Profile: Mary Pratt
by Sean McQuaid
In person, Canadian painter Mary Pratt comes across as a whimsically wise artistic matriarch, her delight in both art and life undimmed by her extensive experiences with both. Best known as a sort of photo-realist, Pratt not only captures life but transforms it, seeing the wondrous, the absurd, and sometimes even the horrific within the mundane. Whatever her subject, she imbues the commonplace with uncommon significance.
Born to an upper-middle class Fredericton family, Mary defied class conventions by becoming an artist, likewise defying conventional artistic wisdom by seeking subject matter from her own environment (rather than in "cultural centres", despite a teacher's assertions that "there is nothing of life" in the Maritimes) and by declaring herself a member of the "Mummy Bunny School of Art" (as the aforementioned teacher referred to any art that doesn't require suffering).
Mary's subjects (particularly landscape) often overwhelmed her until she stumbled upon the medium that would change her life: photography. Her husband took a slide of a scene she wanted to paint while the light was right, and she was hooked by this capture of the moment in all its immediacy and detail, though part of her felt as if she were cheating. "I thought it was wicked," she admits. "I thought it was evil. I just loved doing it."
Pratt projects slides onto her painting surface as a sort of proportional map or guide, but the interpretation thereof is unquestionably her own: in her eyes, a bowl of gelatin-encased fruit seems "like something in a chemistry lab. . . . life floating in a bowl;" a trout in a ziploc bag undergoes a "total loss of dignity" to its absurd, soulless, modern packaging; a gutted moose carcass becomes "a political statement;" and a barbecue becomes "a deadly, vicious thing. . . .like a little crematorium. . . .where something dead would be."
Pratt's works include many nudes, and a handful of landscapes (such as the charmingly dream-like "Small Wharf on the Pond" on display at the Confederation Centre). She is currently experimenting with new techniques, especially works that incorporate mixed media (like chalk and pastels). After approximately fifty years of painting (she began at age ten), Pratt continues to learn and evolve.
Though many viewers (and Pratt herself) find a good deal of symbolism in her work, Pratt doesn't consider others' potential interpretations of her work while painting. Her work remains a very personal joy. As she says, "I want to keep the image for myself. Sometimes I think I want to be it."
Rembrandt is her favourite painter, but Pratt traces her beginnings as a child artist to her earliest influences, which were her parents (amateur painters), hollywood films and- of all things- comic books. She was particularly fond of gruesome villains, like those in the classic Dick Tracy strip- the "wonderful creatures" as she calls them. Fifty years later, Pratt continues to concoct her own wonderful creatures, with no end in sight. When asked what remaining goals she has for her work, she claims she just wants to "make it more and more right."
Mary Pratt recently gave a lecture at the Confederation Centre Art Gallery & Museum as the second installment in the gallery's Visiting Artists series, funded by the Canada Council.