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A Woman's Place: Art and the Role of Women in the Cultural Formation of Victoria, BC, 1850s-1920s


“‘A Woman’s Place’: Art and the Role of Women in the Cultural Formation of Victoria, BC, 1850s-1920s” is one of seventeen CURA (Community-University Research Alliance) research projects conducted by the University of Victoria’s History in Art Department. Working in collaboration with the BC Heritage Branch and the Royal BC Museum, the project culminated in the fall of 2004 in an exhibition at the Maltwood Art Museum and Gallery September 1, 2004 January 11, 2005. Led by Dr. Karen Finlay, History in Art Department, and Jennifer Iredale, Curator, BC Heritage Branch, the project brought together a team of twenty-seven student researchers and a large network of community participants: museum specialists, archivists, private collectors, and local art guild members. The exhibition featured over two hundred artifacts from approximately a dozen local lenders, among them the BC Archives, Royal BC Museum, Sisters of St. Ann Archives, Mount St. Angela, Christ Church Cathedral, Point Ellice House, Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, Craigflower Schoolhouse and Manor, and Craigdarroch Castle Historical Museum Society.

Extensive primary research was conducted for the exhibition, which explored the nature of art production by women in Victoria in both the public and private spheres. The project rejected a narrow definition of art that acknowledges only “fine art” and “avant-garde art,” categories which have tended to serve male artists. Instead the exhibition favoured an expansive definition that includes the so-called decorative and applied arts. This strategy was intended to help reclaim women’s identities, so often hidden, as creative, technically skilled, and influential in the social, economic, and cultural make-up of Victoria. Among the mediums represented were painting, drawing, photography, basketry, weaving, lace-making, embroidery, china painting, pottery, architecture, and interior design. Among the artists featured were: Sarah Crease, Hannah Maynard, Sister Osithe, Edith Carr, Mary Riter Hamilton, Doris Holmes, Fanny Pirrie, Kathleen O’Reilly, Dolly Helmcken Higgins, Martha Douglas Harris, and Sophie Pemberton. The exhibit also included a selection of local First Nations women’s art.

The exhibition considered the disproportionately large role played by women in art practice in Victoria between the 1850s and 1920s. Women were instrumental in art education and the institutionalization of art learning and art making in Victoria. While their art was often relegated to “the accomplishments” and “good deeds,” and women of all classes and ethnic groups faced resistance to making art outside the home, the economic import of their artistic production was considerable. At least two of the settler women who arrived in Victoria in the wake of the Gold Rush in the late 1850s and early 1860s – Antoinette Borde and Hannah Maynard – were among those who supported themselves with their art: lace-making and photography, respectively. Women, non-native and native, serving diverse agendas, played a critical role in the wide dissemination of First Nations art and design, as well as in the development of local cottage craft industries and tourism. The title of the exhibition was intended to be ironic; “a woman’s place,” it is ventured, was not only “in the home.” Despite being delimited in so many respects by a domestic setting, the trajectories of women’s activity, networking, and influence extended into diverse, often unexpected, areas.

The exhibition was funded by the CURA grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and received generous financial support from Angie and Ralph Roberts. It also prompted a well-attended public symposium on Sunday November 28 at the University Centre Senate Chambers. The symposium featured talks by Kathryn Bridge, author of "By Snowshoe, Buckboard & Steamer: Women of the Frontier" and "Henry & Self : the Private Life of Sarah Crease 1826-1922"; Irene Bjerky, from the Faser Heritage society; Kerry Mason, Emily Carr specialist; and John Adams, historian and author of "Old Square Toes and his Lady"; as well as presentations by students involved in the "A Woman's Place" CURA Project. The symposium was followed by guided tours of the exhibition.

An extensive catalogue, written by the UVic researchers, accompanied the exhibition. The ground-breaking work in the catalogue is intended as the basis for continued research on early women artists in British Columbia. For copies of 'A Woman's Place': Art and the Role of Women in the Cultural Formation of Victoria, BC, 1850-1920s, please contact the Maltwood Art Museum and Gallery.

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