Sonia: The Life of Bohemian, Rancher and Artist Sonia Cornwall, 1919-2006

Sonia: The Life of Bohemian, Rancher and Artist Sonia Cornwall, 1919-2006

Sheryl Salloum

Reviewed by Kerry Mason

Challenged to name women artists of British Columbia of the twentieth century, most people would stop at Emily Carr. While the list of both First Nations and settler women artists of British Columbia is impressively long, most of them languish in obscurity. Sheryl Salloum addresses this lacuna by creating a biography of Sonia Cornwall (nee Cowan, 1919-2006). While many people in and near Williams Lake know of her, most British Columbians, even art historians, aren’t familiar with her life and work, though this gap has recently been broached by Julie Fowler in The Grande Dames of the Cariboo (2013), a study of Sonia and her artist mother Vivien Cowan (1893-1990), which serves as a companion piece to this biography of Sonia Cornwall.

Salloum explores Cornwall’s deep roots in the Cariboo, reveals the historical context of the Cowan and Cornwall families, and sketches Sonia Cowan’s birth in Kamloops and her move to the Onward Ranch, at 150 Mile House south of Williams Lake, before she was two years old. Salloum’s extensive research reveals the historical foundations of the Cariboo ranching culture and the important economic and social connections between these huge land holdings and other points in Canada and overseas.

Salloum reveals how Sonia Cowan came to be entrenched in the ranching way of life. As a teenager, to help support her widowed mother and younger sister, she began working alongside male ranch hands, mending fences, driving cattle, ploughing fields, and battling the elements. Like Carr, she was a prolific artist intoxicated by experimentation. She created woodblock prints, linocuts, and batiks as well as sketches, watercolours, and oils. As a self-taught artist, she was completely free to experiment, and Salloum recalls her innovative approaches to subject and technique through excerpts from letters and transcriptions of interviews. Her vibrant personality comes through in her energetic determination to realize her artistic vision. Having lived in the Cariboo for her entire life, and deeply attuned to the spirit of place, Sonia’s art reflected an intimate knowledge and a resounding love of the world around her.

Onward Ranch became a focal point for any kind of intellectual and artistic gathering. Indeed it is not too much of a stretch to call it a viable Cariboo version of a Paris salon. The book is peppered with anecdotes from those who knew the family. Excerpts from diaries, correspondence, interviews, and newspaper clippings, along with revealing photographs, provide depth and texture to the lives and work of Sonia and her mother Vivien. Their hospitality was genuine and legendary. Vivien, and Sonia’s father Charles Cowan -- an Irish-born former North West Mounted Police officer famous for managing Cariboo ranches for wealthy Englishmen -- enjoyed entertaining and attracted a wide circle of friends who became regular visitors to the ranch, including the artists A.Y. Jackson, Joseph Plaskett, Lilias Torrance Newton, Herbert Siebner, Molly Lamb Bobak, and Takao Tanabe. Sonia kept the ranching and artistic traditions alive when she married rancher Hugh Cornwall of Ashcroft and moved to Jones Lake Ranch, a section of Onward Ranch. The homes of Sonia and her mother were conduits for the stimulation of the arts in the region and in 1945 the two women and A.Y. Jackson formed the still thriving Cariboo Art Society. One of the many satisfying connections made in the book is the identification, from photographs, of the same iconic barn at Onward Ranch in the work of Cornwall, Jackson, Plaskett, Tanabe, and Siebner.

Salloum provides context for Jackson’s tantalizing mention in his autobiography, A Painter’s Country, of the Cariboo artist Vivien Cowan and “her two charming daughters.” We now know that Vivien took classes at the Banff school of Fine Arts in the summer of 1945 with Jackson, a founding member of the Group of Seven and a brilliant painter with a special affinity for western Canada. Always interested in a new adventure and keen to paint any new pocket of the country, Jackson accepted Vivien’s invitation to visit her at Onward Ranch. He appreciated the rolling hills, the vast spaces of ranch land, and the company of Vivien and her daughters; he soon became a mentor to Sonia, whom he recognized as a gifted and original artist. Letters and sketches flew between Jackson in Ottawa and Sonia in the Cariboo. Having grown up on the ranch, Sonia had a depth of knowledge and a connection to the land that Jackson recognized and fostered. Her chosen subjects of the landscape and cattle, and the cultural occasions of the Cariboo such as rodeos, received the approbation of one of the most celebrated Canadian artists of the twentieth century. A similar friendship and mentorship arose between Sonia and the artist Joseph Plaskett. The encouragement of Jackson and Plaskett, along with their careful criticism of her technique and composition, sustained Sonia in what would be periods of doubting isolation.

Sheryl Salloum is well positioned through her previous research and writing to present Sonia Cornwall’s story. She also lived in the Cariboo for a decade. While the 6” x 9” format of the book has some advantages, the isolation of paintings in a middle section labelled “gallery” doesn’t do justice to Cornwall’s artistic achievement. It would be much more effective to insert images of paintings in the text when they are discussed. It was also unfortunate, and I suspect a publisher’s dilemma, that the cost of producing a worthy study of this artist meant reducing the number and size of colour images: some of Cornwall’s remarkable work merited more space, and the book needed an index.

Nonetheless, this is a path-breaking biography that convincingly presents Sonia Cornwall as an engaging and modern British Columbia woman, fiercely independent and indomitable. Sometimes, as with Carr’s career, economic and physical demands became impediments, but Cornwall was always able to reset her focus on painting. She was also a source of inspiration and influence to other artists in British Columbia and beyond, and her legacy is a lasting record and expression of ranch life in central British Columbia. Encompassing every form of work and life familiar to a Cariboo rancher, her art demonstrates Georgia O’Keeffe’s observation that what is really important about an artist is where she is from.

REFERENCES

Fowler, Julie. 2013. The Grande Dames of the Cariboo: Discovering Vivien Cowan and Sonia Cornwall and their intriguing friendship with A.Y. Jackson and Joseph Plaskett. Halfmoon Bay: Caitlin.

Jackson, A.Y. 1958. A Painter’s Country: The Autobiography of A.Y. Jackson. Toronto: Clarke, Irwin & Company.

Sonia: The Life of Bohemian, Rancher and Artist Sonia Cornwall, 1919-2006
Sheryl Salloum
Halfmoon Bay: Caitlin: 2015. 250 pp. $24.95 paper

 

BC Studies no. 193 Spring 2017