Kathleen Morris: Portrait of the artist as an expression of joy

Kathleen Morris at Galerie Walter Klinkhoff, June, 1976. (Gazette Photo)

Kathleen Morris at Galerie Walter Klinkhoff, June, 1976. (Gazette Photo)

WINI RIDER
THE GAZETTE, MONTREAL
June 16, 1976

The 82-year-old woman, handicapped since childhood, has left to posterity one of the finest testaments to the joy of Canadian life.

Her love affair is declared with every bold brush stroke. The happiness and joie de vivre is brought is told with each robust splash of colour.

From looking at her paintings one wonders if any could love Quebec more than Kathleen Morris. Even the hard grey winters seem faultless in her eyes.

The paintings of one of Canada’s finest artists have been collected for an exhibition which ends Saturday at the Galerie Walter Klinkhoff, 1200 Sherbrooke St. W. Not one is for sale. All have been borrowed from private collections and museums. Therefore this retrospective of a painter who was a contemporary and friend of the Group of Seven is a rare treat for students of Canadian art.

As noted in J. Russell Harper’s book Painting in Canada, the Group of Seven were seven young revolutionary artists who were determined to paint “Canada”. With a strong new Canadian style they evolved an approach which was startlingly different from that of earlier artists. It was based on landscapes, Precambrian rock, wide skies, lonely lakes and rivers.

Although she was never a member of the Group of Seven, it was logical that Kathleen Morris’ paintings hung with theirs in the Canadian section of fine arts, British Empire Exhibition, Wembley, England in 1924 and 1925. She painted with the same nationalistic fervor. Said critic Eric Newton of the Sunday Times, “(The collection) is big enough and bold enough to prove that Canada can stand on her own sturdy feet in a matter of painting.”

Quebec nationalism

There was a difference, however, between Morris’ paintings and theirs. Her nationalism was centered in Quebec. Said critic Dorothy Pfieffer in 1962, “Her solidly composed souvenirs of Old Montreal and its environs should be collectors’ treasures.” Her subjects “—old tram cars, market scenes, snow burleaus with their patient shaggy horses, old churches as background for the sleighs of Sunday worshippers; processions of gently nuns and lively children. —It is the personal expression of the joy of life and of tangible emotion by a gifted, forthright, fearless artist.”

There is a reason why Montreal born Morris’ nationalism was centered in Quebec. She could neither travel or walk very far. Handicapped all her life by a congenital disorder of the nervous system, she spend most of her life in Montreal with only occasional excursions to Quebec City and Berthierville, which she loved.

“Quebec is the most perfect place to paint,” she said when we were together last week. “A.Y. Jackson (a member of the Group of Seven), my great friend used to say to me, ‘You’re so lucky. Everywhere you look there’s a painting— a church, a house. I have to go so far to find my pictures’”.

It was true. There were pictures in her eyes wherever she looked.

In a letter to Harper, the Canadian art historian, after he selected her painting “After the Grand Mass” (it is in Klinkhoff’s window during the exhibition) for the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts Catalogue, she wrote:

“I can well remember the thrill I felt when on a return painting trip to Berthierville in 1924 I say again those horses in front of that nice old church. Sometimes there were as many as three hundred all with different coloured blankets.”

On viewing the exhibition, one can’t help but experience the exhilaration she felt in the cold and snow of the Quebec winters of her paintings.

Sketching trips

“I had a wonderful mother,” she said. “She would take me off on sketching trips and sit beside me while I painted. But on cold days I would go alone. I couldn’t walk miles, so I would be taken out to paint in a sleigh where I would be dropped off. The snow was so deep that the only place I could paint was in the tracks of the sleigh. I wore an old fur coat with an apron over it and a fur hat with earflaps. I was enough to frighten anything that came down the road.” She laughed, delighted with the retelling.

“When a sleigh did come along, I would have to move out of the tracks into snow up to here.” She leaned over and pointed to her thighs. “But do you know, I wan never cold. It was so beautiful.”

Kathleen Morris only started painting in her teens. “I don’t think I showed any evidence of talent until I started drawing horses all over my schoolbooks,” she said. “I love to paint animals. I think cows are just beautiful but they are awfully hard to paint. They’ve got bumps and lumps. And the flies.! They love the smell of paint. They don’t go all over the cows, they go all over you.”

Encouraged by her mother she studied with William Brymner and spent two years under Maurice Cullen in his summer sketching classes. She began to exhibit with the Royal Canadian Academy in 1914 when she was only 21. In 1929 she was elected as an Associate of the Royal Canadian Academy and in 1940 to the Canadian Group of Painters. She was a member of a group of strong women painters which included Nora Collyer, Ethel Seath, Prudence Heward and Anne Savage.

In 1922 she moved to Ottawa where she was in the center of a great artist colony. “I had a lot of friends there. Eric Brown, the director of the National Gallery, was so kind to all of us, seeing that we met each other, encouraging and stimulating us in our work.” In 1929 she returned to Montreal where she has remained ever since.

Her pictures have hung in every important Canadian exhibition from Paris to Brazil, from the Tate Gallery in London to the World’s Fair in New York. Important showings of her work have been held at the Art Association of Montreal in 1939 and the Montreal Arts Club in 1956 and 1962. “After one man saw my exhibition he came to me and heaved a sigh of relief, ‘Until now I thought the horse was extinct,’ he said.” She laughed.

Her paintings are part of the permanent collection of the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, B.C.; Art Gallery of Hamilton, Ont.; Canadian Legation, Paris; Hart House, University of Toronto; Mackenzie King Museum, Kitchener, Ont.; Montreal Museum of Fine Arts; the National Gallery of Canada and the National Archives of Canada in Ottawa.

She is unhappy about the changing scene in Quebec. “You know my picture of the old cab stand with the horses and sleighs and the old stone wall. The wall is gone. The horses are gone. Do you know what’s there now?” She sadly shook her head and said, “A gasoline station.”

One wonders if Kathleen Morris has ever stopped to think that because of her the old stone wall and the horses will never be gone. She has given the lovely old Quebec to future generations to enjoy forever. And because of her confinement and limited exposure to other places and the influences of other artists, her paintings are as pure and true and genuine statements of Quebec life as could be made.

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