The Centre for All Canadians
West End Houses, Summerside, 1984, acrylic on hardboard, 76.2 x 99.1 cm. Main Campus Art Collection, University of Prince Edward Island (AI0126)

Elaine Harrison: I Am An Island That Dreams

West End Houses, Summerside, 1984, acrylic on hardboard, 76.2 x 99.1 cm. Main Campus Art Collection, University of Prince Edward Island (AI0126)
Teacher, poet, visual artist, environmentalist, Elaine Harrison (1915-2003) has contributed uniquely to the cultural life of P.E.I. and this retrospective survey brings together 50 paintings, from mainly private collections, together with selected poems to consider her decades of spirited involvement in the arts.
Self-portrait, 1983 acrylic on hardboard, 76.1 x 61 cm, Confederation Centre Art Gallery. Gift of Elaine Harrison, 1989

Elaine Harrison (1915-2003) clearly valued creativity, as her poem “Sing Your Own Songs” attests: “Dare to create something of your own and be proud that you did it yourself and it will have something of you in it and not be just like all the other synthetic things advertised for consumers of this and that.” Harrison’s earliest interest in painting was casual, but it eventually became a major focus in her life. She was inspired by the work of the Group of Seven and iconic artists such as Tom Thomson and Emily Carr—particularly their engagement with nature and innovative painting techniques. While involved with the PEI Art Society in the 1950s, it was ultimately Harrison’s 1968 retirement from an influential teaching career in Summerside, PEI, which allowed her the freedom to write more, and especially, to paint more.

Harrison’s painting style evolved significantly over many decades. In later decades she rarely used brushes, preferring to apply paint with a pallet knife-which accounts for the broadness of her paint handling and economy of detail. A life-long nature lover, Harrison was a vocal opponent of the fixed link and other developments in the Island’s landscape. In Harrison’s most compelling work, you sense her deep experience of the landscape-the atmospheric effects of weather, light, or seasonal colour-entwined with her delight in painting.

Harrison’s works are vigorous, direct, colourful, abstracted impressions of favorite subjects—the red cliffs and shorelines near her summer home “Windswept” in Fernwood, or the stands of hardwood trees near her home in Bedeque, PEI. She painted many variations of Island harbours and fishing boats and her interiors often included the cats she adored. Her still life subjects frequently featured flowers or objects found in her home, and from time to time the focus of her observations or attentions yielded a figurative work or a self-portrait. Harrison’s paintings were often layered thick with story over story-texture rising in a raking light to hint at intangible history and layers of poetic responses to place; to light on water, wind through trees. Elaine Harrison made a unique contribution to the cultural life of this Island, Abegweit, where her perceptions, poems and dreams took form and flight.

Co-curated by Georges Arsenault and Kevin Rice

The Confederation Centre Art Gallery wishes to acknowledge the financial assistance of The Estate of Elaine Harrison, Betty and Everett Howatt, Executors, and the Canada Council for the Arts. We would also like to acknowledge the generosity of many private and public collectors for lending art works and memorabilia to this exhibition.

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