The Life and Art of Mildred Valley Thorton
Review By Erin Ramlo
November 4, 2013
BC Studies no. 176 Winter 2012-2013 | p. 181-2
Sheryl Salloum’s new book The Life and Art of Mildred Valley Thornton explores why this important BC artist has generally been ignored in the historical record and cultural landscape of this province. Given that she was a prolific local painter, with a career that spanned over forty years, Salloum considers why Thornton may have been left out of our galleries and museums, our stories and our minds. With this text – at once biography, critique, and historical review – Salloum seeks to rectify this stunning omission from British Columbia’s artistic cannon. She explores both the life and work of the indomitable Mildred Valley Thornton – painter, author, and advocate for BC’s First Nations – in this newest edition of Mother Tongue’s “Unheralded Artists of BC” series.
Born in 1890 in rural Ontario, Thornton settled in Vancouver in the 1930s and was captivated by the people and spaces of this province. The result was a collection of sweeping and evocative canvases detailing BC’s First Nations peoples, communities, and landscapes, that she continued to paint until her death in 1967. Throughout this text, Salloum builds the story of a woman who believed strongly in the artistic, literary, and cultural legacy of her city and province. As a writer for the Vancouver Sun, as a member of the Poetry Society and the Community Arts Council, and as a lecturer and advocate for First Nations communities, Thornton defied the norms and expectations of her time, straddling the line between mother, artist, activist, and public figure.
Using historical documents, the artist’s own letters and journals, interviews, and stunning reproductions of her canvases, Salloum crafts a detailed and nuanced image of Thornton, her career, and her reception by both the public and the art world. The text approaches the controversies and questions that surrounded Thornton’s work, including the potential for appropriation of First Nations iconography and her being perceived as a dated figurative painter in a world of burgeoning modernism. Salloum includes a detailed account of Thornton’s struggle to sell her paintings before her death – she had hoped that the works would remain as one large collection in a public institution and that the proceeds might fund First Nations educational scholarships. Her work, however, was not sufficiently prized by galleries, government, or philanthropists at the time and, rather than living on as a contiguous public historical record, has ended up mostly in the loving hands of a diversity of private collectors.
This is certainly not a theoretical, nor even an overly critical, art historical text. It is, however, an informative, well-researched, and engaging book about an artist whom history has, for the most part, forgotten. Salloum’s text seeks to recapture and reanimate these beautiful paintings and the story of their artist, thereby allowing readers to decide for themselves where Thornton should sit in the cultural cannon of this province and this country. Including, as it does, beautiful full-colour plates, Salloum revives interest in Thornton’s painting the best way possible – through the work itself.
For, as you flip through this text, there is no denying the painterly skill of Mildred Valley Thornton. There is no denying the sweeping emotional impact of her portraiture, or the sheer historical significance of her collection. Politics and stylistics aside, these pieces capture a moment in our collective histories that certainly should not be forgotten.
The Life and Art of Mildred Valley Thornton
By Sheryl Salloum
Ganges: Mother Tongue Publishing, 2011. 176 pp $39.95