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Review

The Grande Dames of the Cariboo

By Julie Fowler

March 17, 2014

Review By Maria Tippett


Far too little is known about artistic activity in the interior of British Columbia — past and present alike. Julie Fowler seeks to fill this lacuna by examining the lives of two mother-and-daughter artists: Vivien Cowan (1893-1990) and Sonia Cornwall (1919-2006). They spent most of their lives on the 11,000-acre Onward Ranch near 150 Mile House in the Cariboo.

The author makes it clear from the outset, in this nicely produced book, that she wishes to free herself “from traditional essay structure and to explore different ways to tell a nonfiction story” (14). Armed with a video camera and a tape recorder, Fowler constructed The Grande Dames of the Cariboo over a six-year period. Thus she attended a memorial service for Sonia Cornwall in 2006. She interviewed artists like Joe Plaskett, Tako Tanabe, and others who had visited Onward Ranch following the Second World War. She sought out Cowan and Cornwall’s surviving relatives. Moreover, she orchestrates a series of fictive interviews with Vivien Cowan.

Based partly on Cowan’s unpublished autobiography and partly on the author’s own imagination, the “interviews” tell us little of the pioneer life on Onward Ranch that was established in 1919; little of the trajectory of Cowan’s later artistic career — she only began painting after her husband’s death in 1939; little of Cowan’s activities with the Cariboo Art Society, which she established at Williams Lake in 1945; and virtually nothing about the oil-on-board paintings that are scattered throughout the book.

What the reader does get, in abundance, are the author’s imaginary encounters with the artist. Vivien Cowan’s smile is predictably “charming” (205). When the American-born Cowan first saw the Cariboo shortly after the First World War, “the bare brown hills seemed forbidding to me, being a lover of colour” (66). Few surprises, then. Upon meeting her future husband Charles Cowan in 1918, “It was truly love at first sight” (58). Fowler, who runs Island Mountain Arts and the Arts Wells Festival, is not shy about working herself into imaginary exchanges with her deceased friend. Thus Cowan tells Fowler: “The work that you are doing up there [in Wells] is probably part of what makes you feel so passionate about it” (68). In another of their cosy conversations, Cowan obligingly advises the novice author: “Do not be discouraged by your first efforts” (18).

One of the interviews that Cowan posthumously granted sheds a benign light on her encounters, in the mid-1940s, with A.Y. Jackson, who “was a most delightful and unassuming man and a pleasure to have as a guest” (78-79). During further posthumous musings, Vivien Cowan passes on a few tips about painting methods: “Learning to really see shapes and colours in ordinary things, in an active way” (137). Adopting a more conventional research strategy, Fowler adds to her portrait of Cowan by quoting her contemporary letters to such artists as A.Y. Jackson and Joe Plaskett.

And what of Vivien Cowan’s daughter, Sonia Cornwall? The author reproduces some interesting letters from Jackson to the younger woman; and there are ample illustrations of Sonia’s work. Though both women were clearly disciples of Jackson, the daughter was the more imaginative artist. The reproduction of The Onward Barn (undated) demonstrates that Sonia even ventured, with some success, into abstract painting and that far from being on the periphery of the art world she was very much in touch.

In 1965 most of Onward Ranch was sold to the Oblate Brothers. Vivien, now over seventy, moved to a house near Williams Lake. Sonia kept a few acres of the original farm and lived there until her death in 2006. Though her mother had predeceased her by sixteen years, she is very much alive in the pages of this book. “I would love to visit you,” so Julie Fowler reports her as telling her, “. . . but I don’t travel too much anymore (80).” Sonia and Vivien can be considered lucky to have their memories kept alive in a book that gives a new meaning to the term “ghost-written.”

The Grande Dames of the Cariboo
Julie Fowler
Halfmoon Bay: Caitlin Press, 2013. 224 pp. $24.95 paper