Mary Pratt once said she didn’t think of anything as “ordinary.”
“I think everything is complex and worthy of conjecture and worthy of a look, worthy of a close look,” she said in an interview with National Gallery of Canada in a 2015.
Pratt’s unmatched talent for depicting the mysterious beauty in the detail of everyday things – her hyper-real paintings of jelly jars on the window sill, a bloody fish in the sink, salmon on crinkled tinfoil – captured the hearts and minds of art lovers across the country and around the world.
It’s also a quality that friends, family and admirers recalled fondly at The Rooms, an art gallery and museum overlooking the St. John’s Harbour, as they paid tribute to the esteemed painter’s life on Saturday night.
Pratt was born in Fredericton but considered Newfoundland and Labrador her adopted home, where she raised her children and produced much of the work she would become famous for. She died this month at the age of 83.
Guests lined up to write their condolences for the artist, leaving messages such as, “You changed the way I see the light every morning.”
It was Pratt’s piercing, honest eye for detail that longtime friend Adrienne Clarkson said made Pratt the first and only choice when it came time to commission her official portrait for Rideau Hall.
“She was somebody who could look at something that everybody sees every day, and she could tell us what they actually mean,” Clarkson said.
The former governor general of Canada called her friend of 45 years Canada’s “greatest woman painter since Emily Carr,” but also fondly remembered Pratt’s sense of humour and quest for understanding the mysteries of the universe.
Clarkson shared an anecdote about reading the book of Job with Pratt as a “lenten exercise,” both of them musing over Chapter 28 and the words about mankind’s search for wisdom.
It’s something Clarkson said both women searched for in their careers, in their own ways.
Pratt’s artwork was known for compelling viewers to look closer, but the woman herself was remembered on Saturday as a captivating storyteller who could shift one’s way of thinking.
Jonathan Shaughnessy, a curator at the National Gallery of Canada, recalled interviewing Pratt in 2015 and being struck by her perspective and “way of seeing” during their conversation.
“I think really great artists can shift your way of thinking and seeing â€¦ through their words and through their work, and she was that kind of artist,” said Shaugnessy.
Speaking with Shaugnessy and Mireille Eagan, curator of contemporary art at The Rooms, the discussion turned to Pratt’s legacy.
Eagan once asked Pratt the same question, to which she responded, “Well, I suppose I’ll just be shuffled off with people who painted.”
Shaugnessy and Eagan have a different perspective.
Shaugnessy said young artists in Toronto perk up when he mentions Mary Pratt – she’s still admired for her realism, and he predicts her influence will only continue to grow as he sees young artists continue to move away from abstraction.
For Eagan, Pratt was someone whose paintings appealed to everyone, by elevating domestic life to a status of high art and inviting newcomers into the gallery space.
“We had people who had never been in a gallery before come in just to see Mary Pratt’s show, and they became art lovers,” said Eagan.
“Her work is accessible but it’s not simple. She has that appeal.”
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The gathering at The Rooms in St. John’s was not insignificant. Pratt had a vital role in establishing the cultural space, which sparked debate in the community when it was first proposed.
Architects Charles Henley and Philip Pratt were in attendance Saturday, and Henley noted that gatherings like Pratt’s memorial were exactly what they had envisioned for the space – a place where culture and community meet, and anyone is welcome.
In a way, this is what Pratt’s artwork did. She once described the moment she discovered her love for art “as if all the windows and doors opened and there were images everywhere that just ground themselves into me, I just had to paint them.”
On Saturday night it was evident that Pratt continued to open doors for others. Her series of four paintings “Dishcloth on Line” were on display, depicting a cloth catching fire across the four paintings. A young guest could be overheard expressing surprise that the images were paintings, not photographs.
According to Eagan, these moments of connection, beckoning her audience to look closer, were a source of joy for Pratt, even if she was always humble about her impact.
“She was always genuinely happy and surprised when people would come up to her, she would talk about housewives doing so, coming up and saying thank you so much,” said Egan.
“She was always a bit mystified, and to be honest I was always a bit mystified by that.”