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Why this Calgary artist has devoted her life to painting the stories of war brides

For Remembrance Day, this week's newsletter brings you a story about peacetime strength and bravery.

For Remembrance Day, this week's newsletter is a story about peacetime strength and bravery

Exhibition view of Bev Tosh's War Brides at Canada House in London. (www.warbrides.com)

Hello! You're reading the CBC Arts newsletter, and if you like what you see, stick around! Sign up here, and every Sunday we'll send you a fresh email packed with art, culture and a metric truckload of eye candy, hand-picked by our small and mighty team. The following went out on Nov. 11, 2018.

Hi, art lovers!

It being Remembrance Day, we wanted to do something a little different in this newsletter.

This is Bev Tosh.

Calgary-based artist Bev Tosh has been painting portraits of war brides from the Second World War for 18 years. Her exhibit at the Royal Air Force Museum in London, England, runs until September 2019. (Brenna Engel/CBC Calgary)

She's a painter from Calgary, and last week, Bev was at Rideau Hall to receive aMeritorious Service Medal — recognition for a project that's worth mentioning today.

For the last 18 years, Bev's been working on a series called War Brides. It's a collection of portraits, now numbering somewhere between 150 and 200, featuring pictures of women who arrived in Canada after the Second World War as the wives, or widows, of Canadian servicemen. Each painting is paired with a real-life story, as told to Bev by the women and their families.

We called Bev before the weekend to talk about War Brides. (CBC Calgary also spoke with her this past week, and got some info on an exhibition of 40 of her paintings that's appearing at the Royal Air Force Museum in London through next fall. Have a look, in case you missed it.)

"There's so little of women's stories in history  behind everything," says Bev. So the stories of Canadian war brides, the 40,000 women who arrived in 1946, are no different.

Leaving everything you've ever known — on a one-way ticket to a risky new life — is an act of strength and bravery.

"That fascinates me," she says. "They had peacetime strength, that held together a wartime union."

Meet a few of the War Brides from her series.

(The stories below are as told to Bev.)

(Courtesy of Bev Tosh)

Joan - "Joan met her husband John at a dance. She singled out the shy, 6'6", red-haired Canadian during a spot dance. The first young woman to kiss 'the tall Canadian' would win. On a dare, the '5-foot-and-a-bit' Joan pushed John onto a chair, sat in his lap and kissed him."

(Courtesy of Bev Tosh)

Winnie - "Winnie had no husband waiting to meet her in July 1946, when she arrived in Canada as a widow with their two little daughters. On their first day at the family home in Saskatchewan, the girls were playing outside when the noon-hour siren sounded. Both ran into the house screaming that the Germans were coming."

(Courtesy of Bev Tosh)

Nan - "When Nan first saw her painting, she recalled the black tooth — the result, she said, of her bicycle being hit and dragged by a Nazi vehicle during the war. Her Canadian boyfriend dubbed her old bike with garden hose for tires 'Jannigje's Dutch tank.'"

(Courtesy of Bev Tosh)

Joy - "Joy was not wanted. When she arrived in Canada, her husband met her accompanied by another woman, who was pregnant. He asked for a divorce."

(Courtesy of Bev Tosh)

Elly - "Her new Canadian family sent white fabric and shoes to Elly, a Dutch war bride, who had nothing left after the war. The package never arrived. Elly was married in an army blanket tailored into a suit. It was a U.S. army blanket — 'the real khaki' — and finer than Canadian issue. Her husband never told her how he got it."

(Courtesy of Bev Tosh)

The first painting in the series is actually a portrait of Bev's mom. She was also a war bride, but in New Zealand, not Canada. (A Saskatchewan girl, she met and married a New Zealand Air Force pilot who was on the prairies as a training officer, and though the marriage didn't last, she moved there to join him when the fighting was over.)

"She never spoke about her time in New Zealand," says Bev. "She was like a soldier in that respect."

"I think that's what made me so fascinated by all these other stories — that maybe wee bits of them were hers," she says.

Bev is still collecting first-person accounts from war brides and their families, painting portraits of the women she meets.

Since the beginning of the project, people have been finding her through word of mouth, and she keeps an archive of their histories — photos, audio recordings, even notes and Christmas cards.

"I've been entrusted with these stories," she says.

Their pictures, usually based on wedding-day portraits, are painted on plywood boards, so they can stand — side by side — "almost the way soldiers might have marched."

"They had made the commitment, they followed through, they endured Canadian winters — I mean, apart from lots of other things," she says. "And it wasn't easy to leave a union; it wasn't easy at all."

"The women's strength, and stories, I think it should not remain untold."

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XOXO, CBC Arts

About the Author

Leah Collins

Leah Collins is the Senior Writer at CBC Arts.

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