If members of the general public were asked to name a prominent Canadian landscape painter, I’d guess that they might identify a member of the Group of Seven or Emily Carr, but here in Saskatchewan we also have a number of landscape painters of prominence, and high on the list is Dorothy Knowles.
Terry Fenton, acclaimed landscape painter and former Mendel Art Gallery director, has forged an aptly-named homage to his friend and fellow artist, Saskatoon’s Dorothy Knowles, and Hagios has packaged the text and forty stunning Knowles’ images in a book that one might expect to pay twice as much for. Land Marks: The Art of Dorothy Knowles is a tour de force.
Fenton met his subject at an Emma Lake Artists Workshop in 1965, where another artist commented: “That housewife from Saskatoon is making good paintings.” Not surprisingly, the famous Emma Lake workshops (initiated in 1933 by Walter Murray and Augustus Kenderdine) played an integral role in Knowles’ life and work. It was here that she “discovered a passion for art that was to change her life”. Her connection with Emma Lake continues: since 1968, Knowles and her husband, artist William Perehudoff, have owned a cottage near
the art camp.
Aside from exploring Knowles’ personal history, Fenton also winds readers through the evolution of landscape painting here, noting that “members of the Group of Seven weren’t attracted to the Canadian prairies.” He details the importance of the Mendel family to the Saskatoon art scene; the development of the Department of Art and Art History at the University of Saskatchewan; and the importance of the American abstract painter Barnett Newman’s Emma Lake workshop, which spawned the group of artists known as the “Regina Five” and”set the tone for the great workshops of the 1960s and ’70s”. (Knowles, who had become a mother of three, missed the Newman workshop).
It’s interesting to learn about Knowles as a person, as well as a painter. “One senses that she sees life as a kind of comedy, like Jane Austen, perhaps. She is as bemused at her own accomplishments as she is with others,” Fenton writes, and comments upon her “inquiring mind” and ability to continually challenge herself. He speaks of her practice of painting on location – using a van “as a kind of portable studio” – and how the camera became a “sketchbook for reference in the studio.”
Knowles’ main subjects are the valleys of the North and South Saskatchewan; “holiday country on the fringe of the wilderness; and mountain scenes, which differ from other artists’, in that “They convey an impression of being in the mountains without being about the mountains.”
Of the genre itself, Fenton writes “A landscape painting is a kind of stage set without players.” I like that. Like Knowles’ luminous images, offset in the book by wide white margins, it is unselfconsciously poetic. And I agree with Fenton: “Knowles is Knowles, uniquely.”
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