A valuable collection of Canadian artwork that was at risk of being lost in last summer’s flood goes on display this week at the University of Calgary.

After a lifetime of collecting, the walls of prominent Calgary printmaker Helen Mackie’s Elbow Park house were covered with art.


Helen Mackie, a prominent Calgary artist in her own right, has donated her collection of drawings by Canadian artists to the University of Calgary's Nickle Galleries. (CBC)

So as the Elbow River burst its banks last June, Mackie and her family raced to save the pieces hanging in the basement — mostly drawings by some of Canada’s most important artists — before it filled with two metres of water.

“I couldn’t quite believe it actually. It was just incredible,” Mackie said.

Her daughter-in-law Sandy Mackie said family members worked for three hours to get the artwork safely upstairs.

"I happened to get a hold of my husband and two kids and said, ‘You got to meet at grandma's house, we got to get all the artwork out of her basement,’” she said.

Exciting gift

Now Mackie has donated more than 100 of the works, including drawings by Jack Shadbolt and Norval Morrisseau, to the U of C’s Nickle Galleries.

“To me the most exciting thing about this donation is that it’s an intact collection of work,” said Christine Sowiak, the galleries’ chief curator.

The Nickle Galleries has a collection of about 6,000 pieces of artwork, mostly by Calgary and southern Albertan artists, she said.

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Art history professor Katherine Ylitalo will use the Mackie collection to teach her students about Canadian art. (CBC)

“And certainly the Mackie donation is focused on that, but it also represents, I’d say, at least 100 artists from about 200 years of art history in Canada,” Sowiak said.

“I think what’s really exciting is that it’s also a focus on drawing. And drawing is sometimes overlooked.”

Mackie said collecting drawings was her way of getting to the roots of an artist’s style.

“Almost everything starts from a drawing. An architect starts from a drawing,” she said. “It’s a very good way to collect many artists and document their works.”

Stunning quality and range

Sowiak said she was stunned by the quality and range of the works in the Mackie collection.

Among the notable Alberta artists included are Illingworth Kerr, Roland Gissing and Marion and Jim Nicoll.

Nickle Gallery flood art

Here is just one of many examples of the drawings now on display at the Nickle Galleries on the University of Calgary campus. (CBC)

“Some of them are pages from their sketchbooks. Sketches of paintings they’ve made. Or, there’s an Illingworth Kerr sketch where he’s got the full landscape but he also notes what colour goes where for the future painting,” she said.

Art history professor Katherine Ylitalo is using the collection to teach her students about Canadian art.  

“Something like this is a real treasure trove,” she said.

“Plus, there’s an added bonus to it. Helen Mackie actually went here to the  U of C. So for the students to learn that she had been here, graduated in ’73, and taken courses even from one of the professors who’s still here, was a real link for them.” 

Fine Lines: Drawings from the Nickle Collection and the Mackie Donation runs until Aug. 23.