“This is a sumptuously produced work and an ideal specimen of the book as artefact, writes Anne Burke in her review of the book for the League of Canadian Poets. “This study of Nicoll’s range of expression will offer meaningful commentary, historical and aesthetic contexts, and a feminist approach to male mentorship.” The book’s three contributors point out, as the first female permanent instructor at the now Alberta College of Art, the classically trained, multi-talented and well qualified Nicholl was confined to teaching craft, printmaking and design at the ACA for 30 years. Yet, it is her paintings that are now most often found in public collections.
Marion Mackay Nicholl (1909-1985) was born in Calgary where she worked in her parents’ basement from the age of thirteen until she married in 1940. She was enrolled in St. Joseph’s Convent, Red Deer from 1925-26 and in 1927, the eighteen-year-old travelled from Alberta to attend the Ontario College of Art (OCA) in Toronto. There Nicholl completed two years of a four-year program from 1925-26 during which she studied under J.E.H. Macdonald. Ill health brought her back to Calgary.
Upon her return to Calgary, she enrolled in the Provincial Institute of Technology than referred to as the ” Alberta Tech” (now the Alberta College of Art (ACA). Her teacher, A. C. Leighton (credited with founding the Banff School of Fine Arts, now the Banff Centre, in 1935) decided her Toronto studies were lacking and reportedly, “sent her back into first year for ‘more colour theory’ where she began ‘exhaustive academic training in watercolours.’’ After four months Leighton moved her up to the third year.
The year following she attended the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London England. She received five honours from the Royal Drawing Society of London Examinations. After graduation, she accepted a teaching position in crafts and design at the “Alberta Tech” in 1933 and taught there until 1940 and again from 1946 to 1966 as the first permanent female instructor at “Alberta Tech” and for her thirty year tenure teaching arts and crafts and evening courses. She also gave classes at the summer school of the University of Alberta (1937-1938); extension classes (1946-1948); Banff School of Fine Arts (1946); the Cultural Development Board, Government of Alberta (1948-1949).
In 1957, she studied under Will Barnet at the Emma Lake Seminar. From 1958 to 1959 she attended the Art Students League in New York. From then on, Nicholls moved beyond any realism in her paintings and focused almost exclusively on “classical abtraction,” as she herself defined it. The Glenbow’s article on Nicholl in their virtual exhibit Mavericks notes:
Following her early beginnings as a conservative landscape painter, she began experimenting with abstraction by the mid-1940s. In the early months of 1959, she was working on large abstract paintings, defined by organic shapes and forms, carefully considered colour schemes, and smoothly applied paint.
In her groundbreaking book, A History of Art in Alberta 1905 – 1970, Nancy Townhsend writes:
The more we know about Nicholl’s mature art, it becomes clear that she created an art of metaphor….This was an utter novelty in 20th century Canadian art.
Nicholl lead an interesting and determined life. In 1933, she met James (Jim) Nicholl at the Calgary Sketch Club, an engineer and part-time poet who worked for the Canadian Pacific Railway. They settled into the Bowness community in Calgary 1945. Jim came to share Marion’s interest in painting but not her interest in abstract art forms. He preferred landscapes and the natural world. The two of them were active and sometimes founding members of many Alberta arts groups, including the Alberta Society of Artists and the Calgary Allied Arts Council. Times were tough. “As the chief ‘breadwinner’ of the family for several decades, Marion led the way to support herself and her husband” (from Mavericks, Glenbow Museum.)
Over her career, “Nicholl learned from “Jock Macdonald (1897-1960) and Will Barnet (1911-2012) at the Emma Lake Workshops (in 1957) and Alfred Crocker Leighton (1901-1965). She took lessons with Duncan Grant (1885-1978) in London and Bernard Adeney (both of whom were associated with Virginia Woolf’s sister Vanessa Bell and Keith Baynes of the Bloomsbury Group).”
Nicholl studied brought back and shared novel abstract painting techniques from New York to Alberta which she shared with her colleagues and taught her students including Maxwell Bates and John Snow, to name but a few. The new forms, influences and techniques were not met without protest from the conservation art establishment in Calgary including by her husband who wrote a tongue-in-check poem protesting her painting style.
I have walked the floors unable to sleep” she reported in her journal and, when her abstract paintings could not be sold in Calgary, her hometown, her response was “I wish I knew [why].” (p. 77)
Despite her artistic, domestic and financial challenges, Marion went on to become the first Alberta woman awarded membership in the Royal Canadian Academy.
Over her lifetime, Nicholl received many awards, including a Canada Council grant in 1958 that made her first solo exhibit possible in 1959 when she was fifty, a senior fellowship in 1966 and six honour certificates from the Royal Drawing Society, London, England, for teaching. She held several solo exhibitions, including at the Alberta College of Art (1959); Bowness Town Hall, Alberta. (1960-1965); Studio 61, Edmonton (1961); Focus, Edmonton (1962, 1963, 1964) Upstairs Gallery, Toronto (1963); Yellow Door Gallery, Winnipeg (1964), among others.
On International Women’s Day in Calgary this past March, Nicholl was celebrated and credited by CalgaryCityNews as:
One of the first artists to use an Apple computer to produce limited edition prints with the McPaint program. She pushed the boundaries of art and inspired three generations of students to do the same. Her works are known for bold forms and contrasting colours, representing the world through an abstract lens.
Nicholls first retrospective was held in 1975 at the then Edmonton Art Gallery, now the Art Gallery of Alberta. Her most recent retrospective was held at the the Nickle Museum at the University of Calgary from January 25 to April 27, 2013. The retrospective chronicled Nicholl’s career and development, including her early representational landscapes, the delicate automatic drawings that would prove crucial to her later efforts and some of her most stunning mature work. Selections of her jewelry and textiles will also be displayed to show the full arc of her interests. Overall, more than 70 works spanning 40 years were included in the exhibition, brought together from public and private collections across Alberta.
In the introduction of the book, Christine Sowiak (who curated Nicholl’s Calgary retrospective and former curator of The Nickle Galleries at the University of Calgary) details why Nicholl is such an important figure in Alberta art history as one of the earliest abstract painters in a province that was late to accept modernist art.
Nicholl had trepidations about returning from New York City to Calgary, to take up her job at Alberta College of Art.
In Calgary I’m considered a craftsman and a woman and after a while you lose that strong belief in yourself. You must have it to be a real painter. Of course Buck [Illingworth Kerr – founder of what is now called the Alberta College of Art + Design] would have me right back to what he considers normal and fitting to my lowly position in ten minutes. That’s one reason I don’t want to go back. (p. 77)
The book’s three contributors are scholars in their own right. Ann Davis, curator, teacher, and art critic, is author of The Logic of Ecstasy: Canadian Mystical Painting 1920-1940. Elizabeth Herbert is a curator and author, who earned two MAs, one of which in Oriental and African Studies. Jennifer Salahub is an art and craft historian at the Alberta College of Art and Design.
There are sources with first-hand knowledge, interviews and news clippings woven through the book. Other Nicholl artefacts can be found in exhibitions, written histories, and in the archives of the Glenbow Museum, National Gallery of Canada, and Art Gallery of Alberta Collection.
A number of reviewers, and all three contributors to the book, are quick to point to instances that demonstrated that one of Nicholl’s greatest challenges was overcoming “the bias against women artists all too common in her lifetime.”
Chapter One is by Ann Davis. In it she reveals: “Nicoll was a proponent of automatic drawing and indirectly influenced by a woman psychiatrist/psychologist from London, named Grace W. Pailthrope, a Freudian European Surrealist, who believed in ‘the beauty of irrational thought and creation’.” Davis also points to Nicholl’s interest in nature, spiritualism, silence, Kandinsky’s total realism, examinations of Mysticism and Varieties of Religious Experience and to the fact that Nicholl was also acquainted with Native art, Indian Space Painting (Northwest Coast cultures), Franz Boas, primitivism, tribal arts, the exotic, alchemy, also Jung’s collective unconscious, and Emily Carr.
Chapter Two “Marion Nicholl and the Sublime” is by Elizabeth Herbert who teaches at the University of Calgary and is the author of The Art of John Snow (University of Calgary Press, 2010). Herbert suggests that Nicholl’s 1968-69 triptych of “Journey to the Mountains: Approach, The Mountains, and Return” (1968) was “influenced by Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949).” She points out that:
Other works reflect local colour and her domestic experience, such as Bowness Road, 2:00 a.m. (1963) and Calgary III-4 a.m. (1966), her Alberta girlhood, the sublime of Edmund Burke; the Canadian Rockies, the Grand Tour, Canadian Pacific Railways; and John Ruskin on Alpine scenery.
Chapter Three “Mine had a Ripple in It” is by Jennifer Salahub, who is writing a history of craft and is on the Board of the Alberta Craft Council. In suppporting the point that gender presented Nicholl and the art establishment significant challenges in Nicholl’s lifetime and that Nicholl’s career was “defined by male mentors. Salahaub points to “Feminist Influences in Post-70s Art”, in An Alberta Arts Chronicle: Adventures in Recent and Contemporary Art (2005) by Mary-Beth Laviolette, as further evidence.
Nicholl was one of the few Prairie artists to be included in the 1963 and 1965 National Gallery of Canada Biennial exhibitions. She was one of the few Prairie artists to be included in the 1963 and 1965 National Gallery of Canada Biennial exhibitions. And her woodcut January ’68 graces the front cover of A History of Art in Alberta: 1905 – 1970 by Nancy Townshend (Bayeau Arts, 2005) and is part of the City of Calgary Civic Art Collection.
At her retirement in 1966, she was still the only permanent female instructor “and often said it took four men to replace her.” At least the Alberta College of Art + Design thought enough to name the Marion Nicholl gallery after her. The other gallery at the ACA is the Illingworth Kerr Gallery, the art institution’s founder.
Despite the significant challenges Nicholl faced and presented to the emerging art establishment in Alberta, Marion Nicholl: Science and Alchemy beautifully packages overwhelming evidence that she successfully overcame many of them in her lifetime, including her gender.
As an Open Access Publisher, the University of Calgary Press has made Marion Nicholl: Science and Alchemy available for download at: uofcpress.com/books.