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Dorothy Knowles, "Yellow Bush," 1999, acrylic on canvas, 36" x 36".
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William Perehudoff, "AC-99-2," 1999, acrylic on canvas, 66" x 56 1/4".
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Dorothy Knowles, "Yellow Bush," 1999, acrylic on canvas, 36" x 36".
VISUAL HEARTS: William Perehudoff and Dorothy Knowles
By Brian Brennan
Isn't it romantic? They met at an art gallery, married in Paris, honeymooned in Italy, and then came home to Saskatoon to live and work together as partners in life and in art. Today, more than 50 years later, William Perehudoff and Dorothy Knowles are recognized as Western Canada's first family of the visual arts. He is one of the country's leading abstract painters, having enjoyed great success in New York and London as well as in Canada. She is one of Canada's finest landscape artists whose work has been chosen to represent Saskatchewan in the Canada Through the Eyes of its Artists postage stamp series.
By 1944 the farmer-painter, as he liked to classify himself, had progressed to the point where he was ready to start exhibiting his work. He visited the newly opened Saskatoon Art Centre "to see what an artist looked like" and decided that a young Doukhobor farmer would not look out of place in such company. He returned the following year as an exhibitor and shortly after that he began spending his winters in Saskatoon while continuing to work on the family farm.
One of Bill's first Saskatoon employers was the entrepreneur and art benefactor Fred Mendel, founder of Intercontinental Packers (later Mitchell's Gourmet Foods), whose collection of modernist Canadian and European art had a profound impact on the young painter. Bill worked at Intercontinental as a labourer during the mid to late 1940s and, when he was laid off in 1950, he asked Mendel if he could paint some murals for the factory. By this time Bill had broadened his artistic horizons after studying in Colorado with the French muralist Jean Charlot and in New York with the abstract painter Amedee Ozenfant. Mendel commissioned Bill to paint four murals for the plant cafeteria and those paintings, measuring a total of 14 metres in length, now form part of the permanent collection of Saskatoon's Mendel Art Gallery. The gallery, as the name suggests, was one of Mendel's later bequests to the community.
Bill met Dorothy in Saskatoon in 1950 and two years later followed her to London, where she was taking classes at the Goldsmith School of Art. Born in 1927 in Unity, near North Battleford, Dorothy had gone to the University of Saskatchewan with the perfectly sensible intention of becoming a lab technician but, after spending a summer at remote Emma Lake where the university ran an art school in the woods north of Prince Albert, she decided to follow her heart: "I had always drawn and scribbled when I was little." She spent four years taking night classes in painting in Saskatoon before moving to London in 1952.
Bill and Dorothy married at the British embassy in Paris, and they stayed on in Europe, soaking up art in museums and churches, until their money ran out. When they returned to Saskatoon, Bill joined Modern Press - a printing company owned by the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool - "and to sustain my family, I stayed for 25 years" as a commercial artist and graphic designer. Dorothy also worked for a few years after their marriage, and raised three daughters.
Between working and parenting, Bill and Dorothy practiced their art, painting side by side in a cramped basement studio where Bill also kept a darkroom for his photography. For a while they both did landscapes, and during that period their paintings seemed to be interchangeable. Then Bill began to move toward abstraction, while continuing to pursue his ambition to paint murals. A painting he made in 1955 for the waiting room of the Saskatoon bus depot became the city's first public mural.
Bill's work was seen only in Saskatoon until 1965, when he had his first solo exhibition in Regina. After that came Edmonton and Toronto, followed in the mid-1970s by solo shows in Montreal, New York and London. Dorothy arrived in the big leagues at about the same time. She had solo shows in Ottawa and Montreal in 1970, and her work was exhibited in Boston and New York in 1975.
Crucial to the development of both artists leading up to this period were the summer workshops conducted at Emma Lake by such distinguished New York painters and critics as Will Barnet, Herman Cherry and Clement Greenberg. After spending two weeks with critic Greenberg in 1962, Bill focussed his identity as a painter, abandoned abstract expressionism, returned to nature, and gradually worked his way from abstracted prairie landscapes to abstract form and then colour-field painting. Dorothy accepted Greenberg's advice to continue painting from nature, though it wasn't always easy for her to paint outdoors, especially with three young children in tow. Eventually she got around this problem by borrowing money from her mother, buying a van, and venturing into the countryside whenever the weather and her children's schedules permitted.
Perhaps not surprisingly, all three daughters, Rebecca, Catherine and Carol, followed their parents and became exhibiting artists. "We tried to get them into paying professions," Bill joked in a 1999 interview with the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix. "But they all seemed to end up painting."
Bill painted part-time until he took early retirement from Modern Press (now PrintWest) at age 59 in 1978. Since then he has done his painting in a studio that he built on a farm property north of Saskatoon, while Dorothy paints outside when the weather is nice and does her winter painting at their home studio in the city. While back and eye problems have occasionally intervened - "Every painting was done with a lot of pain," Bill, then 83, told the Edmonton Journal during a 2001 exhibition of new Perehudoffs at the Udell Gallery - he has continued to refine and redefine his style, believing like Matisse that the future of abstract painting is in colour, in light. "That's what I've been trying to do, to get more light into these things, getting the colour more integrated, fusing things together."
Critics have hailed Bill as the spiritual descendant of Jack Bush, the great Canadian colour-field painter who died in 1977. Bill has won numerous awards, including one from the New York State Association of Architects for his architectural photography, and the Saskatchewan Order of Merit and the Order of Canada for his painting. On October 18, during the fall convocation, he will receive an honorary doctorate from the University of Regina. This will cap a year of recognition for Bill, during which he has had one major show at the Mendel and another at the Art Placement Gallery in Saskatoon.
Dorothy, for her part, has been acclaimed as an important upholder of the tradition of landscape painting that has defined art in Saskatchewan ever since the influential English artist Augustus Kenderdine first settled there in 1907. Her awards also include an honorary doctorate from the U of R and the Saskatchewan Order of Merit, and one of her paintings hangs in the residence of Canada's Governor General as a gift from the province of Saskatchewan. Like Bill, she also had a show this year at the Art Placement Gallery.
Robert Christie, co-owner of Art Placement, is a long-time admirer of both painters. He says that Bill has become the "cornerstone of the Saskatoon art community" with work that is "always challenging, always contemporary and always good." Dorothy has kept with the familiar, says Christie, while developing her skills to the extent "that it would be difficult to find her equal."
Isn't it romantic? Perhaps, says Dorothy, but "as you know, painting is actually a lot of work." And that's fine with Bill. "I grew up with that farm ethic," he has said. "If I don't paint, I feel guilty."
In addition to Douglas Udell and Art Placement galleries, Perehudoff and Knowles are represented by Assiniboia Gallery in Regina; Perehudoff by Newzones in Calgary.
Brian Brennan's latest book, Boondoggles, Bonanzas and Other Alberta Stories, is being published this fall by Fifth House Ltd.