An Interview with Christopher Pratt
Christopher Pratt, Argentia: The Ruins of Fort McAndrew: After the Cold War (2013), oil on canvas, 101.6 x 203.2 cm. NGC. Purchased 2013 through the generous donation of Gisella Giacalone, Margaret L. Marshall, R. Raso, W.J. Wyatt and Scott Campbell. Photo: Courtesy Mira Godard Gallery
As a teenager, Canadian artist Christopher Pratt was urged by his mother “not to get too woolly-headed about being a painter.” She wanted her son to become a doctor because, he recalls, “it was seen as a ticket out of Newfoundland.”
He clearly did not want either the career or the ticket. In 1953/54, he enrolled in Mount Allison University as a student in pre-medicine, but soon veered off into fine art, strongly encouraged by his new acquaintances, Lawren P. Harris and Alex Colville. This was also where Pratt met his first wife, artist Mary Pratt. He says a pivotal point in his career was the opportunity to study at the Glasgow School of Art in Scotland. But Newfoundland always pulled him back — in the summers to work as a construction surveyor, then ultimately to marry, raise a family, and paint.
To this day, Pratt says his studio in Salmonier, Newfoundland is still the place where he most loves to research, ponder and synthesize the people, places, history, weather and geography that ultimately become his distinctive prints and paintings. Now 78 years old, Pratt is one of Canada’s most prominent artists. He has exhibited both nationally and internationally, and his paintings and prints can be found in public and private collections around the world. The National Gallery of Canada has a number of his works in its permanent collection, including its most recent Pratt acquisition, Argentia: The Ruins of Fort McAndrew: After the Cold War.
Pratt has received many awards and honours. In 1965, at the age of 30, he became an Associate of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts (ARCA) and a member of the Canadian Society of Graphic Art, and in 1983 he was made a Companion of the Order of Canada.
He recently spoke to NGC Magazine about his work, his new endeavours, and how his desire to paint — or think about painting every day — is as strong as ever.
NGC Magazine: At what age did you start painting, and why?
Christopher Pratt: I would have been 17 years old when I started painting. I think I demonstrated some interest in it when I was just a child, really. My mother used to paint Christmas cards. I would watch her doing that, and I found that was pretty special. When I was in junior high school, myself and a couple of other fellows would be nominated, or coerced, into making little drawings on little slate boards for Visitors Day, on benign subjects like preventing forest fires. So I had a flare for it.
My paternal grandfather, Jim Pratt, painted in watercolours as a hobby. I’d had my appendix out, and in those days you weren’t supposed to do anything for two months after the operation, so I was confined to the back yard. My mother bought me some watercolours, and my grandfather brought me a book on watercolour painting — and it wasn’t one of these el cheapo books; it was by the American watercolourist Adolf Dehn. It was a serious thing, and I looked at that, and I just had this sense that this was what I really wanted to do.
Christopher Pratt, Blue Iron Door (2013), oil on panel, 123.2 x 153.7 cm. Courtesy Mira Godard Gallery
NGCM: As a teenager, you had a summer job as a construction surveyor. How did that help shape your style as a painter?
CP: When I first went to Memorial University in 1952/53, I actually took pre-engineering, and the evidence of that is still in my work. I did surveying, and knowing one end of a transit from the other allowed me to get summer jobs as a student on survey crews. That was in Argentia Naval Station in 1958. It was the combination of surveying, where I was measuring the land and looking at the land through straight lines, and through engineering instruments. I was laying out buildings — getting the corners right, and that kind of thing — so it influenced me that way.
I was also fascinated with the American presence in Newfoundland. Argentia Naval Station was an active American Cold War base at the time. But the fellow who taught us engineering drawing: in reality, I learned more from him with respect to engineering drawing techniques than I ever learned in art school, and I think that aspect is still evident in my work.
NGCM: How is your painting different now from when you were younger? How has it evolved?
CP: Actually, not very much. I was working in watercolour at that time. I think I had only done one tentative oil painting. When I went to the Glasgow School of Art, I hadn’t had a single lesson in anything except in engineering drawing. First of all, of course, I was doing paintings of the Newfoundland landscape, always translated. They were never photographic takes on the places I was painting. I invented places and situations that came from places I had been — places I could identify. But it was never photorealism. So I would come back to the studio with ideas, and essentially work them up with diagrams and so on.
NGCM: Which people and which events have most influenced your work?
CP: Alex Colville was an influence on me as a person, although we were as different as chalk and cheese in our working habits, and in our outlook on life, and the divine, and whatever else. He was a very organized person. He always dressed to the nines, and I was rather more sloppy and rather more casual about the way I approached my craft. It’s hard to be any more formal than I actually am. But I was less formal than Alex.
Because my grandfather painted in watercolours, that removed any suspicion that I might have encountered that being a painter was any kind of a sissy thing to do, because my grandfather certainly wasn’t any sissy. That was a real influence. My mother was a little more guarded about it all. She certainly encouraged me, and never put anything in my way, but I remember one day I was going on and on about being a painter and how important it was, and my father said, “You know, Christopher, most people would rather live next door to a good plumber than a painter.” My mother’s attitude was that, yes, it was important, but not to get all woolly-headed about it. It was just something people did and some did it better than others, and she figured I would be one of the ones that did it better than others, but not to take it all too seriously or let it go to my head.
Christopher Pratt, Sunset at Squid Cove (2004), oil on canvas, 101.6 x 167.6 cm. Courtesy Mira Godard Gallery
Certainly, going to the Glasgow School of Art was a big deal for me. I’d never been across the pond, so that was a big influence on me. In the two years I spent there, this was not a place where you were encouraged to paint woolly-edged pictures. Their mindset was still Pre-Raphaelite. We had to do a painting on an assigned subject once a month, and bring it in for criticism. The critics who came in for this process were from outside the school. There was this one fellow looked at one of the paintings, and he said, “Who did this?” And this girl tentatively put up her hand, and he said, “I could knit a better picture.”
People didn’t pussyfoot around students in art schools in those days, on the theory that absolutely everybody had hidden talent, and that a declaration that you were a painter would be enough to appropriate that particular profession to your name. Nowadays, you can go down to the corner store and buy a box of watercolour paints and you can tell people, “I’m an artist.” And it isn’t necessarily so.
NGCM: Do you see your work as an attempt to document life, people and places — for example, Deer Lake: Junction Brook Memorial (1999) in the National Gallery’s collection?
CP: Well certainly it’s a trail of where we go. The Junction Brook Memorial comes from the fact that there was a river running from Grand Lake to the Upper Humber River, and it was called Junction Brook. When they built the power station, they had to dam off Junction Brook, so it’s now just a miserable little trickle of water coming down that watercourse, and you could see how big a brook it was. Now all that water is channeled through that power station in Corner Brook. In a sense, it was a memorial to the extinct, dammed-off Junction Brook. So that’s the way my mind works on subjects like that.
NGCM: The National Gallery recently acquired Argentia: The Ruins of Fort McAndrew: After the Cold War. How is it classic Pratt; and how is it different?
CP: Well, geometrically it’s very classic. In the structure of the building it’s very classic, because I took the basic aspects of the building — and anyone who had seen that particular building, which had the air traffic control tower at one end, would know that painting came from it. But I moved the windows around, and I moved the doors and the porch around, and I changed patina and that sort of thing. That was all standard. But I did allow a little more patina in it, detailing the odd little rust stain, the odd broken window — although the windows were not shattered, just the odd pane taken out. So it’s a little bit more towards representational, using detail as evidence of time, and not using the architecture as a pretense for a Mondrian-like approach.
Christopher Pratt, Military Presence (1999), oil on canvas, 121.9 x 142.2 cm. Courtesy Mira Godard Gallery
NGCM: What still excites you about painting?
CP: I’ve either painted or thought about painting every day of my life since 1952, and the only way I can get out of the studio is to get off the Avalon Peninsula of Newfoundland, and go to the main body of the island of Newfoundland, and go to the west coast. Most of the subjects that I’ve painted in the past 15 years are based on the west coast of Newfoundland — with which I re-acquainted myself, having gone there as early as 1961, salmon and trout fishing with my father.
NGCM: Do you have a favourite painting place?
CP: I’ve worked on the same piece of turf here in Salmonier since we moved down here in 1963. I set up a studio which was semi-detached from the main building and closed the door, although kids and Mary [his first wife, artist Mary Pratt] came and went, and came and went. Mary would come over, and we would discuss my work, as I would discuss her work with her. She showed me how to mix colours, and I would show her how to draw a straight line, so that was about trade-off. But I’ve worked here at the same coordinates — as an engineer/surveyor would say.
NGCM: What are you working on now?
CP: I’m working on another painting based on Argentia, and it will probably be the swan song of the Argentia paintings. It’s a painting of the interior of a building, for which I have some reference photographs. But the building had gone to rack and ruin long after the Americans left. In this particular painting I am indulging in all the things I have always pretty much denied. I’m putting in rust stains, water stains, grease blobs. I haven’t gotten around to putting in broken windows. I’m having trouble getting rid of the grid of the rectangular windows. I may leave out a pane, but I won’t put in broken glass.
Christopher Pratt, After the Cold War: Argentia Approach (2008), oil on canvas, 152.4 x 177.8 cm. Courtesy Mira Godard Gallery
NGCM: What do you still want to paint?
CP: Well, I have a wish list, and I can see it from here. Gee whiz, where would I start? I want to do some paintings that commemorate other aspects of my life. I would like to do another figure painting. I haven’t done a figure painting for a very, very long time. I was never particularly good at it, but one or two of the ones I did I think made the cut. I would like to do a couple more paintings of the Strait of Belle Isle, which is the only place on the island of Newfoundland where you can see Canada across the water. I like driving, and I think I’ve got one more road image in my mind.
NGCM: What advice would you give to a young artist?
CP: I would tell young artists, right off the bat, that they will never have the advantages I had. They will never have the opportunities that I had. It’s going to be a harder slog for them, even on an equal talent basis, because I was able to sell my work right off the bat for fair prices, and without in any way compromising what I wanted to do. I lucked into a wonderful place to work. I was married to a painter who was herself a very excellent painter, and who was in full support of living out in the boonies, when she had grown up in the posh section of Fredericton, New Brunswick, where her father was attorney general. So I had all those things going for me. All these things were advantages. I would tell them to stick to their own lights. I would tell them not to get involved in “isms,” not to get involved in things that don’t come naturally to them.
The most important thing in being an artist is being your own person. No two artists are really the same. We have training and whatnot, but we don’t come out with the same definitive directions that, say, a carpenter or a plumber or an engineer or doctor gets. We don’t come out with that kind of protection.
To view works by Christopher Pratt housed in the National Gallery of Canada’s permanent collection, please click here.