Nfld. & Labrador·Video

How Mary Pratt became an icon of the Canadian art world

Watch a new Absolutely Canadian documentary that explores the life and work of artist Mary Pratt.

Watch a new Absolutely Canadian documentary that explores Pratt's life and work

Mary Pratt is seen working on one of her best-known paintings, in a scene from Kenneth J. Harvey's documentary. (It Was All So Wonderful )

When painter Mary Pratt died in St. John's last August at 83, she was lauded as one of the most talented painters in Canada. 

Before her death, Pratt spoke extensively with filmmaker Kenneth J. Harvey, who took those interviews to craft an award-winning documentary. 

It Was All So Wonderful: The Everyday Magic of Mary Pratt airs Saturday night on CBC Television and is available now on Gem, CBC's streaming series. 

The film opens with scenes of Mary and her sister Barbara growing up in Fredericton, and follows her life from art school at Mount Allison to marriage to Newfoundlander Christopher Pratt, who would strike out first as a painter.

In their home in Salmonier in rural Newfoundland, Mary Pratt would set up her easel in the garden, kitchen or dining room. She had to work around life raising four children, cleaning, cooking meals and hosting dinner parties. 

Mary Pratt is seen with her sister Barbara during their childhood in Fredericton. (It Was All So Wonderful)

"When I finally get to my studio. I often just burst into tears. In front of my painting, I can be king, I can be queen, I can rule," she said. 

"This is the only place where I'm going to get my way." 

How did Mary Pratt bring the domestic to the art world? Watch It Was All So Wonderful right here: 

Pratt found her inspiration in what was often nearest to her: the food she bought to cook, the meals her four children ate, the little things of domestic life. 

"I could see how hard Christopher had to work and I knew how hard I had to work at making a home that was tidy and well-run run because Christopher never liked a house to be untidy and all mixed up," she said. 

Friend and fellow artist Pam Hall told Harvey that while Mary Pratt's work is read as feminist, she may not have set out to "re-enchant female domestic labour to make a point" with her paintings.  

"You've got to remember that the first part of her career took place inside the boundaries of the household, with all the little kids running around, the laundry the this and that," Hall said. 

Painting from life

The film explores a turning point in Mary Pratt's image making, when she started using photographic slides — a technique she initially resisted in her painting process. After painting from life, she said she considered it '"cheating." Then she learned many painters had been using the technique for generations. 

The slides gave Mary Pratt more time to work on her paintings and to give the images form and weight. 

Mary Pratt used a slide taken when the summer sun was shining on her family's table after supper. She later made a painting based on the moment. (It Was All So Wonderful)

"I never had so much fun with painting in my life. I could go on and on and on for months," she said, noting that by using a photo taken in the  "the souffle wouldn't fall, the chickens wouldn't rot. Fish wouldn't smell."

I don't know what New York art is doing right now and I'm out around the bay and I don't care. Nobody needs to look at it and I was right, nobody did look at it.-Mary Pratt

As well as looking at the development of her artwork, the film examines the calamities of Pratt's personal life; the miscarriage of twins, her husband's affairs, their divorce and her second marriage. 

Despite all of that, Mary Pratt kept painting and was considered one a visionary of Canadian art with paintings in public and private collections across the country, including the National Gallery of Canada. 

It Was All So Wonderful: The Everyday Magic of Mary Pratt — which won three awards at the Nickel Film Festival in St. John's this month, including best documentary and best local film — airs on CBC Television Saturday night at 8:30 p.m. NT.

It is also available on CBC Gem, the free streaming service. You can also watch the film by clicking the player above. 

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

About the Author

Angela Antle

Host, Atlantic Voice

Angela is a producer who works from St. John's and is the host of Atlantic Voice, a Sunday morning documentary program on CBC Radio.

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