Mary Pratt exhibition arrives at Owens

‘This Little Painting’ reflects upon artist’s work from beginnings to the present

Mary Pratt’s 1972 painting Red Currant Jelly has been on near-permanent display at the National Gallery of Canada for over two decades. It is so widely recognized that an entire exhibition, “This Little Painting,” has been dedicated to it.

The exhibition opened at the Owens Art Gallery last Friday night. Originally on display at the National Gallery of Canada, the exhibition was co-organized by the National Gallery and the Rooms Provincial Art Gallery. Co-curators Jonathan Shaughnessy and Mireille Eagan, respectively from the National Gallery and the Rooms, were present and delivered opening remarks.

Pratt, who studied at Mount Allison and worked frequently in the Owens building, was absent from the opening due to illness. However, Pratt’s writing appears in a pamphlet accompanying the exhibition, including a letter she wrote in February 2015 about the story behind Red Currant Jelly. In the letter, Pratt explained that she had been making jelly, as she often did, with no intention of painting it. When light shone through the jelly and reflected onto the tin foil underneath the jars, she was inspired to paint the image.

Pratt wrote that during the painting’s early stages, her ex-husband and fellow artist, Christopher Pratt, expressed his doubts in her ability to recreate it. She wrote that this was the first time she went against her husband’s advice and continued her work.

“Maybe this little picture was my first small step to an independent life,” Pratt wrote.

Pratt also wrote about the difficulty of painting red, combining different shades of red and orange paints and small crosshatch strokes to make a convincing colour. Red would continue to be an important colour to her and appears frequently in her later future works.

“[Red Currant Jelly] is the first painting [in which Pratt] really captured the colour red,” said Eagan. “That’s important for her because red [has been] an important colour to her since her early years.”

After Red Currant Jelly, Pratt continued to study light and how it shines through the translucency of jelly. Jelly Shelf (1999) and Smears of Jam, Lights of Jelly (2007) celebrate the way the colour and texture of the jelly changes the appearance of light.

“When light comes through jelly, it is almost as if the light itself has changed colours, and we see a jar of light,” wrote Pratt in a statement displayed on the wall beside the paintings. The statement goes on to say that Pratt’s most inspired paintings are often rooted in everyday life.

All the works in the exhibition explore the beauty of everyday rituals and family traditions, and mark points of progress in Pratt’s career. These works include The Supper Table (1969), which was Pratt’s first painting based on a photo, and This Little Piggy: Mary Pratt Sees Christmas (1993), a film in which the scene of a farmer slaughtering a baby pig for Christmas dinner reflects sacrifice and tradition.

All these themes and motifs presented throughout the exhibit – the colour red, light and translucency, everyday life, ritual, family traditions – hearken back to Red Currant Jelly and give a greater understanding of the meaning behind the beloved painting.

The exhibition will be on display at the Owens Art Gallery until May 22.

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