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Cameo: Conservation through art

Fort Macleod artist Annora Brown.

Fort Macleod artist Annora Brown.

As a student working in Waterton in the late 1950s, I saw Annora Brown’s paintings and I was smitten. They were about us and about the raw beauty of our landscape.
As a single professional woman from a small prairie town, I identified with this woman who gave so much of herself to her art, to her community, and to posterity, but when I discovered 260 of her paintings were buried in the Glenbow Archives and that both of her books were out of print, my heart sank. Could I do something to fan the embers of this story back to life?
I made friends of people who knew her. I searched newspaper and museum archives. I read Patricia Alderson’s thesis about her work. I reread Annora Brown’s autobiography, Sketches from Life, and wrote a dramatization of her story.
Forward ho! Come, share the journey.
With only her sketchbook and paintbrushes, Annora Brown fought to save the flora and fauna and preserve the historic culture of the Oldman and Waterton River regions of southern Alberta.
She was a prolific artist whose paintings today grace homes and offices throughout the province and are occasionally shown as a collection in places like the Galt Museum Gallery (this summer) or reproduced on screen (such as at the 2016 Waterton Wildflower Festival this summer).
On her canvases you’ll find medleys of wildflowers, such as “The Windblown Tree at Lee’s Lake,” the “Western Wood Lilies in Waterton Park,” or wild sunflowers blooming on the edge of cultivated fields.
These are samplers, alongside grain elevators, barb wire fences and lone buildings that stood out against the prairie skyline during the 1940s and 1950s.
Annora was a compulsive conservationist, an avid historian and a passionate artist; she dedicated herself to listening to the soul of each of her subjects. In her paintings, she wanted viewers to be able to look into the heart of her subject, and to see beyond even what she was seeing.
Trying to capture those essences brought her release from her everyday pressures. In 1930, shortly after she had started a professional career in Calgary, her father called her home to Fort Macleod. Her mother had suffered a stroke and his health was fragile. Although she still owed a debt from attending the Ontario College of Art and her family had no income or medical coverage, she never questioned his request.
This young artist knew nothing about nursing or homemaking. She became exhausted and exasperated and longed for a few moments alone with her sketchbook. When she could get as far as the stone pile down the alley, it was like an expedition. There, she could make pencil studies of the tiny flowers that peeked out along the edge of the rocks and refreshed her soul.
The 1930s were tough on everyone who experienced them. During those years, Annora made Midget paintings, each consisting of a single flower painted on a black four-inch by four-inch card. Women who longed for something of beauty could scrounge one dollar for this tiny piece of art, and she could scrounge some income. The fortitude of these women sustained her.
The conservationist part of her habitually stepped forward. “Those are not weeds!” she insisted when men suggested she hoe out the wildflowers transplanted in her garden. Over time she engaged them in conversation and taught them about the food value of the dock, the medicinal value of the fireweed and convinced them to stop mowing down the sunflower.
The Blackfoot People (Piikani) were an important part of Annora’s world. She formed her memories of them as a youngster. The beat of the drums and the wail of their songs were often heard when they set up camp on the edge of town at Stampede time. Several of them were friends who came to visit her parents and fostered an insight into their culture.
With respect, she sought to understand their thinking and take note of their artifacts and activities. With her paints she captured the colour and action of the hoop dance, the rhythm of the prairie chicken dance and the likeness of life in their tipi encampments. The women were proud to show her the unique designs in their beadwork and regalia. She used this information to illustrate many textbooks.
Over the years, Annora combined art and conservation while working on her book Old Man’s Garden. She researched notes collected by expedition botanists from exploration times and combined these with native understandings about the plants. Then she “gossiped” their secrets to the rest of the world. She told tales about 259 plants from the Waterton and Oldman River region, sketched them and identified their traditional and scientific names.
In one painting, Annora illustrated the harebell with scratchboard and pen. In the background of her ink sketch she drew a covered wagon and likened the delicate-looking flower to the sun-bonneted women who came west, who faced hardship and trials with the same courage as the men. Both the flowers and the ladies stood up to the fierce prairie sun and the hurricane winds with dignity.
By the 1930s, artists were capturing scenes from many Canadian landscapes. Their canvases depicted Quebec, Ontario, outpost Winnipeg and a little strip of the west coast, but in Annora’s autobiography, she said her part of the country “was as little known as the Antarctic icescape.” She resolved to change that.
Fort Macleod was a tiny outpost, with no art galleries or city audience or nearby collectors. How presumptuous to try to have her work shown! The Calgary art community started to acknowledge her presence only when the government insisted they have a woman member if they wanted to form an Alberta Society of Artists.
By the 1960s, she had built up an extensive body of work and published Old Man’s Garden. The Glenbow Museum then recognized her work and invited her to take on a contract that would have overwhelmed any hardy soul: they asked her to paint 200 rare flowers peculiar to the foothills and mountains. This required special trips to find specimens of each when in bloom — to identify and paint them (in situ).
Annora trekked and climbed, worked through the elements and tried to out-guess the celestial calendar to catch the optimum viewing. Then she came back home to recreate from sketches and memory.
Visitors repeatedly interrupted her work to buy off the easel. There was a constant emptying of her studio. The work was incredible. In the three years it took to fulfill her commitment of 200 watercolour paintings, she completed 500 flower compositions (which is an average of about three per week). The importance of recognition paled when it was so overshadowed by exhaustion and depression, but she never let that affect the quality of her art.
Anyone who has seen these paintings, many of which now remain housed in the depth of the Glenbow Archives, will marvel at the pristine in-depth work. The originals are rarely ever seen, even in these 2016 showings at the Waterton Wildflower Festival and the Galt Museum. The rest of her paintings hang in galleries in Montreal, Ottawa, Calgary, the U.S., UK, Australia and in private homes and offices across Alberta. Her “Prairie Chicken Dance Painting” won an Alberta Jubilee Prize.
Annora wanted to record the spirit of her surroundings. She paid tribute, in her unique way, to the women, the aboriginal people, the landscape and especially the flora and fauna of Alberta. In her later years she was described by Gray Campbell in his publication Butter Side Up as “a shy person, a little deaf, but only to idle chatter, never to the whispering of the wind through the grass.”
After a major showing at the Glenbow in 1971 the critic Westart wrote, “Annora Brown is the hand of the flower sower and the eye of time. For when the lily blooms no more, should man be yet alive, she will review for him the glory that was and advise him of the glory to be.”
Currently, Annora Brown’s paintings are in storage at the Glenbow Museum. To learn more about the appeal to have the paintings digitized, contact jsasse@telusplanet.net.
(Originally published on www.natureconservancy.ca/ab, reproduced with the permission of the Nature Conservancy of Canada.)

1 Comments For This Post

  1. Ward Brown Says:

    I just wanted to take the time to say thank you for the in-depth research that you have performed in the writing of this submission. Annora was my great-aunt (my fathers aunt, and paternal grandfathers sister)
    I had the great pleasure of knowing Annora and visiting with her many times either at my childhood home or one of her residences. She was a unique person who loved to teach, and yes she was very deaf.