The quiet, charm­ing revo­lu­tion­ary

The Western Star - - EDITORIAL - Rus­sell Wanger­sky Rus­sell Wanger­sky’s col­umn ap­pears in 39 SaltWire news­pa­pers and web­sites in At­lantic Canada. He can be reached at Rus­sell.wanger­[email protected]­ — Twit­ter: @wanger­sky.

For many years, Mary Pratt was my mother-in-law. Not for years now, but for many.

Because of that, I’ve had a unique win­dow on a great Cana­dian artist, from the books she liked to read to the or­der she wanted her gar­den to hold, right down to know­ing which smiles were true and which ones were de­liv­ered because they were re­quired.

I will tell you this: she was a force that you un­der­es­ti­mated at your peril — and many peo­ple did. I think that was, in part, because she wanted it that way.

She was cer­tainly not un­ap­pre­ci­ated as a painter; her skills there are well known.

After her death, the In­ter­net lit up with peo­ple post­ing im­ages of their favourite works, and ev­ery one, even if I knew it well, struck me again as if it were brand new.

But more than a su­perb and unique painter, Mary Pratt was also a skilled tac­ti­cian, an ex­cep­tion­ally smart woman who worked within the stric­tures and con­ven­tions of a dif­fer­ent age.

She worked very well as her own kind of se­cret agent of change — kind and care­ful and gen­er­ous to a fault, to be sure, but al­ways lis­ten­ing, al­ways aware, al­ways bal­anc­ing cause and ef­fect. She knew where all the levers fit, knew ex­actly where the ful­crum had to sit for max­i­mum ef­fect, knew how much gen­tle force to ap­ply. If she de­cided that the prov­ince needed a new, for­mal art gallery prop­erly de­signed to store and dis­play art — rather than a left­over cor­ner of the St. John’s Arts and Cul­ture Cen­tre car­peted with a hor­ren­dous or­ange car­pet that, if the stories are true, was pur­chased sec­ond-hand by Premier Joey Small­wood from a closed pavil­ion at Expo 67 — she would work re­lent­lessly, both pub­licly and so­cially, un­til it hap­pened. And it did.

All within a divine ex­te­rior; if she had to move you for­ward with a pointed barb, she cloaked it af­ter­wards with a smile and a laugh, so that you could be chas­tised and charmed all at the same time, not even sure any­more if the sharp end was de­lib­er­ate.

Plenty has been said al­ready about her abil­ity to find both great beauty and great harsh­ness in the play of light and colour in the ev­ery­day. I think it’s fair to say that she also sent an un­crush­able message that, even while liv­ing up to the ex­pected con­ven­tions of house­hold life and moth­er­hood, there are ways to suc­cess­fully rebel.

It was a slow, un­der­stated rev­o­lu­tion, step by hid­den step, but a rev­o­lu­tion none­the­less.

This was a woman, raised in Fredericto­n, with all the ex­pected skills of the role she was ex­pected to fill. She could make the right kind of con­ver­sa­tion, take the tem­per­a­ture of a room and put any­one at ease: she could cook a meal for five or a dozen, and know what sort of for­mal­ity was re­quired — a mas­ter, from cen­tre­pieces to sil­ver­ware. Her tur­keys were al­ways on time and never dry, the stuff­ing unique. The flow­ers were cut the right height for the vase, al­ways. On that front, she could be un­flap­pable, ev­ery­thing seem­ingly ef­fort­less.

She was trained for that: she left the for­mal­ity of the very best street in Fredericto­n to come here, to raise a fam­ily in a house in an out­port world that, to a large de­gree, no longer ex­ists. She tamed that world the same way she tamed ev­ery­thing else; the ir­re­sistible force meet­ing the im­mov­able moun­tain, and just plain grind­ing the moun­tain down.

In her own way, she de­liv­ered a clear message that great light can­not be kept hid­den un­der any bas­ket, how­ever much the so­ci­ety of the day might have al­ready de­cided where ev­ery­thing fit, and what role ev­ery­one was suited by sex and so­cial convention to fit.

She made things pos­si­ble for the next gen­er­a­tion of artists, opened a door both for women and for non-traditiona­l ex­am­ples of where and what beauty is.

I may be wrong about all of this. But more than any­thing else, I want you to know that I think her paint­ing, as spec­tac­u­lar as it was, was not her only mem­o­rable skill.

I was al­ways a lit­tle scared and yet in awe. A vel­vet force that was care­ful to hide be­ing a ham­mer, ex­cept when nec­es­sary.

Great abil­ity will out. And in many ways, the kind­est rev­o­lu­tion any­one could ever ex­pe­ri­ence.

We’re a poorer place now.

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