painter
You know that if two artists are married, only one is going to be successful. And in your family, it’s going to be [your husband]. So why don’t you just understand that and look after the house and the kids?*

If these words were directed at you, would you give up? What if they came from someone you trusted, someone who knew your capabilities versus your spouse’s because he was your collective teacher and faculty adviser? What if you were a budding visual artist and he a world-renowned painter?

How would you react?

I’m certain I would go through periods of rage, helplessness, and despair before slogging my way back to the work. (At least I’d like to think I’d persist, and that my solution wouldn’t mean I’d be wearing an orange jumpsuit to all future writing sessions. Because seriously, that level of outright favoritism and sexism? Grrrrrrr!)

As I learned in her wide-ranging interview with Michael Enright, the artist in question — Canadian painter Mary Pratt — did just that. She went on to have a fifty-year career that would be a considered a success by all objective standards. Internationally, Ms. Pratt is known for her study of light on everyday objects in the style of still life photo-realism. Canada granted her the highest award it provides to its citizens, making her a Companion of the Order of Canada. Two of her paintings have been featured on Canadian stamps.

What’s more, this was hardly the last time she’d surmount the forces of anti-career antagonism. Because her remarkable life and career hold a number of powerful lessons that apply to fiction, I thought to share them here today.

Visual artists are as quirky as prose-writers.

When caught in the state of “flow”, where time disappears and all that matters is the creative task before us, artists can have an hilarious view of life. No doubt your families have commented on the times you live in your head or how one writing hour turns into five.

In Pratt’s case, she was fascinated with the qualities of light on reflective surfaces. She would place an everyday object, such as a fish, on a background of saran wrap or tinfoil, then take a photograph and work to recapture the image in paint. So complete was her absorption in the task that she’d often finish a painting without realizing it contained her own reflection.

One night, after a intense and productive session, she told her husband, Christopher Pratt, “You know, there’s this amazing color between red and blue and it makes the most wonderful color. It’s sort of a bridging color.”

Her husband’s response: “We’ve been calling that purple for a long time.”†

Limitations can shape an artist’s voice or style, become creative fuel.

Pratt showed both an early interest in visual arts and talent. She was ten when she won an international painting exhibit for children, judged in Luxembourg. Then came the day when her parents discovered she was myopic and wanted to get her glasses. Pratt resisted. She’d fallen in love with her near-sightedness and the objects she could see clearly within that visual field.

Later on, that orientation would serve her well. She and Christopher had four children together. Because they’d fallen into stereotypical gender roles for the time, Christopher ranged outside the home, capturing images of the Canadian landscape which he’d go on to paint in his studio. Meanwhile, Mary spent her days handling childcare and the tasks of domesticity. But she was determined to work and so her subjects became that which was available to her: jelly jars, apples, a table set for breakfast.

As for her lack of a studio, rather than give into self-pity, Pratt simply learned to move her easel around the house. She said, “Usually people who make a big fuss don’t do too much.”

Duality rules. There are no mwuahaha antagonists in the writing life, nor knights on white chargers.

If there is one lesson I took from the interviews and blog posts I read about Mary Pratt, this would be it, for time and again, the people who supported her artistic life at one moment would detract from it in another, and vice versa. If Pratt were to have a career, it became clear she’d somehow have to set a course that could navigate these changing polarities.

For instance, while Pratt’s parents always supported her artistic studies, they also stressed the importance of a career that served others. (Pratt’s father was a Member of Parliament and a Minister of Justice for New Brunswick.) So at age eighteen, as Pratt looked to settle on a vocation, she told her father she wouldn’t become an artist. The choice was “too selfish.” His response was to tell her it would be selfish of her not to develop her gifts.

In her interview at Canadian Art, Mary gave the following quotation:

‘You have a talent and it is a requirement of you to paint,’ he told me. ‘It is your fate — you’re going to have to study art.’

Yet there came a time when her parents joined the newspapers in becoming her most vocal critics.

Pratt was intoxicated by the properties of light, which meant that she always raced the clock in an effort to capture her subject before it had degraded beyond measure. Then came the day when she realized she could freeze time by painting from a photograph. For her, this meant freedom of the career-changing variety; to her parents and the community of critics, it meant she had sold out.

I’ve always felt that of all the things I learned at art school, that moment was probably the most important.

For some time, paralyzed by self-doubt, Pratt stopped painting altogether. She took up stitchery.

Who should be the one to take the first photographs of the tableaux she wished to capture, and who talked her into resuming her career, painting from said photos? None other than the person whose career and talent took priority in the household — her husband.

As for the teacher I referred to in the opening quote, Lawren P. Harris, in an interview with Canadian Art, Pratt reported she bore him no ill will.

‘It was a wonderful thing for him to say to me because I realized absolutely my position at that point.’ Harris’s words triggered Pratt’s fierce contrariness, forging her resolve to carry on painting. ‘I’ve always felt that of all the things I learned at art school, that moment was probably the most important.’

There was meaning and purpose behind her painting.

Though she didn’t make the link explicitly, I can’t help but believe this next quotation explains a good deal of Pratt’s resilience. It somehow feels right, too, that she found her way full circle to making her artistic career an act of personal service. When asked what emotion Pratt would like to invoke in her audience, this was her response:

I’d want them to feel that they’d been in a room with work that had been done with some kind of charge, some kind of love, and that they could come away knowing that it was okay to love stuff like that, it was okay to love pomegranates on a tinfoil… Because I don’t know that people allow themselves to love what is around them. Sometimes they resent it because it they’ve got to either cut it or serve it on a platter. And for some people, you know, it’s all the life they have, so it’s okay to love that small life.

Now over to you, Unboxeders. Do you have any non-literary heroes who have taught you about the writing life? What about stories of alchemy — moments when what seemed like limitations to your writing became embedded virtues in your voice, a call to artistic excellence rather than cause for your defeat?

*The adviser in this quotation was one Lawren P. Harris, Director of Mount Allison University, where Pratt and her husband studied Fine Arts. Quotation derived from Mary Pratt’s interview with Canadian Art.
Christopher Pratt went on to become famous in his own right. He and Mary reportedly separated in 1990.

About Jan O'Hara

Jan O'Hara left her writing dreams behind for years to practice family medicine, but has found her way back to the world of fiction. Currently the voice of the Unpublished Writer here at Writer Unboxed, she hopes one day soon to become unqualified for the position.