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Old Man's Garden a treasure of knowledge for all Albertans

"There was a real sense of place with many of her depictions of wildflowers, because she liked to depict them in their natural surroundings," said Canmore author and curator Mary-Beth Laviolette. "It is quite different to how a botanical artist would depict a flower or native plants." 

BOW VALLEY – If you don't know who Annora Brown is, you should.

The seminal Canadian artist born in Fort Mcleod at the end of the 20th century studied under members of the Group of Seven, saw a few of Alberta's Famous Five cross the threshold of her house and authored Old Man's Garden: the History and Lore of Southern Alberta Wildflowers. 

Published in 1954, Brown (1889-1987) originally wrote the book in the 1930s and spent two decades trying to get it published. 

Now, readers have a chance to experience part of Alberta's past through the eyes and experiences of one of its early artists, including Indigenous knowledge about the different species found here, thanks to it being recently reissued by Rocky Mountain Books. 

Canmore author and curator Mary-Beth Laviolette approached the publisher with the idea, and as a result, they have shared a treasure trove of natural history that respects First Nations knowledge keepers from the Niitsítapi, or Blackfoot/Siksika First Nation.

"It will be 50 years since the last edition came out," Laviolette said. "I regard it as a real Canadian classic and [Rocky Mountain Books publisher Don Gorman] was quite agreeable with the idea." 

The book is filled with 169 black-and-white drawings of wildflowers found in southwestern Alberta, including the Rocky Mountains. 

The illustrations are done with a scratchboard print process. Brown delicately etched a layer of blackened India ink that sits on top of a white background away to reveal stunning wildflower species that adorn the prairies and valleys of this region. 

Laviolette said Brown, however, would never have considered herself a proper botanical artist. 

"I think a lot of people misunderstood her work because it wasn't full of all the detail and the right dimensions," Laviolette said. "But that really wasn't her interest. I think she had a spiritual relationship with them [wildflowers] and saw them as having ... if I can put it this way, their own personalities.

"She was really at heart a naturalist and wildflowers, in particular, spoke to her." 

Brown studied at the Ontario College of Art in Toronto from 1925-29. Among her teachers were Robert H. Holmes, Arthur Lismer, Lawren Harris and J.E.H. MacDonald – members of the Group of Seven.

Laviolette said Harris in particular left an impression on Brown during her time in academia. Harris spent time with his students discussing the philosophy of art; the idea that art had a greater purpose. Laviolette pointed out that later in life, Brown would come to refer to that greater purpose as the "the life of the spirit." 

"There was a real sense of place with many of her depictions of wildflowers, because she liked to depict them in their natural surroundings," Laviolette said. "It is quite different to how a botanical artist would depict a flower or native plants." 

Her artwork was also a departure from what the Group of Seven were doing at the time with respect to landscape painting. Laviolette said artists like Holmes, Harris and MacDonald considered prairie scenes not interesting enough to paint, whereas they were a bountiful source of inspiration for Brown. 

While her teachers and contemporaries may have questioned her desire to paint grain elevators at the time, her work created a "lasting record of how grain elevators had a place in the early towns of Alberta," Laviolette said. 

"We may think they are cliché now, although they are mostly all gone, in her time it was fairly radical," she added. 

"I think she was pretty unusual for her time." 

Lismer, for example, visited her in Alberta and is quoted as telling his students there was nothing to paint on the prairies but telephone poles. 

"She really worked against that attitude," Laviolette said. 

Brown wrote about wildflowers as if they were her good friends and referred to Old Man's Garden as a "book of gossip" about them. 

She hoped that by sharing those bits of gossip, readers would see these plants transformed "from strange botanical specimens to friends."

"It seems appropriate, in a work of this kind," Brown wrote in the introduction to the 1954 edition, "that the first acknowledgement should be made to the original naturalists and poets of the country, the First Nations people who have added so greatly to the world's collection of beautiful thoughts; and the second should be made to those early travellers, who, in spite of all the trials of life in a new country, found time and courage to record what they saw and heard of the flowers around them." 

Reverend Sidney Black, a Niitsítapi or Siksika bishop, also provided a foreword to Rocky Mountain Books to include in Old Man's Garden. 

In it, Black noted that Brown's life spans an incredibly dynamic and evolving chapter of human history. She would have witnessed in her lifetime the change from a horse-and-buggy society to one that put human footprints on the surface of the moon. 

"Through it all," he wrote in the foreward, "it would seem to me that she fit neatly inside her span of life, and has left a marvellous legacy of her artistic talents portrayed in her painting of prairie and alpine wildflowers and landscapes and her depiction of Niitsítapi culture in her paintings of Indigenous regalia, tipis and dancers." 

Being in the right place at the right time to collect histories and legends of native plants to this region is something Laviolette also noted in her introduction. She wrote that the "deep interconnectedness between past and present flows through the book" with Brown comfortably existing in both. 

Laviolette noted that Brown's life was in the cross-hairs of history in Canada and Alberta. 

Her father Edmund Forster Brown was a North West Mounted Police officer (NWMP) and her mother, Elizabeth Ethel (Cody) Brown, was a Quaker suffragette.

Her family was connected to notable historic figures like Louise McKinney and Henrietta Muir Edwards. Both were part of Alberta's Famous Five, who legally challenged to allow Canadian women to serve as senators. 

As for the Old Man, more than just the river in southern Alberta, this mythic creature is known by other names like the Trickster, or Napi.

Laviolette wrote that for Brown the Old Man was a super-natural spirit responsible for the landscape she found around her – prairies, foothills and mountains. 

The book includes a section of colourplates of her work in watercolour or oil from the Glenbow Museum. The 11 examples of her work show details like the beading work of a saddle blanket, various plants like bear grass, tipis, a chickendance from the Blood Indian Reserve and Waterton Lakes. 

"She was a also a wonderful writer," Laviolette said, having published Old Man's Garden and an autobiography, Sketches From Life. "She was also interested in how different people look at wildflowers ... she had this cross-cultural idea about the significance of wildflowers." 

Her connections to the Bow Valley ran deep as well. Brown taught at the Banff Centre for the Fine Arts and was close friends with Peter and Catherine Whyte. The Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies contains a number of her paintings. 

"This was pretty well-known territory to her, she did a lot of hiking in the Bow Valley," Laviolette said. 

The wildflowers of Brown's youth, however, are not going to have a place on the landscape with the same abundance for Albertans today. Nevertheless, June and July is the best time to enjoy them in abundance. 

The powerline trail system near Quarry Lake Park is one Laviolette said provides variety worthy of those looking to appreciate a few buds this summer. 

Another is Many Springs interpretive trail in Kananaskis Country, which is known for several orchids that bloom along the 1.3-kilometre loop.

Laviolette, who specializes in Albertan and western Canadian art, has written a number of books, including: A Delicate Art: Artists, Wildflowers and Native Plants of the West and An Alberta Art Chronicle: Adventures in Recent & Contemporary Art, 1970–2000. 

Recent exhibition she has curated include: Reckonings: Michael Cameron and Karen Maiolo at the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies; Pulse: Alberta Society of Artists at 80 Years at Calgary's Triangle Gallery of Visual Arts, and Alberta Mistresses of the Modern: 1935 to 1975 at Edmonton's Art Gallery of Alberta. 

Tanya Foubert

About the Author: Tanya Foubert

Tanya Foubert started as a news reporter at the Rocky Mountain Outlook in 2006. She won the Canadian Community Newspaper Award for best news story for her coverage of the 2013 flood. In December 2018, she became editor of the Outlook.
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