A Personal Calligraphy

by Mary Pratt

Published by Goose Lane Editions

143 pages, 2000

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Self-Portrait in Words

Reviewed by Sienna Powers


An exhibition of Mary Pratt's work is startling. It's all about things looking just as they are, yet not being what they appear to be. At least, that's how it seems to me. Pratt's paintings are often large, always vivid and usually hyper real: photo real, in fact. And so, in a gallery, you stare it down: a bowl of cherries much larger than life. Each cherry as big as your first. And it's perfect. Perfect: the blemishes on the fruit, the reflection from the metal bowl, the surface of the wood beneath the bowl. A perfect bowl of cherries. And yet, somehow the sheer size and scope of the work begs for further, closer, warmer inspection.

There is something unabashedly sensual in Mary Pratt's work. Sometimes downright erotic and, to a certain degree, it makes no sense at all. A pomegranate recently violated by a still-present knife both rest on a white, linen napkin. Another still life and yet there is recent violence here, as well. Inexplicable. In Sunday Dinner a piece of raw meat -- a thick steak or perhaps a prime rib -- reclines on a silver platter. It is well marbled: the fat firm and of an appropriate color. The texture of the flesh is, once again, perfect. Disturbingly perfect. And the way that the meat is arranged on the platter -- unevenly and with the faintest smear of blood beneath it -- is disturbing, as well. The raw materials for dinner, segmented oranges, a sandwich and a glass of ginger ale: in a gallery full of Pratt's paintings you're left wondering if this is the work of a deeply talented housewife with too much time and not enough input, or the impassioned visual meanderings of a serious artist following her own vision. In A Personal Calligraphy, a collection of Pratt's own writing that includes journal entries, lectures and published articles, you get a sense that both possibilities are very real.

I've never wanted to paint what I did not know -- intimately and sensuously. The look of things, the feel of things -- their ability to arouse me -- has led me along the paths you see in my pictures.

A Personal Calligraphy is no type of retrospective of Pratt's work. That has been well covered in other books, including Tom Smartt's very excellent The Art of Mary Pratt: The Substance of Light. Rather, it is a collection of the words of an artist well known and loved for her visual work. And so, as in this entry dated February 1, 1955, we are treated to Pratt's thoughts and impressions on how she views her world:

We stood at the top of the woods road hill. Beneath us in the grey light of a clouded winter afternoon lay dark forests of black spruce in undulating plains, rising gradually to higher and higher ridges, eventually the hills of Albert county. Poor, scrubby, not impressive. I can still see it -- black to purple to mauve disappearing into mist, and sky -- its bowl turning over us in whites and opalescent greys.

Or, as in this entry from 1990, we see how her journal has become an extension of her sketchbook:

I am working at a big drawing of a wave crashing into the foreground. It is promising but hardly there yet. Wonderful to find, by studying the photography, how the top of the wave sprays up and out, the middle spreads into a filigree of froth, and the bottom pours down like a waterfall, covering the rocks with foam.

Like many of the entries, the one above is illustrated by a photograph of the work in question. The reproduction of the artwork throughout the book is superb and all of the photos are in color, though, surprisingly, there are few illustrations that are not of Pratt's work. Considering the personal nature of this book, personal photos and other visual memorabilia -- at least a smattering of it -- is missed.

A Personal Calligraphy is a self-portrait of Mary Pratt as artist, wife, mother, daughter, public figure and woman. And because the sources of the collection are varied -- newspaper clippings, 45-year-old journal entries, essays and so on -- that self-portrait has a mosaic quality: put together piece by disparate piece to create a cohesive whole. It's a pleasure to find that Pratt's book is as enigmatic and warmly powerful as the artist herself. | April 2001


Sienna Powers is a transplanted Calgarian who lives and works in Vancouver, B.C. She is a writer and conceptual artist.