Courtesy Art Placement Gallery
RETA COWLEY (1910 - 2004)
From her early 20s and on into her 40s, Reta Cowley was absorbing the advice, influence, and inspiration of several generations of great western Canadian painters. Beginning with study with Augustus Kenderdine at Saskatchewan’s Emma Lake summer school in the 1930s, she travelled to the Banff School of Fine Arts in the 1940s to meet and study with the watercolourist Walter J. Phillips, moving on to classes with structuralist painter Eli Bornstein at the University of Saskatchewan. At every stop, her own work evolved, until the late 1960s, when it reached a fine balance of light, almost abstract watercolour, the result of decades of study and practice.
Born Reta Summers in Moose Jaw and growing up in the Yorkton area in Saskatchewan, Cowley graduated from Normal School and began teaching in rural public schools (she would teach off and on throughout most of her life). An avid amateur painter, she was first encouraged by Kenderdine at Emma Lake, and would return to that retreat through the early 1930s, always centring her work on the light and landscape of the prairies.
Cowley would spend another four summers in Banff in the early 1940s under the influence of Phillips, a fine watercolourist who had a similar affinity for the natural world and plein air painting. Her style maturing, Cowley began night classes with Bornstein, absorbing his notes on colour, form, and structure. Her mid-century work began to take on stronger subjects, populated by people and prairie buildings.
A few years later, after graduating with a BA from the University of Saskatchewan and taking on her own, unencumbered identity as a painter, Cowley’s style evolved into an almost abstract form. She was also showing her work by then, in more then 20 solo shows from the 1950s forward. Robert Christie at Art Placement in Saskatoon, which represents Cowley’s estate, notes that Cowley’s later habits as a painter revealed much about her process. She would almost exclusively paint from life, returning often to favourite landscapes, most often in the summer (it was difficult to sit outside and paint in the Saskatchewan winter).
“A fascinating consequence to Reta’s repetitive painting practice is that when we view a large number of her watercolours from the 1970’s and through the 1980’s, we can see the natural evolutionary changes that the passing of the seasons and the course of time brings to a specific site,” Christie wrote in a 2009 catalogue. “Colours are altered from spring to fall and the density of foliage changes. We can even witness the development of trees and shrubs as they grow to maturity and then decline and die off as the years progressed. In the hands of a lesser painter, the oft-visited subject may have become somewhat clone-like but Reta seemed to thrive with the comfort that comes from familiarity and each new work was as fresh as the previous.”
This painting, Untitled (Cows in Field) from 1971, is representative of the work Cowley did throughout that decade — small incremental movements and changes between light-handed watercolours. Christie writes that by this mature period, beginning in the late 1960s, Cowley’s subjects had shifted from architectural elements to pure landscape. “She no longer needed the obvious structural shapes of buildings to guide her. Instead she found more freedom, and perhaps even more substance, in what might appear to the untrained eye as somewhat standard farm scenery. As her literal subject was reduced, the abstract elements were allowed to emerge.”
— Jill Sawyer