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The Lovely Art of Bernice Purdy: a Birthday Garland


My First Easel


Bernice Purdy is seventy in this amazing summer of 2010.

Some day, someone who matters in the art world will discover her. As the man says in the menswear ad, I guarantee it. And everyone will say that they’d known it all along, and been particular admirers of her work.

She is very intelligent, and a perfectionist, and is liable to be impatient with what others aren’t seeing, and from time to time, I daresay, has been —oh that dread word!—“difficult.” But she has been mellowing out, partly because of ill-health, partly philosophically. She must have been quite something when she was young and living life to the full out on the rim.

A friend remarked of her that you could never get Bernice to do anything that she didn’t want to do. She has indeed at times marched, at others danced, to the sound of a different drummer, with no concern for dominant orthodoxies.

She taught dance for a bit when she was young, and feels the body and its rhythms, and the bodies of others, from the inside. I mean, that is what we see in the gorgeous images here. And the people whom she observes, and imagines from that observing, have expressive faces, that element common to so much great and good art, and so absent from so much art now.

What kind of artist is she? Well, here’s a poem by that fine Scottish poet Elma Mitchell that might help. It’s called “This Poem … ”

This poem is dangerous: it should not be left
Within the reach of children, or even of adults
Who might swallow it whole, with possibly
Undesirable side-effects. If you come across
An unattended, unidentified poem
In a public place, do not attempt to tackle it
Yourself. Send it (preferably in a sealed container)
To the nearest centre of learning, where it will be rendered
Harmless, by experts. Even the simplest poem
May destroy your immunity to human emotions.
All poems must carry a Government warning. Words
Can seriously affect your heart.

There are indeed human emotions in these paintings of Bernice’s, and nowadays there is such a tendency to dismiss “free” emotions as—yecch!— sentimental. And of course there’s an element of danger when you step outside the safety of familiar categories and approved reactions.

But there’s a lot of technical sophistication there too. Just look at the bravura thirteen-feet-wide recreation of an 1890s store, informed by her scholar’s passion to get every detail right. Or at the lyrical precision of those children on the country road, at once idealized in memory and realistic in its recalled details. Or at the galaxy of figures at the dance, so individuated that your eye keeps moving among them and they seem in motion without any blurring. Or the exquisite brushwork on that mermaid.

Herself a coalminer’s daughter, her unpatronizing enjoyment of what used to be called plain folks, an all but vanished species in a lot of art these days, reminds me of that miraculous movie Hank Williams; the Show He Never Gave, and the richly individuated figures in that roadside bar back in the North America of 1953.

Men are treated affectionately in “Gus’ Tavern,” and there’s shared festivity in “Heart Beats Dance.” But her principal subject is Woman. In a recent Artist’s Statement she’s “a celebrator of Being, especially the complex symbolical being of women, as embodied in moments of heightened consciousness--familial, social, ritual, mythical.” We see some of those moments here, with their celebration of flesh—a joyous abundance of it— as well as spirit.

And she can be funny—seriously funny. An image like “Burning Ritual” is an instant classic.

She is largely self-taught. But she taught herself sternly and well, and knew that you do not have to lock yourself into a single style, a single “signature.” I think that she was lucky, like Virginia Woolf, not to have passed through an academy, and to have drawn her spiritual nourishment from the rich art of the past. She is a passionate and perceptive reader. The poetic imagination requires more than one kind of food.

In the same Statement we learn that “Her favorite painters are Stephen Lochner, Giovanni Bellini, Cranach the Elder, Hogarth, Angelica Kaufman, Henri Rousseau, Leonora Carrington, Paul Delvaux, and Eugène Delacroix.” This isn’t just name-dropping.

At present she is avidly exploring the extraordinary Web Gallery of Art.

The paintings that I’ve presented here are a few of my favourits. I’ve not attempted coverage.

Happy birthday, Bernice. And may you be granted an Indian Summer that will give us many more images to rejoice the heart.

John Fraser

The Hawk


Images © Bernice Purdy and reproduced with permission of the artist.