Christopher Pratt gathered his HB pencils in jars when they were too small to hold – hundreds of them over the years, each ending with a crisp point. Former eyeglasses were pinned evenly to the studio wall. Grey floors and white walls, a wash of fluorescent light working in conversation with the windows above. Artworks throughout the space were in differing stages of development, his palette an orderly series of white, blues, browns and a dab of orange.
The wicker chair from the painting Girl in Wicker Chair, by his late ex-wife Mary Pratt, was placed at its optimal sitting position for viewing his current project, circles drawn around each leg so it could be repositioned if moved. Asleep on the drawing table was the studio cat, Ophelia – so named, after being plucked from the Salmonier River, before he learned the cat was, in fact, male.
On the bulletin board, a series of notes in his all-caps handwriting: “That vast open field of associations and events we call memories.” “The things which I invite to haunt me.” “Life is not a rehearsal. This is next year.”
Mr. Pratt, who died on Sunday at the age of 86, was one of Canada’s most respected and important painters. Dedicating his life to the act of looking, he revealed the island of Newfoundland to others through his art – made it visible without romanticizing it.
His artwork has come to symbolize his province’s identity and established a standard of artistic excellence. For many, it resonates as a true reflection of the province and its history. His art holds pride of place in the living rooms and kitchens of Newfoundland and Labrador, embedded in the psyches of those who grew up there. His design for the province’s flag, adopted in 1980, is tattooed on bodies and flown in front gardens, as well as fluttering in front of the Newfoundland and Labrador House of Assembly.
John Christopher Maxwell Pratt was born in St. John’s on Dec. 9, 1935. He first recognized himself as an artist when he was bedridden as a young man and given watercolours to pass the time. He felt bolstered when his first series of work sold, even more so when he won a prize in the provincial government’s Arts and Letters Competition.
Art wasn’t considered a viable profession in Newfoundland in the 1950s, so he entered into pre-med studies at Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B. There he met fellow artist Mary West, who pushed him to study art. Later, when they were married and she was pregnant with their first child, they travelled to Scotland, where he continued his studies at Glasgow School of Art.
In 1963, the couple moved into a drafty house in St. Mary’s Bay, Nfld., where they raised their four children: John, Anne, Barbara and Ned. He established his studio there and received his first solo exhibition in 1965, the same year he became both an associate of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts and a member of the Canadian Society of Graphic Art.
In his work, Mr. Pratt’s imagery revealed his deep appreciation for the beautiful but rugged nature of his beloved home province. His art combined a reverence for the language of painting with an embodiment of the privacy of memory. Simplicity was a form of respect.
He described his artworks as “littoral” – existing in the space where the land meets the water, between the abstract and the figurative, between the planned and natural. They were a space in themselves. For example, it is only the hint of rust in his painting of structures of former Argentia Naval Station that reveals any sense of time passing.
The form of things mattered: the movement of the seasons, the rhythm of the waves, the points on a compass, the quality of a name. He meticulously planned each painting with preparatory sketches, and then let his intuition take over. If the waves or stones of a landscape felt too expected, he would start again.
Mr. Pratt was named an officer of the Order of Canada in 1973 and he was elevated to the level of companion in 1983. The award citation said of his art that “its geometric simplicity and clear tonalities have not only become the classic expression of Newfoundland and Atlantic Canada but achieved a degree of poetic insight and a quality of universality which are widely esteemed in Canada and abroad.” In 2018, he received the Order of Newfoundland and Labrador. He proudly wore the pins for both honours.
Over the course of his substantial career, he was the subject of several major publications and exhibitions, including a 2013 nationally touring retrospective organized by the National Gallery of Canada and a 10-year retrospective in 2015 at The Rooms, the St. John’s cultural complex that includes the provincial art gallery.
Throughout his career, he revisited his images to create new works. He sought continuously to capture the reality of an experience, not through facsimile, but rather the idea of it. With each examination, he observed memories accumulating. As he wrote in 2002: “The pictures I make are of places I have been, in that strange space between reality and invention and, more and more, they come to represent real places, a celebration of the gift of being here, and there.”
His 47-year marriage to Mary Pratt ended in divorce in 2004. He reconnected with her in the final years of her life and in 2018 painted Trongate Abstract: Art School Fire, which marked their time in Glasgow. Mary died as it was in process, and a large fire destroyed the building depicted. On the back, he wrote: “In Memory of Mary. 1935 : 2018.″
A visit to his studio was a tour of stories. He would talk about his current artistic project and then move to the walls and shelves – his souvenirs. Walking down the hallway of the studio, he would identify sticks and stones that he had collected throughout the island. Walking further to the large windows that overlook the nearby Salmonier River, he pointed to a wall with precisely arranged photos and objects: his pre-Confederation Newfoundland birth certificate, photos of friends and family, a photograph by his son Ned placed with pride. He would guide you through the collection of images of his classmates from Holloway School, Prince of Wales College, Mount Allison and Glasgow School of Art.
Throughout his adult life, Mr. Pratt could stomach off-island travel for three days at most. And yet, for the last two decades of his life, he travelled across the island of Newfoundland repeatedly.
He was remarried to Jeanette Meehan, his travelling companion throughout the majority of this time, until their divorce. With her, and later with others, he continually returned to sites that held personal importance for him – what he described as “sites of memory.” He documented these “nostalgia trips” in photographs and in “car books” – journals in which he took note of weather conditions, the feeling of the sun on his hand, wildlife sightings, and conversations with travel companions.
A road trip could see him travel as much as 3,400 kilometres: St. John’s to Grand Falls-Windsor, then into the interior mining town of Buchans, on to Corner Brook, to Benoit’s Cove at night, down the Burgeo Road, alongside the old highway on the Great Northern Peninsula, through Gros Morne National Park, then Stephenville, around the Port au Port Peninsula. If there was enough time, he would visit Cape Anguille, the westernmost point of Newfoundland. Each of these places connected to his life or his family history. Each of these was a place he had painted.
Along the way, philosophical discussions quickly transitioned to puns. Silence was punctuated by the naming of every river, every bridge, while predicting the next. He would detail the history of this province – its politics, its changing infrastructure, its industry. With each sighting of an animal or bird, he would speak with admiration of his elder son’s considerable knowledge: “I’m not sure what that is, but John would know. He can tell from a great distance.”
Mr. Pratt would point out the one window of the Deer Lake Power Station that is smaller than the others. He remarked upon Venus’s arrival in the sky every time, and shared his comfort of headlights opening the road ahead as darkness slapped shut behind.
He would say that Newfoundland did not exist exactly as he portrayed it: “I make paintings about, not of, a place.” And yet, when a familiar building had been destroyed, he searched for it. When a favourite tree appeared to be dying, he mourned it. “It’s not about beauty,” he told this writer once while exploring the aging, practical mining infrastructure of Buchans, “It’s about presence.”
Despite all his accomplishments, Mr. Pratt described his art as ordinary. He treasured the buzz of the studio, his conversations with long-time assistant Brenda Kielley and his daughter Anne Pratt, who was his caregiver in his final months. He welcomed all others who came to visit, whether politician, artist, neighbour or friend. When he was alone, his studio became a space of work. He continued painting well into his final year.
Along one wall of the studio was a large, unfinished canvas. He had penciled in the lines of the Deer Lake Power Station with the intention of revisiting his original image. Rather than at night, the structure would be shown at sunset, the water below at full rush. The canvas had been there for years, frozen by what seemed like a fear of denouement, but he described its unfinished state as an “economy of time.” At his age, he explained, it was more practical to create many small paintings than lose a year to a single large work.
In his later days, he would erase his drawings as he made them. Near the end of his life he visited The Rooms to see two things that held great meaning for him: the last known example of the Newfoundland wolf, and a group of paintings by his daughter Barbara. He proudly spent time with each.
Predeceased by his ex-wife, Mary West Pratt, in 2018 and by an infant son in 1975, Mr. Pratt leaves his children, John, Anne, Barbara and Ned; 11 grandchildren; three great-grandchildren; his brother Philip; and his assistant, Brenda Kielley.