Percival Ritchie, Kelowna Art Gallery 2002

Catalogue Essay by Carolyn McHardy, Associate Professor, Department of Art History, Faculty of  Creative and Critical Studies, University of British Columbia Okanagan

Exhibition: Percival Ritchie, Kelowna Art Gallery, 2002

Re/Viewing Percival Ritchie: An Okanagan Context

In our happier moments we delight in the energy of the local, in the abundance that is diversity and difference, in the variety and life that exist on any coastline of the human experience.
Robert Kroetsch, Disunity as Unity

 . . .I have to get ready to go to the Okanagan. We’re invited to this wedding. . .
Polly said, “Oh. Well, I might come by myself then.”
“Sure you should.”
“Where is the Okanagan?”

Alice Munro, Post and Beam

Percival Ritchie has been practicing as an artist in Naramata since 1956 but until now, she has not been placed with the larger discourses surrounding art in Canada or in British Columbia. Traditional histories of art in Canada, such as those written by J. Russell Harper and Dennis Reid, largely ignore the art of the interior of B.C. while those books and catalogues that do focus specifically on B.C. tend to concentrate on Vancouver and Victoria. For example, in Art B.C.: Masterworks from British Columbia, published two years ago, Ian Thom included only one artist currently working in the Okanagan (Ann Kipling) and one artist who worked here early in the twentieth century (C.J. Collings). The message, though probably unintentional, is that significant art in B.C. is linked to “The City”, of not in subject matter, then through those agencies such as museums and public and commercial galleries that tend to concentrate in greater numbers in larger centers. Robert Kroetsch, however, urges a reconsideration of the local which, although outside the dominant narratives of history (and in this case, art history), deserves recognition on its own merits in a postmodern Canada.

The recorded history of the art in the Okanagan Valley is fragmented and only partially written: there is no comprehensive overview which surveys the art of this region, beginning with the art of the First Nations people and continuing through until the present day. Yet many artists have worked in this Valley and their works can be found in both public and commercial galleries, museums and private collections. In addition, there are more and more exhibition catalogues being published by the galleries in the Okanagan, and these, together with diaries, letters and accounts in newspapers and reports by historical societies, offer the documentation essential to any attempt to provide a coherent account of the art in this region. The essay is offered as a contribution to a developing understanding of the art history of the Okanagan Valley; it takes as its focus Percival Ritchie and suggests that a consideration of her practice furthers our understanding of the context in which artists have worked in this region over the past fifty years.

Percy Ritchie arrived in Naramata in 1956. She was a wife, a mother to four children, and an artist. She and her husband Fred left Montréal, the city of over 1-1/2 million people where both had grown up, and came to a fruit farming community whose population was probably well under 1000 people. Naramata had none of the cultural institutions which had been so integral to Percy’s life as an artist in Montréal: when she arrived, there were no art galleries, either public or private, no art schools, and both the concert hall and the Canadian Players theatre, run out of the Naramata Supply Company and the packing house of the Rekadom Ranch respectively, were defunct by the time they arrived. Nor were there many artists working nearby: Toni Onley was living for a brief period in Penticton, the nearest town but they didn’t meet each other until years later. Percy, however, was able to follow his career over the years by listening to the CBC, which had begun broadcasting in B.C. in 1953.

The Okanagan valley has long been a tourist destination, an industry that was enhanced by the aggressive and slick promotional campaigns mounted by the B.C. government in the years following the Second World War (and which is still maintained in the “Beautiful B.C. campaigns). The history of art in this province is intimately linked to tourism, and in this region, to the transportation infrastructures required to make tourism viable. In 1949 the Hope Princeton Highway was completed, linking the south Okanagan to Vancouver (a not insignificant fact for Percy: when she first arrived here, she had to order her art supplies from the coast); the Rogers Pass section of the Transcanada Highway, linking the northern part of this region to the rest of the province and Canada was completed in 1962 and the Coquihalla, offering quick,four-lane access to the Lower Mainland, was completed in 1990. However, artists have been coming here since at least the late nineteenth century, sometimes for business, sometimes for pleasure; for example, both Julia Bullock-Webster and Isabel Marjoribanks Gordon, Lady Aberdeen, spent time here in the 1890s, capturing their impressions of a new (to them) land, and Elsie Crompton was painting in Peachland around 1916. C.J. Collings, the superb, English-born and trained watercolourist, relocated from London to the shores of Shuswap Lake in 1910, proving that a serious artist could live and work in the area (he continued to send his work back to his London dealer for sale). The artists who visited here in the middle years of the last century are better known: Jock MacDonald spent the summer of 1944 in the Okanagan, describing it as ”real Van Gogh country, with its strong light, sage brush, sun baked hillsides and brilliant colours.” E.J. Hughes, who made several visits to the Okanagan starting in 1956, limned a tranquil arcadia touched by industrial development although the tourist industry is evident in some of his works done in the Penticton-Naramata region. Many of the works done here were landscapes, acknowledging the conventions of the picturesque which were as suited to the Okanagan as they were to the Lake District in England; they presented the Okanagan as a place of breathtaking beauty, the type of place one might visit during the hot and indolent days of summer, but certainly not a place where one could sustain, without enormous effort, a committed artistic practice. Ironically, many works of the Okanagan painted in the middle years of the twentieth century and earlier have never been exhibited here: not only were they probably done from sketches carried back to studios maintained elsewhere in the province, but until at least the late 1960s, there were few exhibition opportunities for artists.

There were, of course, exceptions, artists who did stay and work here, and interestingly, many were women: in addition to Percival Ritchie, one can think of artists such as Gwen Lamont (1909-1968) and Mary Bull (born in 1920) in Kelowna, Sveva Caetani (1917-1994) and Jessie Topham Brown (1882-1974) in Vernon, and Elizabeth C.V. Beattie (1874-1966) in Kamloops. All of these women artists deserve far more recognition than they have received up until the present time for it was them who, by staying, often contributed enormously to the cultural milieus of their communities. Percy Ritchie, despite the demands or orcharding and child rearing, and of trying to carve out space and time for her own painting, became closely linked to her community: she painted a mural for St. Peter’s Church in Naramata, organized informal sessions in her studio for both young high-school age artists as well as older, more established ones; she taught at the Penticton Summer School of the Arts, and she wrote art reviews in the local newspaper. At the same time, it was more difficult then than now to meet with other artists, in part because the geography of this region encourages the development of local rather than regional institutions (one exception of this was the B.C. Fruit Growers Association, a Valley-wide cooperative which required considerable amounts of traveling for its executive; another was Okanagan College which was established in 1964 with a regional mandate and campuses throughout the Valley.) But traveling between the communities was discouraging for some: there was no bridge linking Kelowna to the west side of the lake where Highway 97 continued south until 1958; until then, one had to cross the lake by ferry before resuming the journey. Travel down the east side of the lake between Kelowna and Naramata was not much easier: a gravel road required driving skill and perseverance. When the Ritchie’s moved to Naramata in 1956, towing a trailer behind their station wagon, it was much easier to come through the United States than to take the Big Bend highway, the predecessor of the Transcanada Highway.

The Okanagan Valley has gone through tremendous change in the years since Percy Ritchie has been here. The landscape, once the symbol of a pristine and benevolent nature is now a hotly contested site as environmentalists, loggers and foresters, developers and orchardists try to envision a sustainable future for this region. The view from the window, referred to by Ihor Holubizky in his study of Percy’s work, is increasingly precarious. However, the possibilities for artists in the Okanagan have increased dramatically over the past fifty years, and the separate communities in this region now have vibrant and highly diversified art scenes. Had Percy not come to the Okanagan with the excellent art training she had received in Montréal, she would have not been able to pursue an art education here: in 2002, one can do a Fine Arts Diploma or a B.F.A. at Okanagan University College but that is fairly recent (the Fine Arts Department was only founded in 1971): prior to that, young artists had to go elsewhere for their education, or if they wished to stay here, they could go to the summer schools offered in Banff or Penticton. There are public galleries in all the major communities in this region, as well as alternative and commercial galleries: Percy’s exhibition record over the past twenty years lists exhibitions in Penticton, Grand Forks, Vernon, Kelowna, Summerland and Kamloops.

As I write this essay in February 2002, the Art Gallery of the South Okanagan is showing Heart of Darkness, a traveling exhibition of works by Emily Carr and Jack Shadbolt, circulated by the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery at UBC. Where, I wonder, should one positions Edith Iglauer’s 1988 comment that “When you get through with Emily Carr and Jack Shadbolt, what have you got? Not too much.” Iglauer, of course, was writing about the Vancouver Art Gallery and its collection, but her words betray a sense that Vancouver is somehow synonymous with B.C. and that the local is irrelevant. My answer to Iglauer’s question, at the moment, lies 45 minutes north in the Kelowna Art Gallery where one of the current exhibitions is work of Mary Bull and where Percival Ritchie’s exhibition opens in April of this year. Not too much, Edith? Look again!

Carolyn MacHardy
Associate Professor, Fine Arts Department
Okanagan University College

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