Sisters of St. Ann art set for preservation

The Sisters are taking centre stage with a donation to the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria

Sister Marie Zarowny

Sister Marie Zarowny

The Sisters are taking centre stage.

While it won’t be for another two years, 18 pieces of art, including an early Emily Carr painting given to the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria from the Sisters of St. Ann, will be featured in an exhibition in 2013. While the wait may seem long, some have waited decades to see the Sisters finally getting the recognition they deserve.

“I think they are a vital piece of the whole story of art and culture in our community and in B.C.,” said Art Gallery of Greater Victoria chief curator Mary Jo Hughes. “It is a part of the story people don’t know about.”

The four nuns, sisters Marie du Sacre Coeur Valois, Marie Angele Gauthier, Marie de la Conception Lane and Marie Lumena Brasseur travelled from Quebec and became the first nuns to arrive in British Columbia in 1858. Upon arrival they promptly turned a modest log cabin into a school for children and care home for the sick – eventually expanding their facilities over time to care for orphans and teach art to hundreds, if not thousands, of young girls.

“If we do want to present the history of art-making and appreciation in the province this really adds a piece of the story we didn’t touch upon before,” Hughes said. “It is also important to the history of women’s art in B.C. Other than Emily Carr, we often just hear about the men in historical art. These were pioneer women artists that really made a difference in the community.”

That difference was providing health care to the community which eventually led them to Carr’s sister Elizabeth, who suffered from cancer. As a thanks to the Sisters who helped her, the artist gifted Wild Lillies, a painting she completed when she was 20 – which now resides in the AGGV as the oldest Carr in the collection.

The Sisters’ vision eventually grew to include St. Ann’s Residence (a care facility), Queenswood (a retreat centre) and national historic site St. Ann’s Academy. After selling the academy to the province in the 1970s and closing Queenswood after 43 years, showing the art became more and more challenging and the society gave the AGGV first dibs on the entire collection.

“There is a certain nostalgia turning it over to the public but that is far outweighed by the assurance they will be well cared for and made available into the future,” said Sister Marie Zarowny, provincial leader for the Sisters of St. Ann. “There is no point having them and having them hidden in a cupboard. We felt they would provide really good stewardship of our paintings and provide them to the public in a way that was advantageous for the paintings, and make our legacy with regards to the art to the community known.”

Other works from the collection include a Sister’s rendition of Raphael’s Virgin and Child. Also included are local scenes of Clover point, Beacon Hill Park, the Gulf Islands and the Malahat – all from more than 100 years ago. Zarowny however, hopes the enduring memories will be of their influence on women’s art.

“I would hope that what comes across is, even in pioneer times the recognition of creative expression being integral to the life of a human person is very important,” Zarowny said. “The importance of women artists … being recognized as valuable artists throughout history.”