Two weeks ago I sat down with Susan Jephcott, one of Vankleek Hill’s most established artists — and one of the founding members of Vankleek Hill’s ‘May Show Arts Festival (and one of my favourite human beings) to discuss the influence Freda Pemberton-Smith had on her, and on Vankleek Hill‘s artistic community.
Unfortunately for everyone involved, I got sidetracked trying to prepare the interview for broadcast on a local cable station, which meant spending ten days trying to learn new software and editing techniques that people normally spend months and thousands of dollars trying to… not ‘master’, lets say ‘navigate’.
One of the problems I had was it was filmed in ‘ultra-HD’, which does not transfer well to viewing on the web. Over the weekend, however, I finally had a version I was happy with — fade ins, fade outs, information boxes, photos, end credits — but then, as sometimes happens, it all went away.
Hopefully, eventually, we’ll get it back. Maybe after a few more online tutorials. So, for now, we’re just going to post the individual pieces, and worry about the ‘for broadcast’ version later… the video is towards the bottom.
Born April 7, 1902, Freda Pemberton Smith enjoyed a career that spanned eight decades of the 20th Century. She studied at the École des Beaux-Arts de Montréal, and later in London at the Slade School of Fine Art. One of her teachers was Edmond Dyonnet, RCA, who also numbered Jack Bush and A.Y. Jackson among his students.
Her family had reluctantly allowed her to pursue an art career on the understanding that she earn a living at it. In the 30’s, however, the Depression put an end to a promising start in the field of commercial art, and her work was further interrupted by the advent of World War II and service overseas with the Red Cross VAD.
After the war, Miss Smith began painting again and also did some teaching, but like many women artists of the past century found much of her time taken up with family obligations. It was only after her mother’s death in 1956 that she was able to devote herself fully to her art. She left Montreal in the mid-sixties for the Ottawa Valley town of Vankleek Hill, where she made her home until her death in 1991.
But Freda is important to us, not because she sold a lot of pieces, or because her work hung in many of Canada’s most prestigious galleries, or because of her longevity. Her importance to Vankleek Hill’s artistic community comes from offering guidance to the younger artists in this region… for creating a path for us to follow.
Before Freda, Vankleek Hill was simply a centre of agriculture for the region. But her work turned Vankleek Hill into a brand… or, at least, started the process of creating a brand. In the very early 80’s, the Ottawa Citizen sent a reporter and photographer to Vankleek Hill to profile what they referred to as “the Vankleek Hill Clique”. By then, in the cities surrounding the village, “Vankleek Hill” was becoming associated with art.
But it became automatic when the May Show Art Festival started to bring thousands of people from Montreal and Ottawa to Vankleek Hill a few years later.
“Freda’s works, her longevity, gave the invitation lists [to Vankleek Hill’s] gallery a sound credibility. In this way, Freda and the gallery anchored the fledgling art community. The coterie of artists who had moved to this region for a number of personal reasons, had a gentle force around which to build…”
–Michelle Landriault, original member & co-founder of the May Show Art Exhibition
The professional artists involved in the May Show — John Ikeda, Susan Jephcott, Elizabeth Skelly, Ian Hepburn — had their own followings, their own niche markets. They were successful, and they drew people to their shows. But it was Freda’s name, her reputation, that provided the historical context, the recognition factor and the reason why a reporter or the random curious onlooker would want to travel an hour through bent and bending roads from Montreal or Ottawa to visit a village of 1800 people over a long weekend.
The unedited interview…
“This highly gifted artist…seems to possess equal facility with landscapes, seascapes, street scenes, occasional pieces and portraits…. This is altogether a first rate one-woman show.”
–Ottawa Journal (1965)