Christopher Pratt is arguably one of Canada’s greatest living painters. His distant, clinical landscapes are at the same time modern and wholly timeless. I’m certainly no art critic, but when I saw a retrospective show at Quebec City’s Musée national des beaux-arts, I was awestruck. Here was a real artist. Someone who belongs very much to a place (Newfoundland), but speaks, through sparse rural depictions, to a certain universality. That doesn’t do him justice though. You have to see his work (and I mean wall upon wall of it) to really understand its force.
But how did someone like that get a start in life? How did he go from being a pre-engineering student to a respected, professional artist?
The answer is simple. He saw that a life in art was entirely possible in his own environment. And this wasn’t easy. He grew up in a place where there were, as he says, no art galleries, no professional artists and no understanding that one could even make a living through painting of all things.
But Pratt persevered. He did a year of engineering, then switched to pre-med, then finally settled on an Arts undergrad… until he dropped out a year and a half later. In fact, his educational record does not show any sign of the committed professionalism he’d later develop as an artist.
One thing that kept him going were his artistic inspirations. Alex Colville, for example, the well-known artist, taught him briefly at Mount Allison in New Brunswick. And the image of Colville – his paintings showing the world over – who could “live in a little house, have a family with three or four kids and walk to church every Sunday” was indelible. It showed Pratt that it was possible to become a serious artist while staying close to one’s roots. You didn’t have to be brash, or urban, or complicated.
It was possible to make a career quietly, keeping to oneself and working on one’s art.