Percival M Ritchie, A Retrospective, Art Gallery of the South Okanagan, 1994

Curatorial Essay by Roger Boulet

Exhibition: Percival M Ritchie A Retrospective, Art Gallery of the South Okangan (now Penticton Art Gallery) 1994

1. The Far Shore

The verandah overlooks the Saint-Lawrence River, twenty kilometers across at this point, but one can still see the south shore. On the verandah, an older girl observes a younger girl looking out onto the world. The place is a summerhouse belonging to the Blake family near Murray Bay (La Malbaie) in Québec’s picturesque Comté Charlevoix.

In a sense, The Far Shore, St. Lawrence, Québec, painted in 1992 by Percival Ritchie is a representation of a cherished memory—a distant home of pleasant childhood experiences. Both girls represent the artist at two different stages of her youth. The painting also evokes other emotions: wonderment at an overwhelming nature represented by a vast landscape; aspirations of long ago. It is also a political statement which (pro) claims the artist’s own Québec heritage. Finally, it is a retrospective look at a point of origin, and evokes the exercise of a retrospective look at a long artistic career.

The family summer home has long been sold, yet the scene is both vivid and dream-like. It is not a depiction of a real event, not is it an anecdote. The painting is not even a precise or representational self-portrait. It is, rather, like a scene on which a thought, perhaps a dream, has been captured. The use of painting for the purpose of communicating as well as circumscribing meaning, of delineating personal reflection and belief, of questioning, is the essence of all of Percy Ritchie’s mature work.

She was born on July 9, 1917, at Pointe-au-Pic, in Comté Charlevoix, that same part of Québec’s North shore which had attracted so many artists since the 1850s and would attract so many more during the first half of this century. Before her birth, her father decided to name his first child Percival Molson Mackenzie—it would of course be a boy! —a living memorial to his best friend who had died in the Great War weeks before. She was the elder of two children born to Philip Mackenzie and Helen Jean Blake. Cultural pursuits were valued in the Mackenzie household, and both parents were interested in drawing and other arts. Philip Mackenzie was a partner in a brokerage firm in Montréal, a kind and generous man, well known as an athlete, (as had been his dear friend Percival Molson). Helen Blake was the daughter of William Hume Blake, a writer and an avid fisherman and the great niece of Edward Blake, leader of the opposition from 1880 to 1887 in Ottawa during John A. Macdonald’s government.

Percy's early studies took place at a private girl’s school in Montréal headed by Margaret Gascoigne and known as The Study. The Study’s curriculum offered a broad range of arts and sciences, including instruction in drawing and painting from Montréal artist, Ethel Seath (1879-1963). Seath had herself been a student of both William Brymner and Edmond Dyonnet at the Art Association of Montréal, and was associated with Montréal’s Beaver Hall Group (1921) and the Canadian Group of Painters (2933). She and her compatriot Anne Savage initiated art classes for children at the Art Association of Montréal, which were eventually taken over by Arthur Lismer in 1941. In 1942, Seath exhibited her artwork at the Art Gallery of Toronto alongside Prudence Heward, Sarah Robertson and Anne Savage.

Percy studied with Ethel Seath for nine years between 1926 and 1935. She was encouraged to take extra courses in art, particularly since Ms. Gascoigne and Ms. Seath recognized her special talents in that area while acknowledging that she was probably wasting her time at math. As a result, Ms. Seath gained an avid student and a friend. Percy remembers Ethel Seath’s teaching: she shared her knowledge of art history; she encouraged experimentation in a variety of techniques. Students were encouraged to work on a large scale in both drawing and painting. Percy remembers cutting her first lino-block in Ethel Seath’s class: The Morning Ride, subsequently exhibited at the Art Association of Montréal in the 1935 spring exhibition. The days of the genteel watercolour deemed, more suitable for women’s particular sensitivities were long gone. The period between the wars was, in fact, an emancipatory one for women artists, even though critics and art historians have, until very recently, given most women artists of the time short shrift.

Upon matriculation, Percy decided to pursue her art studies. She went to Paris in 1936 and stayed there until the late spring of 1937. She took painting lessons and studied in the atelier of Miguet (a sculptor who had studied with Bourdelle) where she was encouraged to make life drawings. During her stay in the French capitol, she stayed in a pension run by two women for Canadian and American students, where both the study of the history of Paris and art history was an important component of pension life.

One year after her return to Canada, she continued her studies at the Art School at the Art association of Montréal where she was a student until 1940. During this time she studied with Goodridge Roberts, Lillias Torrance Newton, Edwin Holgate (painting and drawing from life) and Will Ogilive (illustration and design).

In the late 1930’s she had met Frederick Ritchie while both were skiing in the Laurentians. When war broke out Fred enlisted in the army but they were married in 1942, and soon decided to have a child. It was at this time that she asked for the studio key for the Art Association from Arthur Lismer. He commented on her nerve, since she was obviously pregnant, but gave her the key nonetheless, enabling her to continue working until she gave birth to her first child, Bly, in 1943. After training in Canada, Fred first served on the Italian Front and later during the liberation of Holland. During the war, Percy had worked with the Red Cross Transport in 1940 and was later employed as a tracer with Allied War Supplies. She nevertheless continued with her artistic work and exhibited work in the Spring Exhibitions of 1939, 1940 and 1941. In 1943, she exhibited the painting Above St. Siméon, c. 1939 at the 60th Spring Exhibition. Another work, The big hill at Port-au-Persil, was the last painting she exhibited at the Art Association in 1946.

After the war, Fred was employed with Dominion Textiles in Montréal where he had worked before the war. He rose in the corporate ladder, within the sales division, eventually holding an executive position.

Between 1945 and 1956, three more children were born: Jane in 1947, Ted in 1951 and Valentine in 1954. Percy continued to take art classes (with Jacques de Tonnancour in the evenings at the Art Association in 1947). She also studied with a Polish refugee artist named Gisella Lamprecht between 1953 and 1955 and did some sculpture. Both she and Fred enjoyed the cultural life of Montréal.

2. View from a Kitchen Sink

The couple’s love of country living was satisfied for a time when they lived on the outskirts of Montréal at Baie d’Urfé . Percy did little painting at the time, with the exception of a Nativity triptych for the Union Church at Ste. Anne-de-Bellevue in 1952 or 1953.

During these years, an idea began to take shape. Fred and Percy thought of moving to British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley with the idea that they could grow fruit. Eventually the decision was made to make the move. Almost three years of researching the possibilities occurred before the move was made, including a holiday to Rossland in 1953-54 when they first visited the Okanagan Valley (They were delivering a car for GM to Vancouver, then flying home.) They subscribed to the Penticton Herald to keep in touch, and eventually put their house at Baie d’Urfé on the market. Finally, after five months, it was sold for cash, and they bought a station wagon and a trailer, put everything into it and came to the Okanagan valley with the intention that Fred would grow fruit and Percy would paint.

After three months of life in Naramata motel, a suitable 15-acre orchard came on the market, but Fred suggested to Percy that she might not want to live in the old house on the property. Percy remembers that the old house had a fabulous view from the window above the kitchen sink where she would spend a lot of her time. The mixed orchard had pears, apples, peaches, cherries and apricots. Percy started painting as soon as she moved in, turning a chicken house into a studio. The youngest child was not at school yet, but she found time to paint a mural for the Naramata Community Church in 1959.

In 1962, a proper studio was added to the house at Orchilly Farms and soon became a gathering place for like-minded people. In 1964, the Penticton Art Club sponsored an exhibition of twelve of Ritchie’s paintings at the Jubilee Pavilion in Penticton, and a reviewer in the Penticton Herald noted the individuality of her approach and her versatility, while commenting on her ability to capture “the semi-desert contrasts of (the) region in a vivid striking panel.” The following year, in another Penticton Herald article, the artist is quoted in what amounts to a statement on her work at the time:

“The emotional impact of whatever I paint is one of my strongest motives–to create a feeling rather than an impression. The construction, pulling together, the sculpture of a painting, its movement, is all important to me. The paint is only the icing on the cake.”

“The only influences on my work, I believe, are writers. Hemmingway, for his honest approach, clear, strong, simple. No adjectives, no waste space or thought. I would like to be able to paint like this.”

There are relatively few works from this period (and before) to accurately trace the changes that began to affect Percy’s work after her move to the Okanagan. So many works have been culled (and continue to be culled even today) that one can only make some random observations. Certainly, one senses that a more contemplative (and less observed) approach affects the paintings. An interest in contemporary art of the day, including the increasing attention paid to modernist abstraction, can now be seen in the work. Heightened interest in the specific qualities of the Okanagan landscape–in terms of topography, climate and light–transforms the work. The rhythms of the landscape take on greater importance than the landscape itself. The silence of country life, the isolation, also magnifies events, emotions, things seen, and connect them to more spiritual dimensions, nurtured by an interest in books, in ideas, discussions, in creativity. It is these interests, which come to transform Ritchie’s work.

The view from the kitchen sink ultimately connects the artist to nature and the world through the contemplation of the panoramic landscape of the Lake Okanagan and the mountains to the west. At the same time, the children, (coming to maturity in the late sixties and early seventies and much affected by the youth movement of the time), as well as the cycle of the changing seasons in an orchard, bring the artist in touch with a domestic dimension emphatically linked to contemplation of nature on a cosmic scale, and to a concern for the world and the issues caused by humanity’s interaction with nature, and the interaction of people with other people.

3. View from the periphery

There are very few dramatic changes occurring in Ritchie’s work or making certain distinctive phases. There is, on the other hand, a consistency reflecting a gradual maturation of vision. Incidentally, one notices that the work grows progressively paler, as if Ritchie now wished to merely suggest a subject or an idea, inviting the viewer’s own rêverie to complete to complete the picture, to colour it, as it were, with the unique personal experience each viewer has.

In 1974, she participated in an exhibition called Okanagan Energy at the Burnaby Art Gallery. The catalogue includes an artist’s statement:

“My philosophy about my work is a simple one. Motivated by what I read, see and hear, and then think about, from what is happening in our world and its human and environmental resources. More than anything, I am aware of human relations; therefore I paint and draw the human figure in this context. I also love the mountains and corners of landscape. I like to think that I can share this awareness through my work. I use the simplest of mediums. Anything complex tends to stand in the way of an idea as it develops. Because I work slowly and often discard, my work only survives when my head, and I expect my heart, tells me that it must. As a result my collection is small.”

Twelve years later, at the time of the artist’s 1986 exhibition in the new Art Gallery of the South Okanagan, the artist’s statement, printed in a brochure, indicates an interest in both the mechanics of representation and the represented idea:

“Wanting to depict a division between two areas in a landscape by drawing a line, I realize as I work, that from my point of view there are no lines in nature.”

“As I look out the window, the window sill turns over, goes outside, and becomes part of the hill beyond. The line of the hill disappears into the orchard, turns over, goes away and becomes a part of the lake in the distance.”

“So it is with the human figure: an edge of the arm turns over to the other side of the arm and back and around again, up, over to the shoulder and into the body.”

“To resolve this problem, I find I can separate areas either in landscape or in the human figure, by the blending of tone values, by inter-relating various parts of the painting, not by lines, but by light and shade, and cool and warm tones, the human figure eventually fades into the landscape and as one is dependent upon the other, they become one.”

“Light, and what it does to shapes and forms, the emotion it can generate is a subtle and important part of my painting.”

“To me there is a timeless and infinitive relationship between the human figure and the environment, and light is their medium.”

“This in part is what I strive to depict in my paintings.”

A newspaper article again identifies a recurrent theme:

“The mountains, the sea and corners of the landscape are important to me and I like to think that I can share their impact through my work. (…) I am always looking; I am an observer. I like being on the periphery, watching.”

The periphery does, in fact, offer a vantage point from which Ritchie’s work has developed over the years. Isolated from the mainstream world of art, in touch only vicariously through magazines and books with artistic developments taking place in cultural centres and recorded by critics and curators working there, the artist has resigned herself to being on the artistic periphery. She now regards the pursuit of exhibitions, dealers and publicity as ‘a waste of time’ compared to the time spent in creating the work in the first place. Yet, it is from this unique vantage point that her individual vision has matured. She shares her thoughts, reflections and insights through her work, which comes to be in the silent midst of the orchard country overlooking lake Okanagan. All this, one senses, has come as a result of that privileged view from the kitchen sink first glimpsed almost forty years ago and still before her today.

Roger H. Boulet
January, 1994