Prairie artist captures nature’s colours on canvas

She was an artist, an author and ahead of her time.

Annora Brown (1899-1987) used the southern Alberta prairies as the inspiration for a body of work that illustrated First Nations culture, wildlife and especially native wildflowers.

“This was my world,” wrote Brown. “The wailing of wind across an empty prairie, the barking of coyotes rising sharply from the velvet blackness of a coulee, the honking of wild geese before a threatening storm.”

She depicted all those things in her art but this fall, 260 of her paintings are scheduled to be digitized and made accessible to the public via Calgary’s Glenbow Museum.

The project is made possible by Joyce Sasse, a retired United Church minister and passionate admirer of Brown’s work. She contracted the Glenbow at a cost of $6,000, to digitize works already in its archives but rarely put on display.

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“I put the money down and said, ‘we’re going to do it,’ and I’m sure the community will be behind me in doing it,” said Sasse, who also grew up in southern Alberta and lives in the same landscapes as did Brown.

As a teenager, Sasse first discovered Brown when the artist’s work was displayed in Waterton National Park. It struck an immediate chord.

“I saw her art there and said ‘hey, that’s the first art I’ve seen that is about us.’ And I was smitten.”

Sasse has since written a play about Brown and has told the artist’s story in sermons and newspaper columns.

When she learned that Lethbridge’s Galt Museum was launching an exhibit on Brown and her work, Sasse said she knew the time was right to seek greater public access for Brown’s work.

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Born in 1899, Brown grew up in Fort Macleod, the daughter of a North West Mounted Police officer and a schoolteacher. She and her parents were acquainted with several of the Famous Five, the women instrumental in gaining the vote for Canadian women.

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Brown later studied at the Ontario College of Art and was instructed by two members of the famed Group of Seven, Arthur Lismer and J.E.H. MacDonald.

Mary-Beth Laviolette, curator of the exhibit at the Galt, said that training influenced Brown’s work.

“She was there at a very good time. She got there in 1925 and she graduated in 1929 and she had the opportunity to meet some of the members of the Group of Seven and have them also as instructors,” said Laviolette.

“They were very interested in modern art and so there was a lot of emphasis on having really bold and bright colours, and interest in the forms of things.

“That kind of set her on the path, in the sense that she learned how to really try to develop her own individual voice.”

After college, Brown had planned a career as an artist and teacher at Calgary’s Mount Royal College. Being a single career woman was unusual at that time, and so was Brown’s penchant for driving a Model T around town when few women did so.

When her mother became ill, she returned to Fort Macleod as her caregiver.

“She decided she would get to know the country that she lived in, and get to know it as well as she could,” said Laviolette.

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As Sasse recounts it, Brown stole every moment she could to pursue her art. She sold small paintings of flowers to women in the community, though in the late 1920s and 1930s, money was scarce for luxuries.

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She also gave art classes at various southern Alberta communities and wrote her first book, Old Man’s Garden, which documented the identities and folklore of many prairie wildflowers.

A second book published years later, Sketches from Life, was Brown’s autobiography.

After Old Man’s Garden was published, Brown was commissioned by the Glenbow to provide 200 wildflower paintings. It was a vast amount of work to travel, find the flowers at their peak, sketch them and later paint them, but it is this collection and 60 other works that are now being digitized.

“I think she was interested in trying to capture the light of southern Alberta. Certainly the wind had a huge presence in her art,” said Laviolette.

“I think she was really interested in kind of interpreting what she saw around her and the things that she valued.”

Sasse said Brown’s work resonates with others in southern Alberta and beyond, and many are contributing to cover costs of the digitizing project.

At the Galt, Laviolette’s curated exhibit chronicles Brown’s history and features paintings, sketches and illustrations.

“I think she kind of created a picture of southern Alberta that was seen in other parts of the country and that was really quite important.”

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The Galt exhibit in Lethbridge runs until Sept. 5. At about the same time, the Glenbow will have finished the digital project, making Brown’s work available in the museum’s database.