- Reta Summers Cowley
Affirmative action is not a policy that's embraced by the business of publications on art, but those publishers that do make the effort to engage in positive discrimination are essential for an understanding of culture outside of the canon. Among art histories, Canadian topics are a minority and the Canadian woman painter is doubly threatened. Admirably, the University of Calgary Press has launched an Art in Profile Series aimed at contemporary arts in Canada and geared to 'raise the profile' of lesser-known artists and architects. Number 5 in this series, Terry Fenton's Reta Summers Cowley is published in association with the Mendel Art Gallery and is the first monograph ever published on Cowley (1910–2004).
Fenton recounts Cowley's noteworthy, though temperate, life and good-weather art in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Cowley liked to paint her landscapes on location, so she rarely painted during the winter. Her identity as a teacher and wife lent Cowley a 'schoolmarm' quality, as Fenton puts it. Despite such appearances, Fenton expressly argues that Cowley stands outside the category of Sunday painter. An actual tally of the months she spent painting from 1971 to 1990, including the number of excursions and number of paintings resulting from these outings, is included in an appendix.
With an impressive list of publications to his name, and past directorships at the Edmonton Art Gallery, the Leighton Foundation in Calgary, and Saskatoon's Mendel Art Gallery, not to mention an active career as a painter, Fenton's reputation certainly precedes Cowley's. As a thirty-year friend of Cowley, Fenton's approach is personal and accessible, which suits the mandate of the series: to bring underexposed talent to a wider audience. The use of primary resources, such as diary and journal entries, as well as taped interviews, makes this publication an asset to those researching the subject of Canadian painting in the prairies. A section called 'Cowley on Cowley' offers the artist's own words in anecdotal categories, presenting her thoughts on painting, critics, teaching experiences, and contacts such as Kenneth Noland. Her voice continues to be highlighted by quotations that appear next [End Page 365] to many of the full-page colour reproductions, which illustrate a selection of watercolour and oil paintings by Cowley.
While maintaining his sensitivity to the context of art in western Canada, Fenton thoughtfully brings our attention to the importance of the British watercolour tradition in Cowley's work. English-born artist Walter J. Phillips, a teacher from whom she adopted formal and philosophical tendencies in her work while at the Banff School of Fine Arts, is discussed as an early mentor to Cowley. It was from Phillips that Cowley adopted her practical 'don't talk – just paint' attitude. Her later development as an artist is credited in part to the evening art classes she took under the instruction of Nicola Bjelajac and Eli Bornstein at the University of Saskatchewan.
Fenton also makes a point to articulate a lineage that holds Cowley as a 'worthy successor' to David Milne. Continuing in a personal tone, Fenton admits that this position of his has never been well received by his contemporaries and invites further antagonism by making the issue regional: 'Since the death of Milne in 1953, three Canadian artists have brought something new to the [watercolour] medium: Toni Onley, Ernest Lindner, and Reta Cowley, all from the Canadian West.' Cowley's large-scale watercolour landscapes are analyzed from the perspective of action painting, which respects the culture of big painting at mid century. By comparison, the 'compression' of Milne's work appears more graphic and somehow slips into the role of predecessor to the 'expansive' style of Cowley's work. For readers who know the work of Milne, there is no room for improvement, really. Regardless, Fenton's thoughts are original and the informed reader will be left with the desire to learn more about the author's convictions.