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Christopher Pratt, legendary Canadian painter, dead at 86

Christopher Pratt, who cast a mysterious and magical aura over the Newfoundland and Labrador landscape with artwork that achieved international acclaim, has died. He was 86.

He died early Sunday morning, his family said in a statement. 

“He died as he wished, surrounded by family and friends in his home of 59 years on the Salmonier River,” the family’s statement said. 

He is survived by four children and other family. Acclaimed painter Mary Pratt, described in the family statement as his “best friend and sometime wife,” died in 2018. 

“It’s a big loss, to so many. Canada has lost a great artist,” said Emma Butler, a friend of Pratt’s and founder of Emma Butler Gallery in St. John’s.

Pratt was often called one of Canada’s greatest painters over the course of his extensive and successful career, which earned him appointment to both the Order of Canada and the Order of Newfoundland and Labrador. His work is held in galleries from coast to coast to coast, including the National Gallery of Canada. 

His decades of paintings and prints centre on Newfoundland landscapes and experiences: the gaze out to sea, snow settled on an upturned dory, barren stretches of the Trans-Canada Highway. In his signature meticulous style, Pratt transports viewers with his often eerily lit vistas to territory that exists somewhere between the lifelike and the surreal.

“There’s magic in his paintings,” said Tom Smart, the director of the Beaverbrook Gallery in Fredericton and author of Christopher Pratt: Six Decades.

“He’s called a magic realist for a reason. You look at his paintings and it’s almost as if they’re looking back at you.”

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Winter at Whiteway, a 2004 painting by Pratt. (Christopher Pratt/Mira Godard Gallery)

That unsettling gaze marked much of Pratt’s art.

“His paintings have a lot of depth,” said Smart. “You can appreciate the picture; he’s painting a building or a landscape that’s familiar to everybody, But then when you start to look at it, you say, ‘Well, wait a minute — there’s some things that are going on here.'”

Pratt made no secret that his works edited out the clutter of the world. He’d remove stains and straighten lines to create complex, alternate versions of reality.

“The straight lines and precision and all that — the control in my work — is just a facade,” Pratt told CBC Radio’s On The Go in 2018. 

“Because my life and my thoughts and my anxieties and whatnot are anything but neat and controlled and orderly.”

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Christopher Pratt’s 2013 painting, Argentia: The Ruins of Fort McAndrew: After the Cold War. Argentia, a former Second World War U.S. military base on Newfoundland’s Avalon Peninsula, was a favourite site of Pratt’s to visit and paint. (Christopher Pratt/Mira Godard Gallery)

From Confederation to the flag design

Pratt’s works give few easy answers. Instead, they reward those willing to spend time with them, and what they say about his deep affection for Newfoundland and Labrador.

“He loved this place. He loved this wild, unpredictable, beautiful place,” said Butler.

“And he travelled it, and he painted it with love and reverence. And if you couldn’t see the love and reverence in his paintings, then you were just missing out on what he was saying.”

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Pratt’s 1998 oil painting Benoit’s Cove: Sheds in Winter. Pratt often went on road trips around Newfoundland, and would include this fish plant on his route. (Christopher Pratt/The Rooms Collection)

That love led to an unusual honour, considering his lineage: Pratt was born in 1935, in the governmental grey era after Newfoundland surrendered its self-governing status to the United Kingdom and effectively operated as a British territory until Confederation with Canada in 1949.

Both sides of Pratt’s family stretched back generations in Newfoundland, and many of them were staunchly opposed to joining Canada. Pratt became a Canadian at 13, and often said he had vivid memories and associations to the pre-Confederation era.

Then in 1980, with his art career in full swing, Pratt was picked to design the provincial flag (until then, the Union Jack had been doing the job).

Pratt put his noted work ethic to use, creating dozens of flag designs before settling on the one still flying today, which contains subtle nods to the British, maritime and Beothuk histories of the place.

The flag was divisive upon its arrival, and Pratt was at times ambivalent about it himself — he once described himself as a reluctant “show doctor” who agreed under pressure to help break an impasse among politicians on a design — but was clear on one point.

“I did the best I could possibly do,” he told CBC in 1980.

“I think that the committee might well have found a better designer, I don’t dispute that. But I would say with all modesty, that they would not have found anybody who cared more about the province.”

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Newfoundland and Labrador’s provincial flag, designed by Pratt, was unveiled on April 29, 1980. (The National/CBC Archives)

‘I love what I do’

Pratt spent almost all his life based on Newfoundland’s east coast, but left the province early on for higher education, picking out a pre-medicine degree at Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B.

Medicine didn’t last. Pratt was drawn to the school’s fine arts department and fell under the spell of his early mentor and teacher, Alex Colville, whose style influenced Pratt’s own.

Mount Allison also introduced Pratt to his future first wife, Mary, an immense painting talent in her own right. Together they, Colville and painter Tom Forrestall pushed forward the school of magic realism painting, creating a force in Atlantic Canadian art that would define the national scene for decades.

With arts degrees from both Mount Allison and the Glasgow School of Art in hand, the Pratts returned to Newfoundland and Christopher began his career in earnest. His works were well received from early on, and alongside curating and teaching, he was able to devote himself to his art, which he did, prolifically, for the rest of his life.

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Pratt worked in many mediums, such as watercolour, seen here in his 2004 painting, Fall At My Place (Some Shadows On My House). (Christopher Pratt/Private Collection)

“I love what I do. I don’t consider it to be work. I never have. It’s a rich, satisfying hobby at which I am fortunate to make actually a good living —so far, ” Pratt said in an 2015 interview about his retrospective exhibit at The Rooms, The Places I Go, which focused on a defining aspect of his life and work: Newfoundland road trips.

Pratt’s pilgrimages

Pratt travelled the island often and extensively, akin to “a pilgrimage,” said Mireille Eagan, who curated The Places I Go in her role as curator of contemporary art at The Rooms, the St. John’s cultural complex that includes the provincial art gallery. 

Eagan took two such trips with Pratt, racking up thousands of kilometres across Newfoundland as he sought his muse. 

As befits such a disciplined artist, his road trips were well ordered. Eagan said he visited the same places each time: from his parents’ graves to buildings he had painted to favourite highway rest stops.

“He would tell me stories along the way. And every river that we passed, every tree that had held meaning to him, he would talk about,” said Eagan. “We would talk about the history of this province, which he knew intimately.… It was important for him to remember this place. And he did so through his paintings.”

“If there’s a large kind of theme to his paintings, it’s works that are images that are seen from the road,” said Smart.

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Deer Lake: Junction Brook Memorial, a 1999 Pratt oil painting of the Deer Lake Powerhouse, is in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, a gift from David and Margaret Marshall. (Christopher Pratt/Mira Godard Gallery)

Trips included stops such as the Deer Lake Powerhouse, a stately building of glowing mullions that became the subject of one of his most well-known works, Deer Lake: Junction Brook Memorial.

“It’s just such an extraordinary painting,” said Smart.

“You wonder why he turned his attention to this power station, and put so much time into painting it … but it gives me enormous, enormous satisfaction to look at it and to travel into that landscape. To be lost in it, to be afraid of it, too.”

The painting’s title hints at memories of the wild waterway, long since tamed for human use — its electricity still supplies the pulp and paper mill in nearby Corner Brook — with that subtle nod one of the many times Pratt used his art to testify to the history of his beloved province.

Belying that serious edge, “a road trip with Christopher Pratt is pretty funny,” Eagan said. They’d listen to Frank Sinatra or jazz, and the human warmth behind so many wintry paintings would shine through.

“He was a very humble man. He can come across as a bit cold, but he’s not. He was a humble and compassionate person,” she said.

Pratt was also a complex man who sought honesty and deep thinking from friends and family, said Smart.

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The Lynx, a 1965 screenprint by Pratt. (Christopher Pratt/Beaverbrook Art Gallery)

A ‘deeply personal’ painter

His family dynamic was infamously complex. Mary Pratt, who initially set aside her art career to support her husband’s and raise their four children — John, Anne, Barbara and Ned — would come to embrace her immense talent for painting the quotidian into the sublime.

The two divorced after decades of marriage, with Christopher remarrying, but an artistic connection and respect remained.

“Both Mary and Christopher told me that they saw in in each other excellence, artistic excellence and tremendous creativity,” said Smart.

“Throughout their careers, they worked closely together. Particularly near the end of both of their lives, they reconciled and would have conversations that would influence each other’s art practice out of deep respect,” said Eagan.

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Trongate Abstract, a 2018 painting inspired by a devastating fire years earlier at Pratt’s alma mater, the Glasgow School of Art. Pratt dedicated the work to his former wife, Mary Pratt, after her death. (Christopher Pratt/The Rooms Collection)

Mary Pratt died in 2018 at 83. That same year, Christopher Pratt painted Trongate Abstract, inspired by a devastating fire at the Glasgow School of Art, his alma mater.

The seemingly cool composition hints at emotion — but only if you flip it over to the dedication on its back: “To Mary.”

“His paintings are deeply personal and deeply felt,” said Eagan.

“I know that many, many will look at his work and they’ll say, ‘Oh, it’s so cold,’ but in fact, it isn’t.… This is a way of remembering. And so when we look at his paintings, we’re looking at him.”

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

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