Percival Ritchie: Ireland, A Connection, Art Gallery of the South Okanagan, 1999


Curatorial Essay by Roger Boulet while he was Director/Curator of Art Gallery of the South Okanagan (now Penticton Art Gallery)

Exhibition:
Percival Ritchie: Ireland, A Connection, Art Gallery of the South Okanagan, Penticton, BC 1999
Grand Forks Art Gallery, Grand Forks, BC 1997
Kootenay Art, History and Science Exhibition Centre (now Kootenay Art Gallery), Castlegar, BC 1997

About her 1995 trip to Ireland, Percy Ritchie says: “I felt as though I had been there before.” The trip was her third to the British Isles in the last twenty-five years or so. A first trip to England and Wales (1972) was followed by another to Scotland in 1978 where she found the land “beautiful and solitary.” A brief stay on the Isle of Skye had been particularly memorable. Her paternal ancestors (Mackenzie) came from Scotland and she had found the same vague familiarity with the surroundings, not to mention a strong sense of “The North” about the country, a familiar sense to an artist born in Québec.

Some paintings inspired by the Scottish trip were exhibited in her 1994 retrospective exhibition at the Art Gallery of the South Okanagan. One work in particular, Scotland I, (1979) is particularly notable as one of the palest paintings she had done until then: only a few forms can be distinguished within the mystical white field that encompasses the entire painting. After that, colour would gradually return to her painting.

Like the trip to Scotland, this trip to Ireland had a family connection. Her maternal ancestors (Blake) came to Northern Ireland during the Middle Ages and established themselves at Connemara (County Galway). The artist’s current trip was an unhurried coach tour of both Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. She made visual notes by taking quick snapshots from the coach windows, and scribbled many short written notes describing the aspects of things seen, and she took other photographs along the way, as would any tourist. On a couple of occasions, a thumbnail drawing was done to record a particular situation. The experience, unlike that of most tourists, created a vivid impression of a return to an ancient home, and the surfacing of a deep-rooted memory.

The Irish paintings are the result of this memory. They are of varied subject matter, but all are infused with a local colour that the artist no doubt found essential to any expressive memory of Ireland. The first two paintings executed after her return home to the BC Interior (Naramata), were Ireland, Landscape I and Ireland, Landscape II. The greens associated with the Irish landscape predominate. The landscapes are overcast and give the sense of a close, moist enveloping atmosphere.

A strong interest in people has characterized Percy Ritchie’s work from the beginning, and three of the Irish paintings represent people and situations. The painting entitled Guiness was the result of a visit to a pub and a quick thumbnail sketch to note the intertwining of tall lovers at a pub table. Mary and Your Man are both sympathetic portrayals of ordinary people.

An interest in building can also be seen in Patrick O’Brian, a betting shop, and in Home, a farmhouse in the countryside. The structure is so reminiscent of the early domestic architecture of Ontario and Québec that our sense of kinship is heightened by the encounter. Shadows, the last work painted in the series, suggest a picturesque village scene, but the central and dominant position of the church in the picture and the shadows at the base of the painting suggest another inescapable reality of Irish life.

Other works with architectural subjects express the historical and social conditions of the Irish. Glendalough shows an ancient tower with Celtic crosses in the foreground: a sense of the ancient origins of the people and their integration with the land is evident, while West shows the same crosses overlooking the way to a new life and a new hope in a new world. (Typically, the artist’s readings in preparation for her trips inform the work.) West can also be seen as a memorial to the victims of the Irish famine of the last century. The painting entitled Bittersweet expresses the pain of parting and the break up of families separating those who left and those who stayed (or were left behind).

The cycle of painting concludes with three landscapes. There are two landscapes of Connemara, the ancient home of the Blakes. The landscapes are somewhat somber and brooding, full of misty and unsettled atmosphere, contrasts of light and dark. Another landscape, Sun and Shadow Move Across the Land, seems to express the emotions of the artist as she remembers the experience of Ireland: a land of opposites, of all kinds of extremes mirrored by the weather.

One is left with a sense that light will inevitably return when the shadows have passed over the ancient land.

Roger H. Boulet