Carol Hoorn Fraser
Sept. 5, 1930
Born Superior, Wisconsin to Hazel and Arvid Hoorn.
Started painting seriously.
Attended Gustavus Adolphus College.
Graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree (major: chemistry, biology, art).
Worked as a control chemist at Archer-Daniels Midland.
Took night- school art classes at the University of Minnesota.
Studied theology at the University of Gottingen.
Attended University of Minnesota.
Graduated with a Master of Fine Arts degree (major: art and art history; minor: philosophy [aesthetics]).
Thesis subject: "The Human Image in Contemporary Painting."
Married John Fraser, Ph.D. student of English literature.
Moved to Halifax, Nova Scotia where her husband had accepted a teaching position at Dalhousie University.
Produced a large body of work using various media. During this time she also curated, taught at various universities and published articles and reviews.
April 3, 1991
Died in Halifax of cancer of the lungs at the age of 61.
back to top
By Gemey Kelly
(1930 - 1991)
This article appeared in ArtsAtlantic magazine, no.41, 1991. We wish to thank Gemey Kelly for her permission to republish it here.
Carol Fraser died this last April 3 at the age of 60. Thirty years ago, Carol and her husband, John, moved to Halifax from the U.S., after she had completed her M.F.A. at the University of Minnesota and had spent some years teaching art and art history. With the exception of stays in Provence and Mexico, it was in Nova Scotia that Carol lived her life and produced the main body of her work. She would not, however, have described herself as a Maritime artist or as a regionalist.
Nor did she identify with an international avant-garde as it found local expression in the late '60s and '70s at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. It would be more correct to say that the context for her art production was historical and international, with its formal, intellectual, and psychological sources in European painting, particularly in Van Gogh and German Expressionism, and in the work of the Surrealists.
Carol believed in the viability of subject matter, finding the modernist dictum of self-referentiality and its emphasis on pure form limiting. Her art was made out of a larger interdisciplinary discourse which encompassed art history, literature, philosophy, aesthetics, and popular culture. Her interests ranged from the poetry of Wallace Stevens to the work of Giacometti, Henri Rousseau, Chagall, and Soutine. Closer to home, she admired the paintings of Graham Metson and Bruno Bobak.
She was interested in the emotional, psychological, and spiritual aspects of the human condition, and was fascinated by the complex physical workings of living things. The relationship between nature and humankind was fundamental to her, and the inexorable facts of growth, fecundity, and decay provided the rich symbolism for understanding this connection. The inspiration for her work almost always came from nature, from the exotic vegetation of Mexico and the pastoral landscape of Provence, and from her own perennial flower garden in Halifax. She had a love and deep respect for animals, especially cats, which found their way into several of her works. Among her favorite fictional characters was the untamed cat in Geoffrey Household's novel, Rogue Male. Her own tabby, Giorgione, occupied an important place in her life.
Carol was one of the region's most respected and best known artists. She achieved national and international recognition, becoming a member of the RCA in 1976, and exhibiting her work in a national travelling exhibition organized by the Dalhousie Art Gallery in 1977-78. In 1987, the Beaverbrook Art Gallery organized a retrospective exhibition of her drawings which travelled regionally. In the fall before her illness, arrangements had been made to hold a one-person exhibition of her paintings at Nancy Poole's Studio in Toronto. Her work was widely collected by public institutions, and images became cover illustrations for books of fiction by Atlantic writers, one for Susan Kerslake's Blind Date, and another for Lesley Choyce's The Second Season of Jonas MacPherson. In addition to her work as an artist, she was involved, for several years, with the Dalhousie Art Gallery, serving as Acting Director in 1978-79, and as a member of the Art Gallery Advisory Committee, 1975-78. She taught art at Mount Saint Vincent University, NSCAD, and for an extended period at the TUNS School of Architecture in Halifax.
An important part of Carol's contribution to the arts was her curatorial work, including exhibitions organized for Saint Mary's University Art Gallery, MSVU Art Gallery, and Memorial University Art Gallery, and most especially her art reviews and other critical writing. In these articles and critiques, Carol brought forward a wide range of knowledge and information, joined to a strong and informed visual sense, expressed with clarity, eloquence, and boldness of opinion. Regrettably, the sum total of her critical writing is small.
Carol was funny and wry, outspoken, and passionate in her allegiances. She was devoted to her friends, and dedicated to causes she believed were just, such as The Friends of Public Gardens which unified her interests in people, nature, art and teaching. She was a sympathetic friend to an older generation of Halifax women artists that included Ruth Wainwright, Aileen Meagher, Mabel Seely, Nelly Gray, and Grace Keddy, in whose work she saw great and largely unacknowledged value. In part through her efforts, their work was brought to the attention of curators and placed in public collections. She also enjoyed their company immensely, and it was with them, to a large extent, that she found her place in the Halifax artistic community.
Carol's involvement with art lasted all of her life. In spite of profound disappointments and recurring ill health, she always returned to the studio, to the expressive forum which drew together the richness and complexity of her wonderful mind and imagination. Serious curatorial and critical treatment of her over forty years of work - begun with the Beaverbrook exhibition - has yet to come, and with it a better understanding of her importance.
Carol's art was deeply drawn. She was interested in colour and in the materiality of paint. She believed that art could be about life, and aligned herself with Wallace Stevens who thought that the creative imagination of the artist must combine passion and control in order to give meaning to the material world. In her life and in her art, Carol Fraser gave passion to the intellect and flesh and blood to the inner life.
Gemey Kelly is Director and Curator of the Owens Art Gallery, Mount Allison University, Sackville, New Brunswick, Canada.
back to top
- Acadia University
- Air Canada
- Art Gallery of Nova Scotia
- Beaverbrook Art Gallery
- Canada Council Art Bank
- Concordia University
- Confederation Centre
- Dalhousie University
- Department of External Affairs
- Howe International
- Memorial University
- Mount Allison University
- National Gallery of Canada
- New Brunswick Museum
- Norcen Energy Corporation
- Province of Nova Scotia Art Bank
- Reader's Digest
- Scotia Bond
- Teleglobe Canada
- University of New Brunswick
- Gustavus Adolphus College
- Minneapolis Public Library
- National Portrait Gallery (Smithsonian Institute)
- University of Minnesota
- Walker Art Center
back to top
by Carol Fraser
Artist's statement, typescript, c. 1977
In my painting I want to depict certain aspects of the relationships, real or potential, which exist for me between people (mainly the sexes) and between people and nature. By nature, I mean not only the elements of landscape, but also the biological and psychological processes which exist independently of us and add to our non-man-made internal and external world. To illustrate these relationships of man to woman, self to self, and person to environment, I try to use symbols, colors, and gestures whose meanings are fairly obvious and specific, since communication is more important to me than novelty. However, these various elements, though obvious in isolation, are often illogically combined to create a more complex and ambiguous image. I hope that the originality of my work lies in the visual integrity and coherence of its images and the human values expressed in its statements.
Excerpt from "Interview with Carol Fraser," Philippa Barry, ArtsAtlantic, Spring 1986.
If I were to find one word to describe the link between the various stages in my work it would be the word 'ecology', the relationship between living organisms and their environment. I've always tried to show man's hand on nature. This became obvious to me when we spent several summers in Provence where I found a genuine symbiosis of man with nature in a hilltop village surrounded by vineyards, orchards and fields.
People and nature are meant to go together -- we are part of the whole ecological picture. Our attitudes towards manipulating all of nature also pertain to manipulating ourselves, our bodies, our psyches....
The working of the body is a miraculous thing.... I never intended to shock or alarm but only to describe the basic reality of life and its relationships, using symbols to show man's potential for violating himself.
back to top
“The triumph of art over allergy”
By Ian Wiseman
This article appeared in Cities magazine in May of 1987. We wish to thank Ian Wiseman for his permission to put it on our web site.
The first thing you notice about Carol Fraser is her face. It is intelligent and handsome, with a hooked nose and a jutting chin that gives her the countenance of an eagle. When she drew the three self-portraits included in the current retrospective of her work now on display at Saint Mary's University, the Halifax artist did not spare herself. The three drawings are raw and unflattering. The eyes are particularly unsettling. They are equally unsettling in person. There's a hint of mania in them and a touch of impatience. Today there's also a wariness, perhaps because she's talking to a reporter; and the black eclipses underneath them speak of ill health.
Fraser is not a robust woman, although she appears to be very productive these days. Three sold-out shows of watercolors at Halifax's Studio 21 during the past couple of years and the current drawing retrospective, a major national touring exhibition of her work organized by the Beaverbrook Gallery in Fredericton, might suggest this. But this activity is an illusion to some extent, hiding a different story, one with more than its share of pathos.
She is a gifted artist, but her moments in the national spotlight have been painfully brief. She flirted with renown in the early 1960s when her expressionist landscapes were included in two National Gallery of Canada biennials; and she brushed against it again in 1977 when her surrealist figure paintings toured the country. She failed, however, to crack the Toronto media or the Toronto art market, the only ways to achieve popular recognition on a national scale.
This year she has one more chance. The Beaverbrook retrospective, Carol Fraser: Drawings 1948 to 1986, which travels to Oshawa and London after it tours the Atlantic capitals, is not only her first major exhibition in a decade but it is also the first show to ever chronicle her entire career. The 88 drawings included in the exhibition highlight all the major phases of her work - the student experiments, the semi-abstract landscapes, the expressionist figure studies, the surrealist pieces and the neighborhood cityscapes. It's all there.
But the high points of Fraser's career tell only one side of her story. You get a much different picture by peering into the troughs, the periods when she disappears from national view. Consider, for example, the latest lull, from 1980 until now.
It began in 1979, when she and her husband John used urea formaldehyde foam to insulate their home in the south end of Halifax. Fraser, who is allergic to petroleum products and chemical solvents, was painting with oils at the time, and she began a swift descent into the twin debilitations of asthma and allergy. "My chest was very bad," she recalls. "I would have to stop working every hour and invert my body, hang upside down from my chair, to clear my lungs out. I was doing detail work, so I had my nose right down in the paint."
She plodded through this limbo of lethargy for four years, opening all the windows, trying different solvents, seeing doctors, wearing gas masks. Nothing seemed to work. "You feel so helpless, kind of stupid," she says. "You're not sick and you're not well. You just have this inexplicably queer condition and, to make it worse, some people, including some doctors, think you're being neurotic."
The allergies drained her energy and incentive, triggering mood changes that made it difficult for her to concentrate on her painting. In 1983, just before Christmas, she was hospitalized by a near-fatal attack that finally convinced her to change her life. She and her husband had the insulation removed, and she stopped using oil paints. It was a traumatic shock to her self-image because, up to that point, oil paints were Carol Fraser's life.
Fraser was born in Superior, Wisconsin, in 1930, one of two daughters of a Lutheran minister. Her studies - biology at Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota and theology at the University of Gottingen in West Germany - partially account for the recurrence of ecological and spiritual themes in her paintings. In 1961 she moved to Halifax with her husband John, an English professor at Dalhousie.
Today, in the converted garage behind her house that serves as her spacious studio, Fraser projects slides of her early work onto the wall. There are unfinished watercolors at one work station and signs of a renewed interest in oils at another, but Fraser is clearly in a wistful and somewhat worried mood. She's actually envious now of these paintings she did in the 1960s, gorgeous expressionist landscapes that are perhaps her greatest achievements.
The paintings fall into two categories. In the first category are such works as Prospect, Winter Window and New Winter Grave: local panoramas, loose and gestural, thick with impasto. These are golden oils of trees and fences, semi-abstract views of shorelines and sunsets, winter scenes from an apartment window, still lifes of flowers. But these paintings - unfortunately for Fraser's public reputation - are scattered throughout private collections, mostly in Minnesota and New Brunswick, and have never been exhibited as a group.
The second category of 1960s work is her Provencal paintings. Fraser is a devotee of Vincent van Gogh, who spent most of his working life in the south of France. There are similarities in their lives - clerical upbringings, ill health, concern for nature - and Fraser has been unabashedly influenced by his style, particularly the parallel whorls and dots of his drawings. She has been making regular pilgrimages to Seillons and Arles since 1964, drawing and painting the scenery he made famous, searching for the Great One's muse or, perhaps, his ghost.
The retrospective at Saint Mary's (until May 15) is a good opportunity to see Fraser's European work. Many of the pieces in the show are field drawings of vineyards, fields and the architecture of rural Provence. The best of them, such as The Village of Seillons and Growth over the Ruins, have a wavy illumination that gives the countryside both a rhythm and a radiance.
Sitting under an appropriate photo-reproduction of van Gogh's Fountain in the Hospital Garden, Fraser toys with an inhaler - bronchial trouble is never far away - as she talks about her obsession: "Van Gogh is definitely a hero of mine. His life has been seriously misrepresented, I think, and reproductions of his work are now hanging in every hotel room. He wouldn't have objected to that - he wanted art for the common man. But I think he's been appropriated by the public; he belongs to the public completely. And I feel he belongs only to me."
In the late 1960s, Fraser stopped doing landscapes and left van Gogh behind. She began a new body of work, surreal and symbolic, that she calls her anatomical paintings. She says her doctor was an influence: "He said all the problems we have with our bodies are simply problems of tubes closing up - breathing, circulation, digestion. It's all tubes, all plumbing, one way or another. I was thinking about this while sitting in my garden one day, and all I could see around me were stems and tubes. I suddenly visualized this as the one central, structural condition of all living things."
The technique of the new paintings was different, too. She abandoned the thick, crusty, three-dimensional look of her earlier work and started using thin, diluted oils. The surrealist pieces are characterized by clean lines and meticulous detail. In one sense, they are figure paintings, but you can see deep into the bodies, into the veins and the bones and the organs. Then, just when you think the old Carol Fraser is lost forever, you can see the landscape, there in the background, complete with fields and trees and sky. That, in retrospect, is the surprise - she never really abandoned landscapes, after all.
That's difficult to explain to conservative art patrons who preferred the old Carol Fraser. The best of the surrealist works - including The Grandparents I, The Solipsist and The Couple II - were collected by the Dalhousie University Art Gallery for a travelling show in 1977, and many of her fans were suspicious and incredulous. "People have never fully plumbed the depths of the anatomical paintings," says Ian Lumsden, the Beaverbrook Art Gallery curator who organized this year's retrospective. "Even Carol's early expressionism was never really popular in Nova Scotia. Perhaps it's the sangfroid of the Canadian mentality - we're not able to deal with the raw emotions, passion love, hate, birth, death."
The surrealist label has stuck to Fraser and she doesn't like it much. The public has forgotten her early oils, and her allergies have prevented her from painting new ones. So when Lumsden proposed the drawing retrospective, she jumped at the opportunity. There is very little surrealism in this show. Fraser drew very little during her surrealist period, and most of the drawings she did complete were included in the 1977 exhibition. But that's not the only reason for their noticeable absence. There's a signal there as well - she now wants to re-establish herself as a landscape artist.
Her determination to return to her old subject matter has become increasingly apparent in recent years. The prolific stream of watercolors has become greener and greener, dominated by trees and flowers. Some are symbolic and difficult to read; others are straightforward floral paintings; but the strongest ones, such as Sentimental Neighborhood, The Crows and Late in November, are pure landscapes, studies of city neighborhoods. Translucent trees and skies intermingle with stylized doors, fences, windows and roofs - the real icons of our urban lives.
The content of the watercolors also reflects Fraser's politics. She was, and is, one of the central members of the Friends of the Public Gardens, the pressure group that tried to stop the demolition of Hart House and prevent the spread of high-rises in the area. It was, for awhile, the perfect tonic for her. It allowed her to practise what she painted- man must learn to respect nature - and it helped her to forget her allergies and her idle oil palette. But in the end the Friends lost their battle, something Fraser must have seen as inevitable. "All the places that were precious to me when I first came to Halifax are gone," she says. "The coach house where I had my first show, the trees on Queen Street, the old Capitol Theatre, the tiny garden corner by the Lord Nelson Hotel. The city has niggled away - pick-pick, pick-pick - until all the wonderful things have been lost."
The commercial success of her watercolors offset some of the sting of her political losses. The public snapped them up at $600 apiece, and her dealer, Ineke Graham, still can't keep up with the demand. To this day, Fraser insists she doesn't think of the watercolors as real paintings. To her, they were just another way to pass the time, a way of painting without getting sick.
She plans to return to oils soon, and she's eager to transfer her new cityscapes directly onto canvas, exactly the way they look on paper. She's discovered a super-purified turpentine that may solve her health problems, but technical problems could still foil her. The saturated, luminous effects she achieved with the watercolors may not even be possible with oil paint. "It's not as easy as it sounds," she says, grimacing wryly. "Watercolors tend to flow by their own volition, running together, making unnameable colors and sometimes producing a magical light. But oil is a dumb medium: it just sits there in a big blob until you do something with it. With the oils, I'm going to have to create those effects, and that's a lot more nerve-wracking."
Fraser can expect most of her nerves to be stretched in 1987. First and foremost, the new turpentine will certainly put her allergies to the test. If that goes well, she still has to prove herself all over again, prove she can compete with her own earlier paintings. And, finally, the critics of eastern and central Canada get another shot at her this year, when they publish their opinions on the drawing retrospective.
It's enough to make anyone's eyes wary.
back to top
Interview with Carol Fraser
By Philippa Barry
"Interview with Carol Fraser" was published in ArtsAtlantic, Spring 1986. It appears here with the kind permission of the author, Philippa Barry.
Carol Fraser was born in Superior, Wisconsin and has lived in Halifax since 1961. Her education includes a B.S. in Chemistry and Biology from Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, Minnesota, a period of theological study at the University of Gottingen, Germany, and an M.F.A. from the University of Minnesota, 1958. She taught painting, sculpture and art history at Minnesota from 1955-61, and drawing at the School of Architecture, Nova Scotia Technical College from 1962-69.
Fraser has exhibited her work across Canada, with solo shows at the Sir George Williams Art Gallery, Montreal, the Dalhousie Art Gallery, Dresden Galleries and Zwicker's Gallery, Halifax, and in a special exhibition at Gustavus Adolphus college in connection with their Nobel Conference on "Manipulating Life" in 1983. Gustavus had previously awarded her a Distinguished Alumni Citation in 1976, the same year that she was elected to the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts.
Fraser's work has gone through several striking changes, from her early unconfined and sensuous Expressionism to the highly structured, hard-edged oils of the late 60s, which examined the organic interdependence of all living things with compelling metaphors. In the 80s, she turned to lighter, 'simpler' watercolours, still full of symbolic imagery, but less specific than before. Fraser has always utilized the drawing medium to relax and experiment. Several working sessions in Provence and in Mexico produced some of the most fruitful drawings and watercolours.
Her concern with the relationship between man and the natural world, with the dangers in ignoring its laws, her protean symbolic imagery, her mystical ambiguity and fascination with death run like a rhythmic pattern through thirty years of creative work. Such tremendous stylistic range, the brilliant use of colour, the exceptional skill with pencil, ink, oil and watercolour, as well as an uncompromising search in matching method with meaning have earned Carol Fraser deserved respect.
This conversation was begun in the autumn of 1985 when she was preparing for a December watercolour exhibition at Studio 21, and completed in January 1986, as she was collecting works in preparation for a major drawing retrospective at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery, Frederiction, N,B., curated by Ian Lumsden, to be held in the spring of 1987.
Philippa Barry: Through all the changes in your style of expression and medium, what would you consider the overriding concern of your art?
Carol Fraser: If I were to find one work to describe the link between the various stages in my work it would be the word "ecology", the relationship between living organisms and their environment. I've always tried to show man's hand on nature. This became obvious to me when we spent several summers in Provence where I found a genuine symbiosis of man with nature in a hilltop village surrounded by vineyards, orchards and fields.
People and nature are meant to go together - we are part of the whole ecological picture. Our attitudes toward manipulating all of nature also pertain to manipulating ourselves, our bodies, our psyches.... Grandparents II (1967-71), which I consider a pivotal piece and the most important of this period, shows this organic relationship, of male to female, to other forms of natural growth. Couple II is meant to go with Grandparents II. It has a similar theme; but instead of the harmony of the grandparents it shows a younger, disturbed generation in which nature has been violated.
The working of the body is a miraculous thing... I never intend to shock or alarm but only to describe the basic reality of life and its relationships, using symbols to show man's potential for violating himself.
Do you draw on your Swedish/English background in America for your rich, almost tropical palette and your powerful imagery?
The traditions I relate to are European rather than American. Colour is rarely used here as I use it, though Graham Metson also used it - we both bring to Nova Scotia artistic personalities that were formed before we got here. Artists who have influenced me range all over the map - Munch, Rouault, Soutine, Van Gogh. These are all strong, rather violent-natured artists. Here the general tone of aesthetic expression is geared to a kind of severe, almost abstract realism that is opposed to my nature, though I enjoy it.
Swedes, you know, are an intense, creepy, somber people and I have a lot of that in me. I grew up surrounded by a kind of grass-roots creativity. My father, who was a minister, developed his craftsmanship by building his own churches; my mother, who came from a Victorian/English tradition, did beautiful hand embroidery. I started painting when I was ten years old.
In America, I don't get the negative shocked reactions that I sometimes get here. In Canada- maybe it's the East Coast influence - my paintings come on too strong. Nova Scotians like bland colours, like ochres and greys, in their art; which, after all, are part of the Canadian landscape. But I have a natural liking for colour and being stimulated visually. That's what my watercolours are all about.
What started you working on the watercolours?
I wanted to loosen and free my imagination after the carefully controlled deliberateness of the oils, by putting my thoughts together in a freer way, using fantasy like Chagall. The watercolours allow a more spontaneous approach and an element of surprise. There is the dichotomy between the sophistication of the thing and the primitive or childlike aspect. I have used a lot of non-specific symbols, rather like Van Gogh's use of symbols. His sunflowers function symbolically for sun, for light, without being self-conscious. I hope to bring some of this freedom of expression to my oils.
What do your symbols, like your ladders, ropes and candles, mean?
A ladder gives the idea of climbing or aspiring; candles, ropes, chains - all mean something in their own context, but I get very self-conscious about repeating them. I just want a kind of repertoire to give a generalized meaning. You know, I walk a tightrope between realism and romanticism - I ask only that the viewer look, explore and discover something of meaning to him.
But are you not re-thinking your medium and methods of expression again?
I like to work a medium until I have cornered it, killed it, and then I start afresh. I am coming to the finish of the watercolours, which are less didactic than my earlier work. They have helped me break free of the constraints of the oils. My methods in the watercolours are much looser, more flowing, which is what I would like to carry over to my next series of oil paintings.
I would like to get back to a more painterly, less deliberate use of the medium, with more spontaneity and freedom. Paint itself is a dumb substance like clay. It has no character of its own but takes whatever form you choose to give it. It can be brittle and thin with sharp edges or thick and runny.
Whatever you do with the medium carries with it a certain meaning. Thinning it down so that you have a smooth surface and a hard edge says something about the content; it's more intellectual, deliberate and planned, leaving fewer possibilities for the textural meaning that you get with a thicker surface. To bridge this gap between the hard-edged painting and something freer and more Expressionistic, I'd like to do some drawing, using the same imagery, but loosening it up.
Have your always produced a lot of drawings?
I've been drawing for thirty years and ideally I would like to draw everyday. I find that the art instinct is best expressed in drawing because it's so natural. All you need is a pencil.
Most of my drawings are an end in themselves; I don't really make preparatory drawings. I think, in drawing, the forms are more determined - a line says everything a line can possibly say. It's so abstract - it doesn't exist in nature. It's an edge where one thing meets another.
Drawing is a very important activity because it feels more primary and basic and helps me get back into a creative mode. Drawing is more manipulative, you don't have as much to contend with if you are trying to work out other complicated ideas.
Do you work on drawings over and over in the same way as you do your oils?
A drawing can be more work than a painting. They can go on forever, but then drawings can be anything, which is why I like them. They can be a scribbled quick line that says it all; they can be laboured with highly picky detail; they have a vast variety of expressive power.
Line and form in drawing can express very specific things; a line can be extremely vivacious, dramatic or emotional. Look at the drawings of Delacroix or Picasso. Rembrandt's pen and ink drawings are extremely impassioned.
Have you been influenced by other artists' drawings?
I've been strongly influenced by the calligraphic drawings of Van Gogh. His pen and ink drawings are so tonally rich with their spots and dots - graphic equivalents of grass and flowers. Each line becomes an object and his sky is alive with particles; it makes the light so vibrant that the whole thing begins to shimmer.
Van Gogh captured the attention of the masses in a superficial way so that much of his work is ignored or not taken seriously. Rembrandt was one of his chief mentors and you can see this in his drawings.
But do you not feel something is missing when you draw, since your sense of colour is so powerful?
Not really. Just as I wouldn't want to paint in black and white; I wouldn't want to draw in colour. They serve two different masters.
What about your recent drawings in pen and ink exhibited in the MSVU show. Diverse Perspectives? Why did you work in black and white here?
The nature of my work at the time fit in with the show for which I made it, which took place at Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota. The 9th Nobel Conference there in 1983 had, as its theme, "manipulating life", I used the imagery of woman and man and the two embryonic forms to symbolize in vivo and in vitro conception and development in order to illustrate the moral responsibilities and deeper issues of scientific experimentation. These are basic issues we must address.
But I wish that art wasn't simply critical of everything scientific, that there was more interface reaction where the aesthetic meets the scientific. In a way, science is taking over the role of art, in terms of mythology, in place of the old religious myths of gods and goddesses. The new mythology dwells on our fears about the bomb, about our health, such as with keeping our blood pressure down. Where people once went to the temple for solace, we now go to the gym. Temple ritual has been replaced by Speilberg; poltergeists, extra-terrestrial mysteries, science fiction and horror movies supply our need for the mystical. They express an outlet for our fears of the metaphysical horrors of death and decay.
Some of your drawings and paintings seem preoccupied with death, e.g. Major Surgery and Head Wound.
I don't see how you can be involved in life if you are not involved in death. I grew up in a parsonage where there was a funeral every week. I cared for two sick parents and I have worked in a death ward, so I accept this aspect of the end of life. Our culture has a taboo against the mention of death... We have no wailing wall.
When I first came to Halifax I used to walk through the cemeteries and found them very beautiful, like microcosmic villages. The brilliant colours of fresh flowers heaped on snow-covered graves had a visual impact that stirred up the symbolic connections which I describe in The Widow.
What made you change from your clearly Expressionist painting that we see in The Widow to the organic hard-edged oils?
I found my Expressionism had stopped meaning anything any more. I made a conscious decision to do this tremendous switch stylistically when I felt I'd lost control. The paint was getting me by the throat and I needed more control to be more illustrative. So I washed my brushes, cleaned off my palette and started again with more thought and less paint.
Do you find that people frequently misinterpret your paintings?
One of the bad features of our time is that people are learning to read art less and less. They are not studying the historical iconography of art and how it has been used for centuries.
None of the new young Expressionist artists have read the letters of Van Gogh; there is an attitude that the past has nothing to teach you. But you have to learn to read paintings just as you have to learn a language. People are too ready to make instant judgements.
People are visually saturated. How can you spend time with one image when there are 5,000 flashing in an instant across the TV screen? Photography has devastated a desire to see just one image.
For example, in my oil Ambivalence people have mistaken the roses as part of a bridal bouquet. But the deep blood-red roses are symbols of passion; they represent the colour of seduction, not the purity of the marriage ceremony. The withering leaves and the sun setting in the womb represent the psychological state of withering and the loss of a biological identity. This was painted in a period of militant feminism which I felt was draining away woman's basic vitality.
You have said that literature and especially poetry influence your work, particularly the poetry of Wallace Stevens.
I'm very interested in visual-verbal connections. His famous "How high the highest candle lights the dark" is one of my favorite lines. Stevens had a similar idea to mine about the creative imagination of the artist having to combine passion with control, in order to give meaning to the material world. He says somewhere,"It is in the mundo of the imagination... in which the imaginative man delights and not in the gaunt world of reason."
back to top
A Visionary Gaze:
Carol Hoorn Fraser
By John Fraser
Introduction to A Visionary Gaze: In Memoriam Carol Hoorn Fraser 1930-1991(exhibition calalogue), Halifax, Saint Mary's University Art Gallery, 1993 (condensed by the author).
Her father was a Swedish-American Lutheran minister, and Ingmar Bergman (along with Luis Bunuel) was her favourite movie director. But her father was not Bergmanesque. He wasn't theologically tormented, he had a sense of fun, he was a skilled carpenter who designed and built the family home and three churches, assisted at times by his two young daughters, to whom he taught the use of edged tools. He was apparently very good with children, and with the hoboes who came to the parsonage door in the Depression thirties.
She loved him, and she got from him an unforced acceptance of the physical being of the world, and a conviction that in our passage through this life we must strive to be honest craftsmen, to assist others, and to do things because they are worth doing in themselves and not for the money or fame that they bring. Cruelty, greed, and shoddy workmanship were three of the deadly sins for her.
She also, I judge, got from him a quite un-Calvinistic recognition that we don't have to divide people into the saved and the damned. There were one or two individuals who did her great harm and who were beyond the pale for her. But normally she dealt with people without being locked into assumptions as to what they really were. It was always this situation, and this, and this. She was neither looking for confirmation of their basic wickedness, nor metaphysically shocked by the fact that people did at times behave very badly.
She went through a first-rate M.F.A. programme at a major university, where she studied art history under distinguished scholars, took a class in the Philosophy department from the aesthetician John Hospers, and wrote a 125-page thesis on figure painting. She saw early on that one does not have to choose between significant content and Significant Form - that in great and good representational art, each is a function of the other. She knew that a painting is a surface, a composition in two-dimensional space. But she also saw beyond the surface.
When she taught drawing at the Nova Scotia School of Architecture, she would ask students to draw a chair; then draw the same chair as it would look from behind; then draw it as it would look from behind upside down. She herself could see three-dimensionally. In the Fifties she did a bronze portrait bust of the poet Allen Tate, from whom she had taken a class. It looked good from every angle. When we enlarged our house in 1982, she designed the sun-room unit in which she died. The proportions are lovely.
She looked at things, she valued them, she struggled to see them precisely at this moment and this, and this. She loved drawing. She loved defining exactly how a child tottered, or a cat stretched, or waves broke over rocks. But she also saw thing as representative, charged with meaning beyond themselves. Seeing and making symbols was a natural activity for her. So was allegorizing. She loved medieval art, and understood it very well.
But her symbolizing and allegorizing are solid. There is often a beyond in her works; she particularly liked windows. But the beyonds don't devalue what is in front of us. There is always more. There are other richly textured Provencal olive groves to walk in under the nurturing sun. There are other fantastic parts of the body, other combinations of animal, vegetable, and mineral that can be imagined, inexhaustibly. Her Nova Scotia sea is a living sea; its waves have shaped the rocks, seaweed grows in it, you can go somewhere upon it. There is always a sense of motion in her works, of kinetic energies.
She marveled at the world, and loved the gentler things in it. Heaven for her would have room for contented pussy-cats, and flowers that clumsy men don't step on, and graceful Victorian houses, safe from developers' claws, and good friends talking and laughing together late into the night. Seillons-Source-d'Argens and Tepoztlan had something of heaven in them for her.
She was not afraid of the body. She knew the worst it could do. Her father died at home of cancer when she was fifteen, and later she was a nurse's aide in a ward for terminal cancer patients who had undergone major surgery. In an angry letter (unsent) about a dismissive review, she said, "When ----- has tended as many dying people as I have, I will be interested in hearing what he has to say about 'life values'. Till then I suggest he shut up."
But she did not fear death, as distinct from the pain of dying. She knew that it is what we share with all other living forms, and that the knowledge that we may die at any time gives a unique meaning to our fragile human doings.
The body fascinated her. She would have become a medical illustrator had she been able to put herself through medical school. She was pleased at the end of her life when a reproduction of 'Grandparents I' was included in a special issue of the Michigan Quarterly Review on the female body. She indignantly rejected the label 'woman artist' - she was an artist - but a man could not have made her art.
'Hands are so strange,' she would say. Hands reach out, touch, caress, hold, probe, lacerate, create. Hands are our most active and intimate points of contact with the world. She took risks with hands in her works. The eye comes to them quickly; if they're wrong, the picture is ruined. They embody energy. Even in death a hand is flung outwards.
She took a lot of risks in her art. She knew that her paintings were likely to be thought sentimental, melodramatic, morbid. But she was never being merely illustrational. She was more sophisticated than her critics.
In her figure studies in the early Sixties, she delighted in trying a variety of styles, exercising her muscles, playing. When we were in Provence or down at Green Bay in Nova Scotia she would draw with anything - a reed, a thistle, a handful of pencils, a bit of sponge, seaweed. She painted, she drew, she made witty collages. In the Fifties she did etchings and woodcuts and sculpture. She made only one lithograph in Halifax and didn't like it, but if she had had better access to the facilities, I am sure there would have been others.
She had a Zen-like power of concentration. When she made a gourmet dinner for friends, or weeded the three-dimensional process art of her garden, or painted leaf after leaf on a major canvas, or captured the movements of animals in lightning sketches, she did so with a perfect focus on the task at hand, a task always worth doing for its own sake. Like her hero Vincent Van Gogh, her relation to the world was sacramental. And like Van Gogh, she created unforgettable images that people have loved without having to be taught to do so, and that do not fade with the passing of the years.
In Ajijic, in the winter of 1989-90, she sat at night in the living-room and patiently filled in a large sheet of paper. She began in the top left corner and worked her way downwards and inwards, as if she were doing embroidery. There are no signs of erasure. She saw everything with her mind's eye, and put it down with absolute certitude. The cock in the centre came last. Had she got it wrong, the whole picture would have been ruined.
I have called the drawing 'Final Soliloquy' after one of her favourite poems by her favourite poet, Wallace Stevens.
back to top
by Nancy Bauer
The following is a review of a show of watercolours by Carol Fraser held at Gallery 78, Fredericton, New Brunswick. It appeared in Vanguard magazine in March, 1985.
November 18 to December 1
What is the viewer to make of Carol Fraser's exhibit of watercolours on rice paper? On the one hand, these are landscapes, vivid beyond realism, the terrain of fantasy and dream, and on the other hand, dotted over these landscapes are simple symbols - heart, ladder, the kind of block house a child draws. The question is, do these two modes come together into a unified whole?
A clue must be in the painting, Every little Symbol Has A Meaning of its Own. Filled with the symbols that will ornament, in twos and threes, the other watercolours, this painting presents the images that inhabit a child's mind: a key, a window frame, the outline of a house, a star, a child's gull, picket fence, apple tree, crude daisies. Set down every which way, their naivete is bewilderingly out of keeping with the sophisticated treatment of the landscapes they decorate.
In talking about her work, Fraser invokes Wallace Stevens. In an absence of belief in God, he says, we turn to an examination of our own creations. In these paintings, Fraser seems to be examining human creations, in dreams and in a child's doodles. But it was also Stevens who warned against surrealism, in which the artist invents instead of discovering. In this case, is the artist discovering or inventing?
In Warbling, yellow jumps out at you - from the forsythia bush especially. Laid over a fantastic landscape are yellow birds, drawn as a child would draw them, a basic shape in the human imagination, the artist seems to be saying. The painter leaves no doubt that if she had wanted to she could have painted a realistic warbler. If we did not know that from Fraser's reputation, we certainly would know it by the skill of the rest of the painting. This is important, that the viewer be confronted with both the artist's skilled creation and the child's basic image.
Here, the sophisticated artist is everywhere present, the creating mind is at work before your very eyes. And yet the organisation of the painting comes from the logic of a child's drawing. Fraser has solved the problem of landscape - what to do with it - that preoccupies many Maritime artists. Some artists, Daphne Irving and Nora Gaston for example, solve this problem by presenting slightly abstracted versions: the creation the artist makes is at once based on the real, but it is organised in the imagination. Fraser avoids the cliche of the realistic landscape, nor does she allow the shallow fancy of surrealism to dominate the imagination. She use the juxtaposition of both childlike and complex organisations to do the same thing.
Those two organisations are unified through the dazzling colours and the composition. One brilliant central image - daphne bush, white moon, huge flower among smaller ones - takes your eye, and then obvious lines - ladders, fences, roof peaks, arrows - direct the eye to the other parts of the painting. In Twilight for example, black arrows point down from the top, stylised houses and trees point up, and the space in between is what you are looking at in the end. In Sentimental Neighbourhood, a bright yellow bush takes the eye. Superimposed on this bush are red hearts. And then a cartoon ladder, leaning, and a cartoon roof peak, direct your eye in a way that is not obvious. The viewer sees these basic symbols afresh, they have been revivified.
It is not altogether clear that this group of paintings would work so well if seen individually. In the group, you see the artist repeatedly trying to discover the basic image rather than trying to invent it. What is it that children mean when they draw a heart, a block-like house or two lines for a sea gull? Or for that matter, what do I, clumsy adult, mean when I doodle such symbols? Are they symbols at all, do these images mean anything or are they "bare images"? Would a viewer presented with only one of these works understand the challenge? That is not a rhetorical question. I would really like to know.
These meta-paintings, these examinations of our own visual creations, while intellectual and challenging have, it must be said, a vividness, a sense of delight, an attraction, that would probably function well even as mere decoration. And that is no small feat.
back to top