Pratt, Mary West

Degree conferred: Doctor of Letters (D.Litt.)

Orator: Patterson, Stephen E.

to be Doctor of Letters

Mary West was a very young person, still in high school, when she first came "Up the Hill" to study painting in the UNB summer art programme. Back in the 1940s and 50s, in the infancy of the Art Centre, this university had an admirable programme of instruction for talented would-be painters who could study under established artists such as Alfred Pinsky and Fritz Brandter. Mary Pratt, now recognized throughout Canada for her evocative still life images and her moving depictions of the female form, took her first artistic steps here.

Mary West Pratt grew up in Fredericton, her "playground" as she nostalgically remembered it in an article she wrote last year for the New Brunswick Reader. Her neighborhood on Waterloo Row is the subject of one of her best-known and, at least locally, best-loved paintings: its neat row of Victorian-and-later houses looking out over the river through a sentry-line of magnificent elms. It is a picture of order and comfort, two of the characteristics of her young life. The daughter of W. J. West, Attorney-General of the Province in the government of Premier Hugh John Flemming, and Katherine McMurray West, she attended Charlotte Street School and Fredericton High. In winter, she took art lessons from Lucy Jarvis, director of UNB's Art Centre, located in those days in an old army hut at Alexander College in the west end before it was moved to the campus. In summer, besides pursuing her art, she supervised children in Fredericton parks and playgrounds, a bright nickel-plated whistle tied around her neck the symbol of her authority.

But as important as Fredericton was in shaping her young life and stimulating her artistic vision, it was Mount Allison University where she learned the techniques that distinguish her work today, and absorbed the unmistakable ideas of such painters as Alex Colville who developed her fascination with realism and the simple subject-matter of our Atlantic region. The term "magic realism" is indeed overworked, but one cannot help being arrested by Mary Pratt's intense preoccupation with the technical problems of surface, light, and colour, and one cannot help saying aloud: "How did she do that?" when confronted by her paintings of transparent objects: glasses half-full of milk, a Ziploc plastic bag containing filleted trout, or glistening clear glass bowls with varied contents. What might appear simply as a bowl of cherries becomes magically transformed by the shiny reflective exterior of the stainless steel bowl, and the duller burnished steel of the interior, images that carry us past the beauty and simple pleasure of fresh fruit into the hard real world of metallurgy and manufactured household goods.

Whatever Mary Pratt's technical expertise, and her growth as a practitioner, there is a deep and abiding continuity to her work that might best be described as feminine - not didactically feminist, but quite unmistakably grounded in the feminine dilemma of the twentieth century. Her pictures of the 1960s and 70s, painted when she was a young wife and mother, are images of the kitchen as seen by a woman. The supper table is as it was after the family had disappeared, covered with crumpled napkins, and dirty dishes, and a ketchup bottle fairly screaming from the far end. Her vase of daisies is imperfect, some of the flowers broken stemmed, seen against a long dark hall with a window on the outside world at the far end. Why are her paintings of the covers of the 1972 and 1974 calendar identical, as if one year was much like another? These are not images of anguish, but they are profoundly honest about the domestic life of women in her generation. Her later paintings of the female form represent not so much a change of subject but an extension of a life-long theme.

Mary Pratt's work has been recognized and exhibited across the country. From the time of her first solo touring exhibition in Newfoundland in 1973 until the stunning show organized by Tom Smart of the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in 1995, which toured until 1997, her work has been seen and admired by thousands. Her paintings are found in major galleries and corporate offices in almost every province. Books analyse her art and her life's influences. She has honorary doctorates from seven universities, prestigious awards from numerous art groups or institutions, and she is a Companion of the Order of Canada.

But what is so special for us at UNB is that Mary West Pratt began her quest for artistic excellence here, in Fredericton, proving that the first advocates of UNB's Art Centre were right in their belief that even a modest summer program could shape the cultural life of our community. At long last, we welcome Mary Pratt into the circle of our graduates.

From: Honoris Causa - UA Case 70, Box 3

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