Nfld. & Labrador

New documentary explores the order and disorder of N.L. painter Christopher Pratt

At 82, Pratt makes his annual pilgrimage around the island, logging thousands of miles to revisit the buildings, dams, landscapes and lighthouses that have inspired his art.

The new CBC documentary airs Saturday at 8:30 p.m. on CBC Television

Immaculate Memories: The Uncluttered Worlds of Christopher Pratt, directed by Kenneth J. Harvey, airs Saturday night at 8:30 p.m. on CBC Television. (Kenneth J. Harvey)

"These things are always a combination between truth and fiction."

The voice of Christopher Pratt comes to us as we peer over his shoulder, watching him draw a straight line onto an unfinished canvas with a blue pencil that isn't quite the length of his finger.

"It's the fiction that makes things work."

Pratt is known for his stark, geometrically precise paintings of Newfoundland buildings and landscapes. (Kenneth J. Harvey)

Immaculate Memories: The Uncluttered Worlds of Christopher Pratt, a new CBC documentary, takes the audience on Pratt's annual road trip across Newfoundland, logging thousands of miles from Burgeo to Cape Norman.

Viewers join Pratt and director Kenneth J. Harvey in the car as they bicker and laugh over the sound of the tires crunching gravel roads or the wipers sweeping aside the rain and snow.

"Welcome to Newfoundland as it was meant to be," Pratt exclaims — in so far as he exclaims at all — as the pavement ends on the way to Argentia.

Solstice Drive to St. Anthony by Christopher Pratt (Kenneth J. Harvey)

Running under the Newfoundland landscapes, both real and rendered by Pratt, is music by Canadian composer Andrew Staniland. The sparse, haunting score won an award at this year's Nickel Independent Film Festival.

Pratt was born in St. John's and is one of the country's most respected artists, famous for his stark, geometrically-precise paintings of seascapes, roads and solitary buildings in Newfoundland and Labrador.

In his work, lines are straightened, edges are sharpened and disorder is carefully controlled.

A Farewell to Fort MacAndrew: The Last Man Standing, by Christopher Pratt, top photo, and the building from the Fort MacAndrew naval station in Argentia, below. (Kenneth J. Harvey)

"Things falling down, doors falling out, stains on the concrete, I don't know — pigeon poop or whatever … I'm not in interested in that. I'm making a picture."

Pratt's painting, Deer Lake: Junction Brook Memorial, above, and The Deer Lake power station, below. (Kenneth J. Harvey/Christopher Pratt)

As we check into hotels with Pratt and join him for meals and watch him in his studio, we come to know exactly what making pictures means for him.

'A tragedy of alcohol'

Pratt met his first wife, the equally renowned late painter Mary Pratt, at Mount Allison University in New Brunswick. They fell in love and moved to St. Mary's Bay, Newfoundland.

The couple raised four children, lost twins to miscarriage, and eventually divorced. While he was still married to Mary Pratt, Christopher Pratt began a relationship with Jeanette Meehan, who was working for him in his studio, putting the first coats of paint on his canvasses.

Christopher Pratt, right, began a relationship with Jeanette Meehan, centre, while married to Mary Pratt, left. (Kenneth J. Harvey/Immaculate Memories: The Uncluttered Worlds of Christopher Pratt)

He speaks openly about all of this, as does Mary Pratt and Jeanette Meehan, who are both featured in the documentary.

He speaks less openly about his difficult childhood, which Mary Pratt describes as a "tragedy of alcohol." His parents, she says, drank a lot and threw a lot of parties.

Immaculate Memories

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Immaculate Memories: The Uncluttered Worlds of Christopher Pratt 4:28

"I think his youth was somewhat disordered," she says. "And I think because of that, he wanted everything to be ordered in his work and in his life."

"There's a [childhood] period from which I don't remember very much," he says. "And maybe I don't want to."

Things that cannot be tidied

But he is completely closed about a woman named Tannie Lake, who he says was his first love. He brings her up many times, but every time, he refuses to give any details. 

We know Lake died, and that she may have died in terrible circumstances. We know he still visits her grave.

"There are a lot of things I don't talk about, that can't now be tidied up," says Pratt. (Kenneth J. Harvey)

And we know his family is just as bewildered as we are: that he is forever pacing back and forth over these memories of Lake, but will not tell anyone what these memories are or what they mean to him.

"There are a lot of things I don't talk about … that can't now be tidied up," he says.

Nothing about her makes it into his picture, his so-called fictions — a spirit and memory even Christopher Pratt can't control.

Immaculate Memories: The Uncluttered Worlds of Christopher Pratt airs Saturday at 8:30 p.m. on CBC Television or you can watch it here.

Read more articles from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sarah Smellie is a journalist with the Canadian Press, based in St. John's. She has previously reported for CBC Newfoundland and Labrador.

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