Sunday, June 12, 2016

Cameos: The life and work of Annora Brown

Annora Brown

Hidden Treasures

Joyce Sasse - There’s a treasure chest of Annora Brown paintings located in the Collections and Research Archives of Calgary’s Glenbow Museum. The shame is that only occasionally have they been displayed or lent to other public institutions. The blessing is that they have been so carefully preserved they are of pristine quality. The excitement is that arrangements have now been made to have these paintings digitized so they can be made electronically available for public viewing.

Since the 30’s Annora Brown used pen and sketch pad, written word, watercolour and oil paint to show the people of South Alberta the unique beauty that lay at their feet. Her base was Fort Macleod. Her region was the territory drained by the Oldman and the Waterton Rivers. Her concern was to study, identify and preserve the memory of as much of the culture and the flora as she could.

Annora Brown’s painting of Gallardia. Photo courtesy the Glenbow Museum.

By the mid 50’s the Glenbow recognized the uniqueness of what she had to offer and commissioned her to paint 200 of the most rare flowers peculiar to this region. It was an awesome request for a woman approaching 60 years-of-age. It meant that the various species had to be located (be it on mountain top or prairie flat), identified (by popular and scientific names), sketched and taken back so where she could paint (with watercolour and casein) an in-situ likeness.

Her studio was her home. As people heard about her work, they came from afar to meet her, view her work and purchase freshly completed paintings. In the 3 years (1958 – 1960) that it took her to complete her commitment, she had actually completed 500 paintings (an average of 3 paintings per week). The intensity was absolutely exhausting physically and mentally. But she never compromised on the quality of her work.

Annora Brown’s painting of the Evening Star. Photo courtesy the Glenbow Museum.

The region today is noted for its abundance of wildflower species. Waterton Park has more than 50 % of all wildflower species found in Alberta. 50 % of Canada’s rarest wildflowers are found here, and 30 % of those are found only in this region.

Pioneer Interpreter of the Western Canadian Landscape

“By the 1930’s artists were capturing scenes from many Canadian landscapes” Annora Brown wrote from the Ontario College of Art. “Their canvases depicted Quebec, Ontario, out-post Winnipeg and a strip of the West Coast.” But her own prairie region “was as little known as the Antarctic landscape!”

She resolved to change that omission, though I’m certain she didn’t anticipate her studio and gallery would be the home of her ailing parents in Fort Macleod. However, from that centre her paintings and writings were proudly distributed to individuals and galleries across Canada (and beyond).

The distributing of these work-pieces took grit and determination and the help of colleagues and admirers.

Fort Macleod was not the easiest place to work from in the 30’s and 40’s. There was no opportunity to display in local institutions or have her work discussed in art publications. Nor were there any commercial galleries close at hand. Besides, she was a woman – single at that!. The male dominated Calgary art community started to acknowledge her work only when the Alberta Government insisted they have a woman member if they wanted to form an Alberta Society of Art.

Annora was chosen as their token woman, but she didn’t let that deter her. Her mother had taught her to look for what was right before her eyes.

In 1960 columnist Ken Liddell tipped his hat to her pioneer interpretation of this unique landscape. Her work included symbols of the West such as barbed wire, elevators and even the tragic dust storms of the 30’s. Also she was one of the first to capture the lifestyle and customs of the Blackfoot culture. Meanwhile, her expertise as a wildflower painted was and is without equal.

When she left Fort Macleod in 1965 to move to Sydney, BC, Liddell noted “Alberta has lost another talented individual of a group so scattered they could never form a colony, and so individualistic they never would want to anyway.”

Upcoming exhibition at Waterton Wildflower Festival

A showing of Annora Brown's work will be presented at the Falls Theatre, Waterton, on Sunday, June 19, 7-9 pm as part of the Waterton Wildflower Festival.


Between 1930 and 1960 the Chinook Belt region of Southern Alberta underwent incredible change. That’s when Fort Macleod artist Annora Brown tried, with pen and paint brush, to record our unique landscape, our indigenous culture and our magnificent flora and fauna. Her dynamic depictions are without equal.

In 2016 a major initiative of the Galt Museum (Lethbridge), the Fort Macleod Gazette (weekly newspaper), and writer Joyce Sasse is to bring to full flame the life and work of this pioneer artist, historian and conservationist.

Since a large portion of her paintings have been stored in the Glenbow Museum Collection and Research Archives for fifty years, we have launched an initiative to have those 260 archived paintings digitized so they can be viewed by the public.

In the early 60’s Sasse first became acquainted with Brown’s work when it was being marketed in Waterton Park. She has resolved to see that this work be brought back to the prominence it deserves.

Contributions to this digitization project can be made to Joyce Sasse for The Annora Brown Project. P.O. Box 92, Pincher Creek, AB T0K 1W0

Annora Brown articles republished courtesy of the Fort Macleod Gazette

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