I just saw a small pic in the Ottawa Citizen! Jelly Shelf is not nearly as compelling. Pratt`s style is realism, so I wouldn`t advocate for her to work outside her style but maybe she could have made the composition more compelling to tell a story other than just two jam jars sitting on a shelf.


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