Wednesday, July 22, 2009

In January 1983, I sat on a backless bench at the Art Gallery of Ontario watching the film, Portrait of the Artist as an Old Lady. The feisty old woman in the documentary fascinated me. I jotted down some notes and stuck them into my files. Paraskeva Clark (1898-1986) now had her own folder in the top drawer of my filing cabinet.

Fast-forward to the year 1999. About six months before completing a major project of researching and writing the biography of Joyce Wieland (Joyce Wieland: Artist on Fire, 2001) Paraskeva began sitting on my shoulder and wouldn’t leave. I could not stop thinking about her. I discovered that her papers were housed in Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa, and I also learned that there were many people who knew her who were available for interviews.

This is how I began my years of exploring the life of Paraskeva Clark, a scrappy, gutsy artist full of contradictions. My book on Clark, Perfect Red: The Life of Paraskeva Clark will be published in November by Cormorant Books (

Monday, July 20, 2009

Recently I read an article about biography by Terry Eagleton in an old Harper’s Magazine (November 2007) - “Buried in the Life: Thomas Hardy and the Limits of Biographies,” a review of two Thomas Hardy biographies, one by Claire Tomalin and one by Ralph Pite.

Eagleton says that everyone must be born and almost everyone has to be educated, oppressed by parents, plagued by siblings, and launched into the world...” and so on. And at the end of all this we expire, he says. Using this template, he points out that biographies are based on biology.

When I read this, at first I thought he was totally knocking the genre. As I read on, I realized that what he is asking for is biographies that do more than just tell what a person had for breakfast, because for example, what Jane Austen had for breakfast “throws exceedingly little light on the fiction.” He makes a case for doing more than just giving a “blow-by-blow record of “what happened just after noon on July 21, 1889, and then what took place two hours later...” because this kind of writing means “the art gets buried in the life.”

Eagleton made the case that a good biography portrays the times in which a person lived. I agree, and this is what I love about reading biographies. Years ago I read Kathleen Barry’s Susan B. Anthony: Te Biography of a Singular Feminist about this courageous woman who was a leader in the United States in the nineteenth century women’s movement. This book gave me a picture of nineteen-century American culture. It is a good example of a portrait of a person that expands to encompass the world in which she lived.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Over the years since the publication of my Joyce Wieland: Artist on Fire (2001), I have been working on the idea of selecting Wieland’s drawings and journals in the archives at York University where I did my research. Called Joyce Wieland: Writings and Drawings 1952-1971, this volume will be published in November by Porcupine’s Quill, a small press in Erin, Ontario, which is about a twenty-minute drive from my home. Erin is a lovely little town and the presence of Porcupine’s Quill gives it a special charm - not to mention the wonderful bakery in the same block.

I made selections in which one can see how Wieland's identity and her thinking, especially about the world of art, developed in an era when few women were working as artists, a period of time when female artists were not taken seriously. Almost all of the writings and drawings in this new volume - cartoons, sketches, journal entries - have not been published or exhibited before. Wieland’s strong stance as a feminist and a Canadian citizen who was engaged in the world around her run like a thread through her work, and all with a great sense of humour.