Ella May Walker is one of my favourite painters. Not just one of my favourite Edmonton painters. One of my all time favourite painters. The Art Gallery of Alberta has a few of her works on display in “Mistresses of Modernism” right now, but that show ends at the end of the month and as I’m moving slowly on preparation for my own show in October, and there have been unforeseen medical happenings in the family, I’m not certain I’ll get back. So, I was very pleased to learn that the City of Edmonton Archives is hosting an online Virtual Exhibition of Ms. Walker’s life and works. So pleased that I went down to the beautiful Archive building inside the magnificent Prince of Wales Armoury and bought a bunch of prints of Ms. Walker’s work. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to be at the real life opening celebration. But I very happily and urgently recommend a virtual walk through the gallery.
My first encounter with Walker’s work was, I think, her wonderful painting of “Edmonton City Airport”. This rapid, oddly static-yet-vibrantly-motion-filled night view of the Gateway to the North captures a wonderful — and counter-intuitive war-time hope in the technological future. The Northern Lights (of hope?) framing the control tower strangely make me think of the telephone cables enveloping the sculpture/relief which used to greet visitors to the Alberta Government Telephones Building (now the Legislature Annex). The mechanic in the foreground is heroically preparing the airplane for a winter night-flight North, to the future.
But, the painting that sparked an obsession with Walker’s work was “Edmonton Oil Refinery”. The refinery in the painting I expect has long since been replaced by behemothic new and newer refineries as the oil industry has boomed and slightly busted over the decades — although there are ruins of some sort of installation and tank field south of Baseline Road which I like to think are connected with the painting. But, even if the refinery is completely gone, Walker has absolutely captured the impression the refineries still make on a non-oil-industry viewer: smoke, a maze of pipes, steel shed-like buildings and a tiny human figure both controlling and dominated by the great machine. Behind it all is the brilliant blue sky — a symbol of hope? or a sign of what is being lost? Walker’s preservationist career suggests an anachronistic environmentalism, but the celebration of technology in “Edmonton City Airport” might argue the opposite. I like to think that “Edmonton Oil Refinery” depicts exactly this tension between progress and nostalgia.
I’ll briefly touch on three works I’d not seen before: “Maligne Lake, Winter Jasper Park”, “The Walter Home” and “The Lauder House”.
One of my teenage loves was the Science Fiction illustration art of Frank Kelly Freas. When I saw “Maligne Lake” for the first time this afternoon, I thought of nothing other than Kelly Freas. Now as I look at it I think a tiny bit of Turner. Certainly it walks close to the edge of “Sofa-Sized Paintings” available at a “Major Art Show and Sale at the Mayfield Inn”, but there’s a little bit of something here that makes “Maligne Lake” a little something more than either Science Fiction illustration or mass produced schlock. I confess, however, that of Walker’s work that I’ve seen, this piece impresses me the least.
“The Walter Home” is something else again. This portrait of legendary Edmonton Ferryman John Walter’s house before it was preserved as a museum is a simply charming piece. I’m reminded of a woodcut by Margaret Shelton of a stylized foothills ranch house which has the same charm in a very different palette. While stylized, “The Walter Home” is unmistakably the Walter home as it still stands on the Walterdale flats above the timeless Ford of the North Saskatchewan. Walker shows Walter’s house on the cusp: this house is history about to be lost to the ruin which has taken the leafless and broken trees and is taking the rickety picket fence. But the green paint on the clapboards is still vibrant and alive. It’s almost as though Walker knows the house will be preserved or, more likely, has willed it to be so.
“The Lauder House” is, as any visitor to Fort Edmonton Park will recognize, a depiction of the Park’s Lauder Bakery in it’s original location. The painting is marked by a remarkable economy of both colour and brush. This painting is winter in Edmonton. All edges rounded, all palettes flat. But not grey. This is ochre and sepia, raw umber and Prussian blue with brilliant white of clapboard and snow in the sunlight inviting us to the makeshift airlock door keeping the warmth inside the laundry. Another charming piece.
Please, take a tour through the Virtual Exhibition. This new program of Virtual Exhibitions has the potential to be a wonderful use of the internet by Edmonton’s Archives. It certainly makes their online presence something to watch.
But, lest you think a real life visit to the Prince of Wales Armoury is unnecessary . . .
I’m embarrassed to admit that until my visit to the Archives this afternoon, I didn’t realize that the magnificent Gun Sculpture is permanently back in Edmonton and on display in the Prince of Wales Armoury. I offer thanks to Elizabeth at the Archives for steering me to it.
When you visit the Archives and the Gun Sculpture, be sure to also spend time at the Loyal Eddies’ Museum. I didn’t have enough time today (one of us was limping quite a bit), but I’ll be back! I must! With their sacrifices in 1943-45 the Eddies smoothed my way in 1983 at countless Southern Italian shops and restaurants. “No! Canadese!” was like a secret password to the riches for this immoderately Aryan-looking fellow.
When I came home from my time in Italy, which I depicted to some extent in my Apellean Sketches, I became friends with a member of the Loyal Eddies (now deceased) who had had a personal hand in liberating the valley around Ruoti in World War II, before continuing on to Ortona and somehow surviving and helping to win “Canada’s Stalingrad”. Only then did I realize why “No! Canadese! was such a magic response to the slightly malevolent query, “Deutsch?”
Please, go visit the Gun Sculpture and the Loyal Eddies’ Museum, think of my friend Angus, and hope that no one ever has smooth anyone’s way in that way ever, ever again.
And visit the Ella May Walker Virtual Exhibition and think about hope, preservation, and remembrance.