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Reta Cowley (1910 - 2004)

Reta Cowley (1910 - 2004) is regarded as one of Canada’s top watercolourists. She studied art under several generations of major teachers from the west: Augustus Kenderdine at Emma Lake in the late 1930s, Walter Phillips at the Banff School of Fine Arts in the 1940s, and Eli Bornstein at the University of Saskatchewan in the early 1950s. The Emma Lake Artists Workshop was an important influence on her in her early days and she remained an active participant through to the mid 1980s. In 1990 Reta Cowley was presented with the Saskatchewan Arts Board's Lifetime Achievement Award and the Saskatchewan Order of Merit. She has had more than two-dozen solo exhibitions of her work, and her work is included in major museum collections across Canada.

Some Thoughts on Reta

Reta Cowley was one of my favourite people and she remains one of my favourite painters.

I didn’t get to know Reta Cowley until after she was retired so the image that I have of her is one that approximates the classic grandmother: she was petite with short grey hair, glasses and perfectly neat and crisp in her attire. Reta lived in a bungalow that her husband Fred had built just off 33rd Street on Idylwyld Drive in Saskatoon. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to visit her on several occasions and I always enjoyed the conversations. She was polite, curious about my thoughts on her work and attentive to my responses but I always sensed that she had a strong opinion of her own and she wasn’t going to be swayed very easily. I was always on my best behaviour when I visited Reta.

Her house was small, as were the furnishings but the scale seemed to be a perfect fit for her. Every nook and cranny was utilized for the storage of her art, her books and her ongoing correspondence. As the years progressed, the stacks of watercolours expanded to the extent that I recall, with some humour, having to compete with her cat for the one empty chair that I presumed was reserved for her guests. The cat presumed otherwise. In spite of the encroachment of her work, Reta maintained an order to her house and she could generally retrieve whatever was needed. She faithfully recorded the comings and goings of her work in a ledger and she often correlated this with a diary that she maintained on the activities surrounding each day’s painting excursion.

Reta always had her favourite painting locations but as she grew older she tended to frequent an increasingly selective number of sites. She always painted directly from her subject and she seldom, if ever, retouched her paintings after the day’s work. She was a fair-weather painter, often going out four or five days a week to one of her preferred spots a few miles northeast of Saskatoon. She worked on a relatively small scale; the size and medium being determined by how much she felt she could complete in one sitting. The winter’s cold and snow also restricted Reta’s daily trips to the months of April to October. She did paint a few waterolour still-lifes during the winter months and there are a few early winter scenes that appear to be from her front window, however, these were exceptions to the rule. A fascinating consequence to Reta’s repetitive painting practice is that when we view a large number of her watercolours from the 1970’s and through the 1980’s, we can see the natural evolutionary changes that the passing of the seasons and the course of time brings to a specific site. Colours are altered from spring to fall and the density of foliage changes. We can even witness the development of trees and shrubs as they grow to maturity and then decline and die off as the years progressed. In the hands of a lesser painter, the oft-visited subject may have become somewhat clone-like but Reta seemed to thrive with the comfort that comes from familiarity and each new work was as fresh as the previous.

Along with the diary of the day’s work (which would include a reference to the painting location, the size of the work and the brand of paper) Reta would often record a few details about the day that had caught her attention. Occasionally, she would include similar information on the back of the work itself and quite often a note to herself as to whether or not she was satisfied with the painting. Reta set very high standards for herself and it was not uncommon for her to destroy a work that didn’t pass the test. A few of my visits to Reta’s home coincided with the end of her painting season and, along with one of two other artist friends, we were treated to an overview of the year’s “production”. Invariably, the sessions ended with us liking just about everything and Reta expressing some misgivings and dissatisfaction with aspects of several pieces. My guess is that the majority view seldom won out.

There is a theory in the art world that a good work of art can reflect the personality and character of the artist. Given sufficient time and experience, the truly original artist must, by necessity, come to terms with his or her personal attributes, inclinations and idiosyncracies. In general, I believe this to be true and no more so than with Reta Cowley. With the luxury of hindsight and access to a large body of work over a period of time, we can see the development of her skills and influences starting from her early years with Kenderdine and Phillips and then, apparently, reaching a plateau when she began studying with Eli Bornstein at the University of Saskatchewan. Reta was a star student for both Kenderdine and Phillips and their respective influences and support were critical to her understanding of what art was all about. Bornstein’s teachings, however, seemed to appeal to Reta on both an instinctual as well as an intellectual level. Besides the theories and practice that Bornstein brought to his students, his insights into an underlying order of patterns and rhythms in nature would have struck a chord with Reta. Instead of seeking out and recording interesting natural combinations of shape, line, colour, etc., Reta began to identify with a potential organizational structure, a system if you will, that she could “apply” to any subject. Over the course of time she could even apply her system to the same subject, many times over, and attain continually fresh results.

The application of Bornstein’s theories required an understanding and an acceptance of the basic concepts of abstraction. The idea that one could actually select, organize and control the elements that she was dealing with would have had great appeal for Reta. She already had the skills that allowed her to record and she had honed her abilities to “see” the subtleties and nuances of nature so the added potential of being able to expand upon nature would be very enticing. We can trace the beginnings of her applied organization to the mid 1950’s. A linear element emerged at that time that appeared to be a system of identifying sections or planes of colour and shape. Her choice of subject often included a cluster of buildings; sometimes a small town in the middle distance or quite often the architecture of downtown Saskatoon. The use of buildings allowed for an easier recognition of straight lines and right angles in nature.

The linear elements would not only identify and enhance a shape but they became important on their own as an overlapping pattern throughout the painting. The more Reta relied on her linear component the less she needed elsewhere. She discovered that she could suggest or allude to architectural elements without actually fully describing them and so it became a process of deciding what to keep and what to leave out. As time went by, and Reta became more familiar with her process, even the linear element was reduced. The lines had served their purpose in the early stages as a shape indicator but with more experience and more confidence, Reta was able to “suggest” her subject through a more judicious use of her white paper (negative space) in combination with her coloured shapes (positive shapes). Reta discovered the old adage of “less is more”. What this really means is that when the artist reduces her content, the remaining ingredients had better be substantial enough to carry the load. Reta’s familiarity with her natural subject made her comfortable with, in essence, taking shortcuts. The white areas that she began to incorporate into her paintings were not simply leftovers, but rather they served as transitions or passages between shapes. Her brushstrokes began to open up, allowing for the ground underneath to show through and this process made the white transitions even more accountable. In her oils, Reta intuitively stressed the textures in each brushstroke so that the viewer would literally have to identify with the paint itself – as much as with the external subject.

By the late 1960’s, Reta had essentially reached her mature painting stage. Her choice of subject had shifted from an emphasis on architecture to the landscape around her. She no longer needed the obvious structural shapes of buildings to guide her. Instead she found more freedom, and perhaps even more substance, in what might appear to the untrained eye as somewhat standard farm scenery. As her literal subject was reduced, the abstract elements were allowed to emerge. Although never fully abstract (there was always a reference to the landscape) her mature paintings are structured around the play of light and dark. Subtle nuances of colour seem to emerge from the white of the ground and at the same time, transition from foreground to middle ground and into the sky. Her brushstrokes, particularly in the oils, participate in the movement, helping to shift the viewer’s eye from shape to shape. The colours, values, textures and shapes seem to interlock, establishing a substantially more cohesive organization than nature itself can provide.

Reta Cowley became what I would call an “artist’s artist”. It was not what she said or how she acted that garnered her attention but rather how she painted that counted. From the 1960’s and into the 1980’s, Reta had numerous visitors to her home that included many of the country’s senior artists, critics and curators. Many went in with various assumptions and perhaps some trepidation. All of them came away with great admiration. Perhaps the highest compliment that an artist can receive is to have the respect of her peers and there is no question that the artists that knew and worked with Reta still consider her to be one of the best in the business.

Robert Christie, November 2009


Curriculum Vitae

Born 1910, Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan

1937-40 Murray Point Summer School of Art, Emma Lake, SK. Studied with Augustus F. Kenderdine (1937)
1941-44 Banff School of Fine Arts, Banff, AB. Studied with W.J.Phillips, A.Y. Jackson, Charles Comfort, H.G. Glyde
1947-59 University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, SK. Studied with Eli Bornstein, Nikola Bjelajac
1963 Emma Lake Summer School/ Workshop, Emma Lake, SK. Studied with Gordon Snelgrove, Kenneth Noland
1966 Bachelor of Arts, University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, SK.
1981-85 Emma Lake Summer School/Workshops, Emma Lake, SK.

1944 Saskatoon Art Centre, Saskatoon, SK.Saskatoon Art Association Members
1948 Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, ON. Canadian Painter-Etchers, Engravers Annual Exhibition
1947 Saskatoon Art Centre, Saskatoon, SK. Paintings by Prospectors
1951-55 Saskatchewan Arts Board, Regina, SK. Annual Exhibition
1955 Norman Mackenzie Art Gallery, Regina, SK.Ten Artists of Saskatchewan.
1955-57 Winnipeg Art Gallery, Winnipeg, MB.
1957 Saskatchewan Arts Board, Regina, SK. Annual Exhibition: National Serigraph Society, New York, N.Y. (18th Annual International Exhibition)
1958 Saskatchewan Arts Board, Regina, SK. Annual Exhibition: 1959 Winnipeg Art Gallery, Winnipeg, MB
1964 National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, ON. Canadian Artists Series: Molly Bobak & Reta Cowley
1965 Mendel Art Gallery, Saskatoon, SK. Saskatchewan Art: Diamond Jubilee Critics' Selection
1966 National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, ON. Canadian Watercolours, Drawings and Prints (toured) Western Canada Art Circuit, Regina, SK., Watercolours by Reta Cowley, Dorothy Perehudoff, Grace Hogg
1967 Norman Mackenzie Art Gallery, Regina, SK. Painting in Saskatchewan 1883-1959 (toured)
1969 Norman Mackenzie Art Gallery, Regina, SK. Saskatoon-Thirteen Artists. Waddington Fine Arts, Montreal, PQ.Art in Saskatchewan
1971 National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, ON. Watercolour Painters from Saskatchewan (toured) Norman Mackenzie Art Gallery, Regina, SK. Saskatchewan: Art and Artists
1972 Mendel Art Gallery, Saskatoon, SK. Drawings by Saskatoon Painters: Day, Rogers, Mills, McGillivray,Christie, Cowley, Forsyth, Peterson
1973 Canadian Artists' Representation, Northern Saskatchewan Chapter. North Saskatchewan Juried Show (toured)
1974 The Edmonton Art Gallery, Edmonton, AB. Prairie '74
1975 Mendel Art Gallery, Saskatoon, SK. Saskatoon Women Artists
1976 Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, ON. and Edmonton Art Gallery, Edmonton, AB. Changing Visions: The Canadian Landscape (toured) Canadian Society of Painters in Watercolour. The 51st Annual Exhibition. Dunlop Art Gallery Shoestring Gallery Group Place Bonaventure, Montreal, PQ. Saskatchewan Art at the Olympics '76
1977 David Mirvish Gallery, Toronto, ON. Figures, Landscapes and Still Lifes. Eaton's Art Gallery, Toronto, ON. Anne Harris - Sculpture and Reta Cowley -Watercolours.Gallery One, Saskatoon, SK. Recent Works by Reta Cowley, Dorothy Knowles, Wynona Mulcaster
1978 Mendel Art Gallery, Saskatoon, SK. Current Directions, Norman Mackenzie Art Gallery, Regina, SK. The Saskatchewan Arts Board Collection. Shoestring Gallery, Saskatoon, SK Transition
1979 Gallery One, Toronto, ON., Paintings from Landscapes, Jane Corkin Gallery, Toronto,ON. Group Exhibition, Mendel Art Gallery, Saskatoon, SK. Images of the Prairie, Thomas Gallery, Winnipeg,MB.
1980 Norman Mackenzie Art Gallery,Regina,SK., Saskatchewan Paper
1981 Downstairs Gallery, Edmonton, AB., Fall Show and December Choice, Mendel Art Gallery, Saskatoon, SK. Watercolour Painting in Saskatchewan 1905-1980
1981 Downstairs Gallery, Edmonton, AB, A Selected Group Exhibition: New Work, Frances Morrison Library Gallery, Saskatoon SK. Emma Lake Now, Saskatoon Heritage Society, Frances Morrison Library Gallery, Saskatoon, SK. Saskatchewan Early Images Thomas Gallery, Winnipeg, MB.
1983 Woltjen/Udell Gallery, Edmonton, AB. Fall Show Edmonton Art Gallery, Edmonton, AB. Winnipeg West: Painting and Sculpture in Western Canada 1945-1970 (toured)
1984 The Grand Forks Art Gallery, Grand Forks, BC. Contemporary Watercolours. Woltjen/Udell Gallery, Edmonton, AB. Drawings, Fall '84, First Anniversary Exhibition and Spring Show
1985 Woltjen/Udell Gallery, Edmonton, AB. Fall '85 and Spring Show
1986 Woltjen/Udell Gallery, Edmonton, AB. Spring Collection
2012 Prairie Painters: Light and Pattern with Terry Fenton and Dorothy Knowles, The Gallery/Art Placement Inc., Saskatoon SK.
2017 Reta Cowley, Clint Hunker, Lorna Russell, The Gallery/Art Placement Inc., Saskatoon SK.

1955 Saskatoon Art Centre, Saskatoon, SK.
1969 Mendel Art Gallery, Saskatoon, SK. (toured)
1970 Saskatchewan Arts Board, Regina, SK.
1973 Shoestring Gallery, Saskatoon, SK.
1975 Norman Mackenzie Art Gallery, Regina, SK..
1976 The Edmonton Art Gallery, Edmonton, AB.
1977 Dunlop Art Gallery, Regina, Sask Thomas Gallery, Winnipeg, MB.
1978 Canadian Art Galleries Ltd., Calgary, AB.
1980 Canadian Art Galleries Ltd., Calgary, AB.
Gallery One, Saskatoon, SK.
Thomas Gallery, Winnipeg, MB.
West End Gallery, Edmonton, AB.
1983 Downstairs Gallery, Edmonton, AB.
Gallery One, Toronto, ON.
1985 Canadian Art Galleries Ltd., Calgary, AB.
Gallery One, Toronto, ON.
The Gallery/Art Placement Inc., Saskatoon, SK.
Woltjen/Udell Gallery, Edmonton, AB.
1986 Mendel Art Gallery, Saskatoon, SK, Reta Cowley: A Survey (toured)
1999 The Gallery/Art Placement Inc. Saskatoon, SK.
2000 The Gallery/Art Placement Inc.Saskatoon, SK.
2000 Mendel Art Gallery, Saskatoon, SK.
2009 The Gallery/Art Placement Inc.Saskatoon, SK.
2010 "In the Field" - Moose Jaw Art Gallery and Museum, Moose Jaw, SK.
2011 "In the Field" - The Gallery/Art Placement Inc.Saskatoon, SK.
2013 "An Independent View" - The Gallery/Art Placement Inc.Saskatoon, SK.
2016 "Inspiration and Innovation" - The Gallery/Art Placement Inc., Saskatoon, SK.

Art Gallery of Hamilton, Hamilton, ON.
Banff Centre, Banff, AB.
Canada Council Art Bank, Ottawa, ON.
Department of External Affairs, Government of Canada, Ottawa, ON.
Edmonton Art Gallery, Edmonton, AB.
Glenbow Museum, Calgary, AB.
Mendel Art Gallery, Saskatoon, SK.
Mount Allison University, Sackville, NB.
Norman Mackenzie Art Gallery, Regina, SK.
Nutrien, Saskatoon, SK.
Saskatchewan Arts Board, Regina, SK.
Saskatchewan Government Insurance, Regina, SK.
SaskTel, Regina, SK.
Shell Oil Corporation, Calgary, AB.
University of Regina, Regina, SK.
University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, SK.
Winnipeg Art Gallery, Winnipeg, MB.


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