Christopher Pratt: Magic as reality

Portrait of the artist at home in St. Catherines, Newfoundland, far from the garrets of Bohemia

HARRY BRUCE December 1 1973

Christopher Pratt: Magic as reality

Portrait of the artist at home in St. Catherines, Newfoundland, far from the garrets of Bohemia

HARRY BRUCE December 1 1973

Christopher Pratt: Magic as reality

Portrait of the artist at home in St. Catherines, Newfoundland, far from the garrets of Bohemia


Christopher Pratt, a lanky, articulate Newfoundlander who believes in his own self-control the way some people believe in God, may well be the finest realist painter in Canada. It’s still a matter of opinion. What is indisputable however is that, out on the coast of Newfoundland, Pratt has discovered a private rhythm of peace, a life and place that are as close to a Canadian paradise on earth as most of us are ever likely to find. He does not relish leaving home and, if it’s true that home is where the heart is, he never really does.

At a seething and pretentious arts conference in Ottawa last spring, Pratt was as impatient as his great white sloop at her mooring in Conception Bay; and, if you’d once seen him alive and calm near the seals and the magic geese and the unknowable caribou of Home, you might have understood why. Home is an endless song, and his wife, Mary. Everything else is merely ordinary, though an arts conference may be even less than strictly ordinary.

At this one, the Cultural Vanguard of the Nation had at last discovered Participatory Democracy, and hundreds of artists, art administrators, art hucksters, art bureaucrats and art angels had come to Ottawa to hammer out for all time a cultural policy for Canada. It lasted two days, ample time to fashion destiny, but Pratt was there for only one of them. Farewell, Chateau Laurier. Farewell, corridors of culture. See the silver bird on high. She’s away. And eastward bound.

Pratt may be a great painter. It takes a while for the rest of us to decide who’s great, and he’s only 38. East-coast Canada has a curious corner on what the art world sometimes calls Magic Realism. At least half a dozen highly skilled Magic Realists have either studied in the Maritimes and moved on, or studied in the Maritimes and stayed to do their work and make their lives there, but according to some art experts the supreme blossom in this regional flowering is Pratt.

Dorothy Cameron of Toronto, one of the country’s leading authorities on contemporary art, says, “Of all the realists who’ve come out of that area, I’ve always thought Chris had the most intensity, the most mysterious quality in his work. He always has this extra quality, a quality beyond the object. There’s something extra he always gives you. To me, Chris ... well, he’s just our finest poetic realist.”

A dozen years ago, before Pratt dared to believe a Newfoundlander could ever survive by painting alone, he sold copies of a silk-screen print called Boat In Sand to fellow students at Mount Allison University / continued on page 42

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for $15 (and to one guy, for 50 cents). Now, if you could find someone willing to part with Boat In Sand, it might well cost you $1,000. His current price for a new oil painting is $8,000.

His work shows you things you can recognize: windows, stairs, shelves, wainscot, haunted shops, barns, doors, barn doors, a shed, a bed, blowing bedsheets on a clothesline, a kitchen stove, ice, snow, cold trees and often, stretching across the whole canvas or just lurking there in a corner, a stretch of mysteriously calm sea. The sea tells you something about billions of years. The things tell you about someone you cannot see, someone who has just gone away, for a few seconds, for a week, perhaps for ever.

Someone will be back. Or perhaps he won’t. Either way, he left something there in the curious glow of the room, in the waiting a(r over the brown ground, in the shadows beyond the shutters. There’s a strange, careful simplicity in Pratt’s work. His lines are somehow straighter than anyone else’s. He makes and sells unearthly calm and, to some people anyway, sitting alone with a Pratt painting is the beginning of wondering why you exist.

The art world calls him a Magic Realist. But you would not take him for a painter of any kind if you met him at one of the cocktail parties he tries to avoid. You would swear he was an army officer in civvies or an engineer, a man with a lifelong faith in his slide rule.

He’s six feet tall, bony, straight in the spine, balder than any of the bald eagles that still cruise the sky above his wilderness home. The word “Prussian” flickers inaccurately in your mind, and there’s something monkish about him, too. His talk is efficient. It has that odd Newfoundland mix of primness, lyricism, precision and flashing simile. He closes his mouth on each word, and icebergs will turn to wine before anyone will ever hear Chris Pratt describe anything as either “right on” or “groovy.”

In Ottawa, there was a crust in his voice. A bunch of us were sitting around a table wondering how to convince politicians and bureaucrats that we deserved lots of money. Someone said that well, after all, artists vote too, you know. Pratt cut in. We would be naïve beyond belief, he suggested, if we allowed ourselves to think for half a second that artists, as artists, had an ounce more grassroots political clout than a pile of fish guts. We looked at him. What was he? An artist, or a backroom boy?

Many artists are more inclined to accept government money than to root around among the square people who fight to get governments elected. Pratt worked for the Conservatives in the last two provincial elections, the ones that upset Joe Smallwood, and he discovered

that making speeches was “an hypnotically satisfying experience. I could imagine Hitler getting his kicks from it.” He worked in his home district of St. Mary’s (voting population: 2,700) for PC candidate Gerry Ottenheimer, who is now Minister of Education in Newfoundland. “Smallwood spent three nights here,” Pratt recalls. “He had every man on public works. He was giving out gravel and culvert contracts like it was Christmas. There was liquor galore. In our campaign, there wasn’t a thimbleful. We won that election by 78 votes, and it was a miracle. The second time, it was a walkover for us.”

Pratt, as a painter, has other unlikely preoccupations. Perhaps they are not unlikely in any profound sense. Perhaps

they are unlikely only in the light of a superficial but still pervasive image of the modem artist as a creature of the city whose character and creative obsessions surround him with broken marriages, neglected children, faith betrayed, civic irresponsibility, dirt, disorder and narcotic indulgence. Perhaps artists aren’t like that at all.

Pratt, however, is less like that than anyone you’re likely to meet. His passion for efficient equipment, for control, for cleanliness, for order in all things amounts to a religion. He believes that, simply as a human being, he’s a custodian of millions of years of development and that he therefore owes it to a universal order to function as well as he can.

Matter, he speculates, may be a refinement of something like electricity;

life is a refinement of matter; selfawareness is a refinement of life; and self-control is a refinement of selfawareness. And whether or not there is a God, Man himself, Chris Pratt himself, through self-control, may be a stage in the evolution of God. Pratt thinks about his participation in Time; it astounds him to realize that, in just 15 years,, the flesh of his own hands has smoothed the edges of a 12-inch wooden ruler. Like the sea on rock. Minute by minute, habit by habit, vision by vision, brush stroke by brush stroke, he obeys his belief.

He has never in his life had a shot of booze (which, in Newfoundland, is enough all by itself to make him a freak of nature) and, though there are ancient personal reasons for his abstinence, they all come down to hi$ belief that drink wrecks efficiency. He takes no drugs. He smokes nothing. He collects postage stamps. He keeps a diary. And each day, in the blackness of winter and the gathering dawns of the Newfoundland summer, he rises at five-thirty.

He has served on the town council of the tiny community of St. Catherines. He sits among the business suits, quiet neckties, and the talk of dollars, sales volumes and production capabilities at Newfoundland’s Regional Development Authority, which loans money to farmers and sawmills and fishermen.

He’s the major shareholder (his father and a young brother are the others) in a chic, deep-sea racing yacht, a beautiful, white charger of the sort you associate with stockbrokers, advertising executives and beer tycoons. She’s an Ontariobuilt Cuthbertson and Cassian 35footer, worth at least $35,000, and, under way, such sailboats are a supreme marriage of human technology to the old forces of nature. From the tip of her masthead wind indicator to the oceanfloor range of her depth-sounder, she works. There’s a heavy supply of paper towels aboard. No random drop of diesel fuel, nor muddy smear from a crewman’s foot, escapes instant elimination. He named her Lynx, not really because The Lynx was one of his earlier and finest prints but because he liked the clean order of the lines of those four capital letters together LYNX.

(On a luminous evening in June, Pratt took Lynx out for only the second time, to try out some of her eight Hood and two Elvström sails; and, as she loped down Conception Bay, out toward a glowing blue iceberg, he stood behind her silver wheel, and she put her rail down, and his pleasure was as warm as the air was cold. “Just think,” he said, “Van Gogh nearly starved to death.”)

Pratt hikes with his children, crosscountry skis with them, plays hockey with them every afternoon there’s ice on the Salmonier River. He writes poetry with a sharp pencil, in a small, neat

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hand, and keeps it in an 80-cent hardcover notebook. Some of the verse is for his wife. He tells you, with a conviction that seems to come out of another age (and another profession) that no one on earth is more important to him than she is: “Mary is important to everything I am. It was she who gave me the encouragement to abandon all those other things and be a painter. For 10 years here, I’ve been with her constantly. She is my closest friend at every level. We have the usual man-woman relationship. I mean we have four kids and, but for the luck of the draw, we’d have a lot more . . . But she’s also my friend. You know what I mean. She’s my friend.”

Most of the year, they rise before the sun and their children are up. They eat breakfast alone, and together. Chris is at work in his studio by 7 a.m. He joins her for coffee at ten. He returns to his studio. He joins her for lunch at noon. He returns to his studio. He joins her for coffee at three-thirty in the afternoon, and when the kids get home from school he fools around outdoors with them. He joins her for supper with them at 5 p.m. He watches the news. He returns to his studio. He joins her at nine-thirty or ten and they are alone, and together.

They met at Mount Allison University, Sackville, New Brunswick, in the mid-Fifties; and for a while, in that whole romance-ridden little place, there were few more troubled romances than theirs. Mary was Mary West of Fredericton, daughter of the attorney-general of New Brunswick. Would-be seducers found her less than satisfying. Oh dear, she’d say, what am I going to do about poor Chris? Chris is so unhappy. Chris is so miserable. Chris is so confused. Chris just doesn’t know what to do with his life. Let’s talk about Chris. What can I do for Chris?

She had curly dark hair, brown eyes, glasses, an elegant little shape. There was a powerfully appealing air of innocence about her. She was bright, funny, popular. And Chris was a walking lump of young gloom. “I was wretchedly unhappy,” he recalls. “I simply didn’t know what in hell I wanted to do.”

Mary was an art student, and she knew what he should do. Lawren Harris Jr. and Alex Colville, who taught art at Mount A, knew what he should do. Everyone in Sackville who saw what he could make with the box of water colors he’d brought from St. John’s knew what he should do. Everyone, except Pratt himself, knew he should be a painter.

The urge, if not the hope, had been in him for a long time. “I remember very clearly, I was only about 10 or 12, and I saw a little girl walking along Waterford Bridge Road at home, and she was carrying a handful of water-color brushes, and I remember very clearly resenting her. I hadn’t even done any painting

myself but, even then, I considered it my trade, my territory or something.”

But both on his mother’s side, the Dawe family, as well as his father’s, Pratt was part of Newfoundland’s establishment (even though a couple of his harder-drinking uncles may have “had the ass out of their pants”); and, in the St. John’s of the mid-Fifties, painting pictures as a career for a young man of distinguished ancestry probably ranked just below knitting. There were few, if any, full-time artists there. There was no art gallery. There was no formal art school, no Art Scene.

There were no artists’ factions, gossip, feuds, openings or hairy parties. There was nothing in town to inspire anyone to Be a Painter and, even now, the social aspects of the art world bore Pratt. The Canada Council invited him to an opening in Paris last June but, he says, “I

couldn’t bear the thought of it. There’s only one part of me that I want to see participate in the art world, and that’s my work.”

The other result of the artistic desert in St. John’s, however, was that it took Pratt till 1963, when he was 27, to commit himself totally to living off what he could earn alone in his studio. He messed around in engineering for a year at Memorial University. And at Mount A, he messed around in biology, he messed around in the general arts course and majored in English, he messed around in pre-med to try to pick up enough biology to prepare for ocean studies. “I don’t think I ever really considered the horrendous possibility of looking at someone’s liver.”

His confusion made him feel guilty. His guilt made him feel confused. His refusal to drink prevented him from ever becoming one of the boys. Not once did he hitchhike across the New Brunswick border to guzzle beer at the Legion in Amherst, Nova Scotia; and

that little trip, for perhaps thousands of Mount A freshmen, was as traditional as fertility rites in the South Pacific. It’s doubtful if any Newfoundland fish ever felt so far out of water.

Many of Newfoundland’s blushing young feel they’re terribly unsophisticated when they leave their island home for the first time; and the social atmosphere at Mount A fed Pratt’s confusion over what in God’s name he was doing there, anyway. He left after two and a half years. In all that time, he had cracked his books for about four hours. He had no degree, but he had a friend.

They married in Fredericton on September 12, 1957, and on September 14, they boarded the Nova Scotia, an 8,000ton freighter-passenger vessel. They were bound for Scotland and the Glasgow School of Art, where Chris would study for two years. They returned to Mount A and in 1961 Chris and Mary graduated together with Bachelor of Fine Arts degrees. The news of his work began to spread. Sales, recognition, prizes and job offers crept up pleasantly but, still, his Newfoundlander’s suspicion of his own talent held him back. He wondered if the national cultural authorities at Ottawa were interested in his work simply because they couldn’t find enough other Newfoundlanders to fulfill somebody’s idea of appropriate regional representation.

He wondered, too, if he could really feed his family simply by painting pictures, and he took a job that instantly plunged him into the despair he’d known in Sackville in the mid-Fifties. The job involved running an art gallery for Memorial University and teaching painting at night, “mostly to women whose husbands had booted them out of the house on poker night.” He recalls that, “quite literally, I almost went insane.” He paid regular visits to a doctor for a condition that felt suspiciously like stomach ulcers. He’d lost most of his hair. He was 26.

The Pratts lived in what he calls “a CMHC box” in a part of St. John’s in which “the moving vans came by as often as the milk trucks ... I can’t even bear to think of the place. It’s all I can do even to drive up that road now.”

Then, in the spring of’63, he quit Memorial, he quit St. John’s, he quit security. He said he would now be a painter, and he took Mary and the kids out to this rangy old summer place at St. Catherines that his father owned, and he thought they’d try to live there happily ever after, and they’d scarcely completed the hour-long, axle-threatening drive out from the city, they’d scarcely unpacked their stuff and got some food on the table and the kids settled for the night, when a great wind came up and the trees roared, and the sound told Chris something he’d waited a long time

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to hear. It said that he was home.

The most silent and sweet and perfect moments of his boyhood, the magical seconds that he still dreams about, had occurred on weekend fishing and hunting trips to beautiful corners of the Avalon peninsula, and usually at dawn. Few events are as clean as a Newfoundland dawn. Years later, he’d dream of riversful of trout and salmon, and skiesful of geese and partridge and ducks and, long before he moved to St. Catherines, he had dreamed once about a flock of eider ducks.

The drakes were white and black,

with a dusty gold headdress. The hens were dusty brown. There must have been 50 of them, and they all rose together, through a fog at dawn, and flew up the river.

“That was the dream,” he recalls, “and on the second or third day we were here, I suddenly woke at five in the morning, and I went to a window, and there was a flock of eider ducks. The drakes were white and black with kind of dusty gold headdress. The hens were sort of dusty brown. They all rose together, and there was a heavy fog. They flew up the river. There must have been

50 of them. I’ve never seen so many together, before or since. And quite honestly, I accepted it as an omen.”

The place is on the banks of the Salmonier River, where the river joins St. Mary’s Bay, and the Pratts live there under Canada geese, eagles, bitterns, gulls, ospreys, black ducks, golden ducks, mergansers, “practically every bird in Newfoundland.”

Seals cruise and otters romp in their river pond. Their four kids boat there, swim there, skate there. Mary can call them home for supper from the kitchen door; and supper, on any summer day that anyone feels like fishing, will be trout caught just off their lawn.

Moose sometimes amble in among the flowers, the pretty hardwoods, the blackberries, gooseberries, the vegetable garden, and the loose toys and sports gear that surround the house. A stonelined creek splits the sloping grass, and rattles down to the river.

The house is really two houses joined together. It is low. It stretches, like an old ranchhouse. It’s got six bedrooms and 1 Vz bathrooms and, in separate buildings, Chris and Mary have studios of their own. Mary is an accomplished painter in her own right, in a style that’s sometimes labeled Photo Realism; and, lately, her independent reputation has been growing. By the nature of their work and gentle preferences, the whole family is together there in their coastal wilderness almost all the days of their lives. There are no property taxes in rural Newfoundland.

Across the river, the Pratt family owns 250 acres of black spruce, fir, birch, witch hazel, mountain ash and the odd willow. Beyond that, stretching across the lunar barrens, there’s a herd of hundreds of caribou. “Sometimes,” Pratt says, “I have to go to some smoky cocktail party in St. John’s, and I have my customary ginger ale, and I come home late. I like to stand by the car for a moment and think that, if I were to walk straight through there, I would find the caribou ground before I’d ever find a road. It’s romantic, I know. But it’s not romantic, because they’re there.”

He goes on. “I guess what I’m saying is that I really like it here. I’ve learned to live in the present here. I’ve overcome that greener-pastures thing that plagued me for years. The actuality here always exceeds the anticipation, and that’s a damn good way to live. I wake up in the morning, and I’m actually glad to be here. I go to bed at night, and I’m glad to be here.”

There’s a work of art on the outside of the old white garage at Pratt’s place. A child has painted a huge, smiling face and the words, “Be Happy.” It’s a cheerful order and, in the case of Chris Pratt, it seems at last to be entirely unnecessary. ■