Christopher Pratt, who cast a mysterious and magical aura over Newfoundland and Labrador landscapes, has died in a work of art that won international acclaim. He was 86 years old.
His family said in a statement that he died early Sunday morning.
“He died as he pleased among his family and friends in his 59-year-old home on the Salmonnier River,” the family statement said.
He lives with four children and another family. Renowned illustrator Mary Pratt, described in the family statement as his “best friend and sometime wife,” died in 2018.
“It’s a great loss for so many. Canada has lost a great artist,” said Emma Butler, Pratt’s friend and founder of Emma Butler Gallery in St. John’s.
Pratt has often been called one of Canada’s greatest painters over the course of his extensive and successful career, which has earned him appointments 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 centered on Newfoundland landscapes and experiences: the view out to sea, the snow settled on the barren upturned expanses of the Trans-Canada Highway. In his meticulous signature style, Pratt transports viewers with his eerily lit horizons into a territory that lies somewhere between realism and surrealism.
said Tom Smart, director of the Beaverbrook Gallery in Fredericton and author of Christopher Pratt: Six Decades.
“He’s been described as a magical realist for a reason. You look at his paintings and it’s like they’re looking at you.”
That anxious look was a sign of much of Pratt’s art.
“His paintings are very deep,” Smart said. “You can appreciate the picture; it’s painting a building or a landscape that everyone is familiar with, but then when you start looking at it, you say, ‘Okay, wait a minute—there are some things going on here. “
Pratt has made no secret that his works have wiped out the chaos of the world. He was removing spots and straightening lines to create complex, alternate versions of reality.
“The straight lines, the precision and all that — controlling my work — is just a front,” Pratt told CBC Radio. quickly in 2018.
“Because my life, my thoughts, my fears, and so on are but tidy, disciplined, and orderly.”
From union to flag design
Pratt’s work offers some easy answers. Instead, they reward those who like to spend time with him, and what they say about his deep affection for Newfoundland and Labrador.
“He loved this place,” Butler said. “He loved this wild, beautiful, unpredictable place.”
“And he traveled it, and painted it with love and respect. And if you can’t see love and respect in his paintings, you’ve missed what he was saying.”
This love led to an unusual homage, given his lineage: Pratt was born in 1935, in the governmental gray age after Newfoundland relinquished its self-governing status to the United Kingdom and effectively functioned as a British territory until union with Canada in 1949.
Both sides of the Pratt family spanned generations in Newfoundland, many of whom were vehemently opposed to joining Canada. Pratt became Canadian at the age of 13 and has often said he had vivid memories and associations in the pre-union era.
Then in 1980, with his career in full swing, Pratt was chosen to design the county flag (until then, Union Jack had been doing the job).
Employing a famous work ethic, Pratt created dozens of flag designs before settling on those that still flutter today, which contain subtle nods to the British, naval, and Beauthock history of the place.
Science was divisive when it arrived, Pratt was sometimes ambivalent about this himself — he once described himself as a reluctant “show doctor” who agreed under pressure to help break the deadlock among politicians over determination — but he was clear on one point.
“I did the best I could,” he told CBC in 1980.
“I think the committee might have found a better designer, I don’t argue. But I humbly say, they didn’t find anyone who cared more about the county.”
‘I love what I do’
Pratt spent nearly all of his life on the east coast of Newfoundland, but left the province early to pursue higher education, earning his primary medical degree from Mount Allison University in Sackville, note:
Medicine did not last. Pratt was drawn to the school’s fine arts department and fell under the influence of his mentor and early mentor, Alex Colville, whose style influenced Pratt’s.
Mount Allison also introduced Pratt to his future first wife, Mary, an immense talent for drawing in her own right. Together, Colville and painter Tom Forstall propelled the school of magical realist painting, creating a force in Atlantic Canadian art that would define the national landscape for decades.
With degrees in arts from both Mount Allison and the Glasgow School of Art, Pratts returned to Newfoundland and Christopher began his career in earnest. His works were well received from the start, and besides coordinating and teaching, he was able to devote himself to his art, which he did largely for the rest of his life.
Pratt said in a 2015 interview about his retrospective In Rooms, The places I go towhich focused on a specific aspect of his life and work: road trips in Newfoundland.
said Mireille Egan, who organized The places I go to In her role as Curator of Contemporary Art at The Rooms, St. John’s Cultural Complex that includes the Regional Art Gallery.
Egan made two such journeys with Pratt, traveling thousands of kilometers across Newfoundland while searching for his inspiration.
As befits such a disciplined artist, his road trips were well organized. Egan said he visited the same places every time: from his parents’ graves to the buildings he painted to his favorite highway rest stops.
“He’d tell me stories along the way,” said Egan. “And every river we passed, every tree that had meaning to him, he’d talk about.” “We were talking 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 is a large type of subject to his paintings, the works are images that can be seen from the road,” Smart said.
The trips included stops like Deer Lake Powerhouse, a stately building of glowing barges that became the subject of one of his most famous works, Deer Lake: Junction Brook Memorial.
“It’s just an extraordinary palette,” Smart said.
“You wonder why he turned his attention to this power plant, and put so much time into painting it…but it gives me so much satisfaction to look at it and to travel to those landscapes. To get lost in it, and to be afraid of it too.”
The painting’s title alludes to memories of a wild waterway, long tamed for human use—electricity still powers a pulp and paper mill in nearby Corner Brook—with that subtle gesture one of the many times Pratt has used his art to testify to the history of his beloved county.
“The road trip with Christopher Pratt is so funny,” said Egan. They would listen to Frank Sinatra or jazz, and human warmth would shine behind many winter paintings.
“He was a very humble man,” she said. “He can seem a little cold, but he’s not. He was a humble and compassionate person.”
Smart said Pratt was also a complex man who sought honesty and deep thought from friends and family.
“Very Personal” Painter
His family dynamic was notoriously complicated. Mary Pratt, who initially set aside her artistic career to support her husband and raise her four children – John, Ann, Barbara and Ned – will embrace her immense talent for drawing everyday life into the sublime.
The two separated after decades of marriage, and Christopher remarried, but the artistic connection and respect remained.
“Mary and Christopher both told me that they saw each other in excellence, artistic excellence, and tremendous creativity,” Smart said.
“Throughout their careers, they have worked closely together,” said Egan. “Especially towards the end of their lives, they reconciled and had conversations that would influence each other’s artistic practice out of deep respect.”
Mary Pratt passed away in 2018. at 83. In the same year, Christopher Pratt painted Trongate Summaryinspired by a devastating fire at the Glasgow School of Art, his university.
The composition that sounds great hints of passion – but only if you turn it on the devotion on the back: “To Mary.”
“His paintings are very personal and deeply palpable,” said Egan.
“I know a lot of people will look at his work and say, ‘Oh, it’s so cold,’ but really, it’s not. That’s a way of remembering. And so when we look at his paintings, we look at him.”