In the wartime Canadian comic Pat the Air Cadet, the feisty heroine flies planes and decks Nazis. The illustrator who drew this inspiring figure was also a pioneer: Doris Slater Titus was the first Canadian woman to illustrate a commercial comic book – and also an experimental abstract painter who mixed her own bathwater into her pigments. Her fine art career was cut short in 1964, when she died in a car accident at 47. It is only now, almost 60 years later, that her eclectic and neglected career is getting the retrospective it deserves.
“She was constantly changing her interests. She was uncompromising, a maverick and a rebel,” said Matthew Ryan Smith, the curator at the Glenhyrst Art Gallery in Brantford, Ont. where the retrospective has been recently installed and now waits for a safe reopening. The gallery drew on its own holdings, which include the only two of Titus’s paintings in a public collection, as well as loans from private collectors to create a show that features both the illustrator’s comics and the painter’s abstracts.
Doris Slater was born in 1917 and grew up on a farm near Chatham, Ont., before her family moved in 1929 to Toronto, where she attended Oakwood Collegiate. She enrolled at what was then the Ontario College of Art (now OCAD University) and studied illustration during an era when commercial illustrators were widely employed in advertising, publishing and newspapers. After she graduated, on the eve of the Second World War, her brother-in-law Ted McCall helped launch her career as comic book artist with the Toronto-based Anglo-American Publishing: Together they created Pat the Air Cadet under the joint pseudonym Macduff, with her providing the images for his stories.
She was also the creator of Penny’s Diary, the first Canadian comic aimed specifically at young women, collaborating with playwright Pat Joudry to publish a spinoff from the writer’s CBC Radio drama of the same title. Images from the Glenhyrst show suggest Penny’s Diary took a pretty narrow view of female interests – Penny seems mainly concerned with boasting about boyfriends and snagging a man – but Pat the Air Cadet depicted the new woman who emerged from the war. One priceless sequence shows Pat landing her plane at an aerodrome and pulling off her helmet to the surprise of other aviators who cry, “Why! It’s a girl!!”
“There are some very empowering moments,” Smith said, but added that sexism seriously hampered Slater’s career. He points, for example, to newspaper clippings about her role as a judge of a beauty pageant in which the headline writer describes the art school grad as “a looker.” In 2015, her commercial work received belated recognition in the male-dominated field of cartooning when she was inducted into the Canadian Comic Book Hall of Fame.
Imports of U.S. comics had halted during the war, but after 1945 their return battered the Canadian industry and work dried up. Slater had married singer, broadcaster and actor Russ Titus (later known as Larry Cross) in 1944 and had two children while still continuing to do some work as an illustrator. The marriage broke up when he moved his career to Britain in 1950. Now a single mother of two, Doris Titus, as she now called herself, took a job as the head art teacher at Brantford Collegiate and spent eight years in the Southwestern Ontario city where she established a local sketching club. During this period she became friends with painter Toni Onley and increasingly pursued her own art, gradually abandoning representational content. The Glenhyrst collection includes an untitled fractured landscape of 1962 where patches of land and sky become a geometric pattern.
“She was so interested in experimenting, which she wasn’t allowed to do in illustration,” Smith said. “There was an explosion of creativity when she moved to Brantford.”
That creativity included secretly mixing both birdseed and her bathwater into her paints. This may have simply reflected her experiments with unusual media – she is also known to have dipped her paintings into the Grand River to achieve a watery effect – or the bathwater may have been a sly comment on the tension between private creation and public exhibition.
“There was a family secret that there was this aspect of nudity or sexuality that was being put on public display,” Smith said. “During the 1950s, in Diefenbaker’s Canada, it would have been taboo in a conservative place like Brantford.”
She left Brantford for a job at Ottawa’s High School of Commerce in 1960. In June, 1964, she was preparing to spend the summer teaching back at OCAD and was driving to Toronto via her cottage in Arden, Ont., when she was killed in a collision during a hail storm on the highway at Stittsville. Onley’s 13-year-old daughter Jennifer, who was visiting Titus and sitting in the front passenger seat, was also killed in the crash, while Titus’s daughter, Patti, who was in the back, had minor injuries.
Patti Thomas now lives in Britain, but has been instrumental in assembling her mother’s work in Brantford to help Canada reclaim a lost artist.
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