BY PAUL GESSELL
Sometimes the Ottawa Art Gallery gets it right. Really and truly right. And that is the case with its new exhibition honouring the late ground-breaking artist Alma Duncan.
When the history of Ottawa is studied, the focus is usually on the politicians who passed through the capital. Little attention is paid to the entrepreneurs, dreamers, and artists who made Ottawa what it is, beyond Parliament Hill.
Thus, ALMA: The Life and Art of Alma Duncan (1917-2004) gives us a window into the often overlooked past of Ottawa’s cultural life. Yes, Ottawa did have a cultural life beyond the costume balls and skating parties at Rideau Hall. Away from the vice-regal and political hurly-burly, people like Duncan were making this a far more interesting city. Indeed, Duncan was a role model for all women, not just artists, trying to live an independent life.
Duncan was born in Paris, Ont., in 1917 and moved to Montreal in 1936 at age 19. She studied under renowned artists Goodridge Roberts and Ernst Neumann, and was soon exhibiting with the Art Association of Montreal.
In 1943, during the Second World War, Duncan received a government commission to create art related to the homefront, specifically Canada’s shipyards, munitions factories and other industrial projects. That same year she moved to Ottawa to become an artist with the National Film Board (NFB). Back then, the NFB attracted some of the most creative minds in the country to come to Ottawa to make films of all kinds, including animated ones.
Duncan invaded traditionally male spheres through her wartime work and her animated films. She was always ahead of the times. Check out the self-portrait done at age 23: Alma is wearing trousers. That must have sent tongues wagging.
At the film board, Duncan met Audrey (Babs) McLaren. The two collaborated on animated films and lived together for four decades. (That must also have sent tongues wagging). They both quit the NFB in 1951 and formed their own film company, Dunclaren Productions, and made several internationally-noted stop-motion animation short films. In those days, women didn’t just go out to form a company and market their products around the globe. No one, I guess, told Duncan and McLaren.
By the 1960s, Duncan returned to full-time painting and drawing. She was commissioned to create a series of postage stamps for Canada Post. She painted abstract works, including the Woman Series of 1965 that were exhibited in the National Gallery to much acclaim. Those black and white artworks reduce the female form to what the Ottawa Art Gallery calls “geometrically anthropomorphized shapes.” They were a hit.
The idea of the Duncan exhibition originated with Jaclyn Meloche from the University of Ottawa visual arts department. Meloche had written her master’s thesis on Duncan. She took her idea to Catherine Sinclair, senior curator at Ottawa Art Gallery. Soon Meloche and Sinclair embarked upon a journey to resurrect Duncan, who just died in 2004.
The exhibition is divided into several parts: portraits, war works, nature drawings, abstracts, and bric-a-brac from her animation films. Some of the films are being shown on a continuous loop at the gallery.
Personally, I find her self-portraits the best of the lot. In those paintings, Duncan usually depicts herself in the act of painting. She was an artist and wanted to be seen as such. And in those paintings, Duncan has a confident look — a bold look. This was not a woman to be trifled with.
Alma: The Life and Art of Alma Duncan (1917-2004) continues at the Ottawa Art Gallery until Jan. 11, 2015 and then tours Ontario.