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Joyce Wieland: A Life in Art

by Iris Nowell

Canadian painter and filmmaker Joyce Wieland rose to prominence in the 1960s, a time when few women were achieving much success in the Canadian art scene. Wieland remained a major figure in Canadian art until her death in 1998, becoming the first living woman artist to have a retrospective at the National Gallery of Canada.

Iris Nowell documents Wieland’s life in this major new biography, Joyce Wieland: A Life in Art. Nowell begins with the childhood of Wieland’s parents in England, then deals extensively with the lives of Wieland’s older siblings. When the young Joyce finally appears in the narrative, readers know an awful lot about her family history. Throughout the book, whether dealing with Wieland’s early working life, with her marriage to Michael Snow, or with her last days in a nursing home, Nowell fills her text with extraneous detail, and with dubious speculation.

This is unfortunate because the thread of the book, Wieland’s remarkable life, is interesting enough to hold our attention. We don’t need Nowell’s speculation on what Wieland’s childhood drawings may have looked like, nor is a history of the swashbuckler genre of early Hollywood movies or the geological history of the Toronto Islands necessary. There is also a steady stream of psychological speculation, much of it completely unfounded. Nowell relies too much on terms such as “research shows” and “experts agree” to give added weight to what are, really, her opinions.

Wieland’s former teacher, Doris McCarthy, offered this advice about painting: “Show me, don’t tell me.” A Life in Art would have benefited from that advice. It’s as if, after four years of research, Nowell decided to include every snippet of information she found on Wieland in the book. Nowell has an obvious affinity for her subject, and a passion for Wieland’s art. There’s a good book amidst all this verbiage, but it wants pruning.