Curator, writer, and former museum director Tom Smart has spent his career immersed in Canadian art, particularly East Coast artists such as Alex Colville, Tom Forrestall, Miller Brittain, and Mary Pratt.
His latest book, Christopher Pratt: Six Decades (Firefly Books), celebrates the life and work of the Newfoundland painter and printmaker, widely considered one of the country’s most important contemporary artists.
Published in association with the Art Gallery of Sudbury, the book includes 140 full-colour works, many of which have never before been made public.
Q&Q spoke to Smart to get a behind-the-scenes perspective on working with Pratt and the process of producing a major art book.
How did you start working with Christopher Pratt? I was curator at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery back in the 1990s. I met him while I was doing some work with his then wife, Mary Pratt, and I kept in touch with him over the years. When I’m in Newfoundland, I usually stop by to have a drive with him, go out on the boat, or see his studio.
In about 2009, he sent me a manuscript for his book, Ordinary Things, which was published by Breakwater. He asked me to comment and when we were finished, I suggested we work on something together. I kept my eye out for a chance to develop a book with a publisher and in the fall of 2010, I was asked by Firefly Books if I had any ideas, and they jumped right on this.
What was your process for developing the book? It started back when I first met Christopher. On one of the trips, maybe in the late 1990s, we took a drive to Argentia, an abandoned American submarine and air base very close to where he lives in the Avalon Peninsula. We talked about his work and where he got his ideas, which he often found in this really austere landscape. He told me about how these feelings of place and mood helped him create imagined spaces based on these actual spaces. I wanted to take that idea and develop a thesis around it as an interpretation of his work.
The thesis started over a number of visits and drives. Drives are very important to him and it’s a very intense encounter with the landscape. If you drive with Christopher, you learn all sorts of interesting things about his work and his methods. But the hard work and the writing really started in 2011.
When was the last time there was a book published on Pratt’s work? The last book that came out was associated with his 2005 exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada. There was a Key Porter book back in 1995 (Christopher Pratt: Personal Reflections on a Life in Art by David P. Silcox), but this is as complete a book as you can get right now that covers both his work and his career.
In Ordinary Things, Christopher writes very eloquently and poetically of his own work. The imagery he uses in his writing and his poetry and prose meditations “ themes of imaginary landscapes, the idea of the history of Newfoundland, in particular, pre-Confederation Newfoundland “ also appear in his paintings.
How did you determine which works to include? Christopher keeps a large slide catalogue of his work. I developed an image bank and put them in chronological order. I used his work as primary source: in looking at it and plumbing it for visual imagery, it gave me something to work from, like notes for an historian going through an archive.
Designer Linda Gustafson, Christopher, and the publisher culled images as the design elements and mechanical things came into play. I asked Linda if the visual elements could act like another essay, to help people really understand the development of his work. Linda designed a beautiful book with a great sensitivity to the text and to Christopher’s work.
What do you hope readers will take away from the book? First and foremost, I want to give a retrospective view of Christopher’s life and work, and provide readers with a way in to understand the imagery. My text really supports the paintings, drawings, and the prints.
I also want people to understand how he composed the imagery, and how the very formal elements of painting on a two-dimensional surface are very important to him. Writing and curating gives people a way to read the paintings on many different levels. It also gives you, I hope, six decades of this man’s creative life. You can see how his mind works in a very deep and passionate way.
This interview has been edited and condensed.