In 1961, artist Annora Brown exhibited nine of her paintings at the Calgary Stampede.
The subject matter of most were wildflowers found in Western Canada, either portraits or watercolours depicting them in their natural habitat. While the art exhibits at the Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth have become increasingly eclectic over the years, it’s safe to say that the overriding artistic motif of Stampede art back then would have been ranching and cowboys and stately portraits of the Blackfoot in the early 1960s. So Brown’s devotion to the colourful botanical life of the Prairies and bold insistence that this imagery was just as vital as traditional depictions of the West would have raised some eyebrows in 1961 Calgary.
“She really argued that wildflowers of this part of the world spoke as deeply about place and what this place was about as ranching and cowboys and all of that sort of thing,” says Mary-Beth Laviolette, a Canmore-based art curator and writer who wrote the introduction to Rocky Mountain Books’ handsome new edition of Brown’s 1954 book Old Man’s Garden
Brown’s devotion to the native plants and flowers of the region was at the heart of her artistic practice. She was obsessed not only with capturing the form and colour of the wildflowers but examining their history and place in folklore, whether it be as part of Niitsitapi culture or interpretations from early settlers.
“At points in Old Man’s Garden, she is quite poetic about describing the place, describing the flowers, their personality,” Laviolette says. “She was interested in the spirit of the natural world. Wildflowers were spirits to her.”
Brown, who passed away in 1987, described Old Man’s Garden as a “book of gossip about the flowers of the West.” A strange concept perhaps, but Brown was interested in conveying more than botany in the book. The artist, writer, teacher, naturalist and early environmentalist was born in 1899 and raised in Fort Macleod, where her father rode with the North West Mounted Police and her mother was a teacher and painter. She was fascinated with the traditional culture of the Blackfoot. The Old Man in Old Man’s Garden is actually a reference to a mythic being better known these days as the Trickster spirit Napi. Along with autobiographical tidbits and her views on conservation, Brown fills the book with anecdotes about native flowers and plants that dip into the supernatural tales of the Niitisitapi, which included the Kainai and the Piikani First Nations, Laviolette writes.
Brown also included 169 black-and-white drawings of flowers and native plants in the book. If this sounds like a strange hybrid, publishers thought the same. While Brown put the book together in the 1930s, it wasn’t published until 1954. A new edition was published in the 1970s.
Laviolette was introduced to the art of Brown a decade ago when curating an exhibition at Edmonton’s Art Gallery of Alberta called Mistresses of the Modern. It focused on 10 early artists from Alberta.
“She was a real standout, partially because she was such a versatile artist and she was also a terrific writer,” Laviolette says. “Her autobiography, which is called Sketches from Life, is just a really delightful read which was about living in southwestern Alberta.”
Since then, Laviolette has been wanting to republish Old Man’s Garden, which she regards as a seminal work. Brown was would go on to train at the Ontario College of Art from 1925 to 1929, heady years at the institution when members of the Group of Seven, including Lawren Harris, provided both instruction and inspiration for her.
Still, Brown remained a western artist and, more specifically, an Alberta artist at a time when few Prairie artists were making much of a dent in the art world. In 1958, the Glenbow Foundation commissioned her to create 200 watercolours of native plants and flowers of southern Alberta. They remain in the Glenbow archives and some have been reproduced on colour plates in the new edition. She hopes that republishing the book will give a profile boost to Brown, who remains under-recognized nationally as an artist. During her lifetime, much of her art was relegated to exhibitions dedicated to botanical art. Brown never really saw herself that way.
“She was not so interested in detail and proportion and scale and all that sort of thing,” Laviolette says. “She talked about flowers as if they were personalities. They had their own particular spirit and she really thought that she could interpret that for her audience.”
Old Man’s Garden is now available from Rocky Mountain Books.