In her paintings of Saskatchewan, Catherine works principally with views of open prairies and the northern woods and lakes, subjects that first attracted the attention of artists beginning with the period of early exploration and settlement in the mid 19th. Century. Early visitors, schooled in the Picturesque conventions of European art, frequently found the plains a daunting subject and complained, as the English artist Edward Roper F.R.G.S. did, of the “grey and melancholy prospect” of the “dead level … prairie.” Unused to the extraordinary spaces, distant horizons and overarching skies, Roper and others looked at first for anything which might remind them of “home,” or in the case of exploration artists, that sought for prominent topographical features to depict for expedition reports. Subsequently, however, settlers and the first generation of children born to these immigrants, became increasingly comfortable with their immediate environment and resident artists sought to develop new conventions appropriate to the extraordinary and beautiful land in which they lived. Some, like the British-trained artists Augustus Kenderdine, founder of the University of Saskatchewan Art Department, and the Qu’Appelle Valley resident George Henderson, continued to work in a modified style adapted from academic and impressionist sources. While a number of younger artists, notably the Saskatchewan-born painter Otto Rogers, began to incorporate their direct experience of the prairie landscape with their art- school training in abstract painting.
By the late nineteen-seventies, a number of talented artists, including Catherine’s mother Dorothy Knowles and some time later Catherine and her sister Rebecca, began to establish a distinctive approach to western Canadian landscape that was no longer reliant upon conventions better suited to other circumstances. This approach was based upon a close, often intimate, reading of the prairie and Rocky Mountain environments, coupled with studies made from nature and the subsequent creation of relatively large works in the studio. In the process of this evolution, Catherine has developed a highly personal approach to her subjects that has brought her today to a position as one of the leading exponents of Canadian landscape painting.
In her paintings, Catherine works in both acrylic on canvas and extraordinary large-scale watercolours, both mediums ideally suited to the constantly changing prairie light/atmosphere and the sway and ripple of foliage in the wind. The views are devoid of people and for the most part there are few signs of habitation save for the distant fields, bands of abstract yellow and green, as in Wind Over the Prairie. This is not Roper’s “melancholy prospect:”the landscape is alive with light and movement, the colours are intense and the “dead level,” in Catherine’s paintings, becomes animated by the play of cloud and mist and the trees and bushes that interrupt but do not obscure the horizon.
As anybody who has been on the prairies will know, the experience of prodigious space is tempered by an intense sense of intimacy with the immediate surroundings. In First Sign of Spring, the long, horizontal format of the composition, combines with the grays and blues of the sky reflected in the slough just below the narrow band of the horizon to draw the eye back into space. In the foreground, the reeds and grasses on the water’s edge press right up against the edge of the composition, inviting the viewer into the frame to participate, as the artist has done, in the intense experience of light, texture, movement and colour; all the senses are suggested including the rustle of the foliage and the fresh scent of a spring day.
As well as working in the prairies, Catherine also paints subjects in the northern forest and the Rockies, both locales which especially attracted early visiting artists working in the European tradition. While their paintings tended to follow certain stock subjects driven largely by the visitor trade –for example, Lake Louise or Mount Rundle—Catherine’s paintings often depict more private, anonymous. In Looking Out From the Edge of a Cliff , the darkness and density of the trees, partially obscured by mist, suggests an experience distinct from and more personal than the standard tourist—and therefore shared--view of the landscape. Even where the subject is more familiar, as in Lake O’Hara, the scene is partially obscured by mist and the slightly indistinct forms suggest a moment when the viewer is alone in the landscape.
Copyright 2007 Professor Keith Bell