Creating her own unique pathway towards the London art scene, Bonnie Parkinson’s long and fruitful career shows that adaptability and integrity can indeed go hand in hand. While honing her own professional skills in commercial art through the 1960’s, Parkinson then went on in the 1980’s to pursue her own creative work in galleries and exhibitions; ultimately making her mark in both the commercial and fine art worlds.
Though she has struggled with continuous health difficulties, her work in either artistic fields primarily expresses her intrinsic desire to portray the beauty of light and the irrepressible sense of beauty found in everyday scenes.
Born and raised in London Ontario, Bonnie received her formal training in the Bealart program at H.B Beal Secondary School. Having developed her drawing skills from a very young age, her abilities in the studio were immediately noticed. Although she wanted to pursue fine arts as far as she could, attending college was not an option for Bonnie and her parents knew that building any sort of dependable career in the arts was very unlikely. Most women who found jobs in the 1960s became secretaries or teachers but Bonnie did not stop chasing her dream. She diligently absorbed everything her instructors were teaching and applied her developing skill to pursue a career in illustration.
A new style of commercial illustration was emerging in Ontario in the ‘60s. In Fashion: A Canadian Perspective, Alexandra Palmer states that artists of this period were challenging traditional Expressionist fashion “to create a fresh new graphic style, with emphasis on the designed page and a bold use of flat colour” (Palmer, pg. 345). Bonnie’s bright, bold and elegant designs complemented this new style beautifully. It wasn’t long before she was recognized by the London Free Press and at the age of nineteen, took on a full-time position in their illustration department.
Bonnie’s success within that department was overwhelming and extremely unique for a woman of her age. She was soon offered the position of fashion artist for Eaton’s, one of the leading fashion outlets of its time. In 1973, she became the Creative Director at the Total Marketing Advertising Agency and shortly after received a position at Fanshawe College teaching illustration and drawing.
With twenty-two years of success as an illustrator, Bonnie continuously found herself leaning away from the commercial arts. She often painted in her spare time, seeking to express her own ideas and vision beyond the lucrative repetitions of commercial art. As her interests in painting progressed, she shifted from the position of drawing instructor at Fanshawe to become a painting instructor in 1980. Finally at age forty in 1982, she left the world of commercial art behind completely and dedicated her time and effort to a more exploratory and self-directed approach to painting.
At the start of her painting career, Bonnie’s work was loose and experimental, fueled by a new creative excitement. “I stood to paint, unlike the tight close-up work at a drafting table. I was in heaven!” says Bonnie. Using plywood as her canvas, she began cutting her canvases into specially cutout shapes and layering her paint directly onto the wood; a technique she still uses today. Her recent exhibition was noticed in The London Free Press this February, where Danielle Hoevenaars, the associate director of the Westland Gallery in London, cited this as “a unique approach” that “set her paintings apart”. Among her first plywood canvases was a series of flowers that appeared at the London Regional Art Gallery and were popular sellers at the Art Mart at the London Regional Art Gallery London.
With her late immersion into the London art scene, it was difficult for Bonnie to feel accepted within the fine art community. Many artists had pursued fine arts long before her and the “stigma” of being a commercial artist left her feeling as an outsider. However, she soon overcame this, and became acquainted with other artists including Bernice Vincent, Alan Dayton and Maureen Riley. It was not long before Bonnie played an active part within her community. While maintaining relationships with art dealers and selling her work in numerous exhibitions, Bonnie was offered a public studio at the Covent Garden Market where she received commissions and offered her paintings for sale to the public.
Naturally inspired by the London Regionalism movement in the 1980’s, many of Bonnie’s paintings are personal reflections of everyday scenes. Through her profound love of light and her innate desire to capture its various qualities, she explores the beautiful interplay of light and colour that can be found in the natural world. Her many flower paintings for which she is best known, display the simple beauty of nature in scenes that we too often take for granted. Her landscape paintings are created using this same approach, as she combines the inspiration she finds in the landscapes of France, with the impressionist painters during her travels to Europe. She explored her own interpretations of the works of Claude Monet in her solo exhibition Giverny Revisited in 1991. A year later, she compares the French landscape to the landscape of London Ontario in her exhibition, I see London, I see France.
Although her career has known many accomplishments, Bonnie’s journey has not come without its challenges. Following the death of her mother, Bonnie recalls the deep and loving connection between her and her mother in her painting Communion on Simcoe Street. She portrays her mother enshrouded in soft lights and shadows, while Bonnie and her mother share a cup of tea. This scene is one that they often shared, and exudes an atmosphere of comfort and safety as Bonnie mourns and recollects this deep maternal connection.
Bonnie has also been faced with various health struggles. At the very beginning of her new career in fine art, she was diagnosed with a life-threatening blood disease called Thrombocytopenia. Though her life would never be the same, her drive to create only grew. In response to her illness, she created a series of work called The Prednisone Paintings. Prednisone is a strong drug she was prescribed to lower the activity of the immune system, and she documented its many side-effects in her journal pages which were displayed next to her paintings in her exhibition at the London Public Library.
Throughout her journey Bonnie’s daughter, Tascha, speaks admiringly of her mother’s perseverance and positive nature. “Her painting did not ease up during her illness, in fact it may have even become more prolific” says Tascha. “She continued to have art shows throughout this difficult time of her life, never letting the illness get the best of her.” While recovering from Thrombocytopenia, Bonnie has more recently been battling cancer, and still she continues to paint in her studio. Reflecting on her life and her illness, Bonnie concludes, “I remember giving thanks for the experience . . . which is strange, but what I found was it cleared away the cobwebs of everyday life and opened my eyes to the crystal clear beauty that was all around us, if we could only take the time to see it.”
From her successful career in illustration, to her prolific paintings we know today, Bonnie’s work continues to show her own resilience and strength despite overwhelming hardship. Her continuous desire to capture the light that shines forth during even the darkest of trials, creates an utterly unique body of work that celebrates the beauty of life that surrounds us every day.
Linnea Bloemendal graduated from the Bealart program in 2021, with a focus towards painting and expanded media during her final year. At Bealart, she continued to experiment with coding software and interactive visuals, exploring the concept of rest and spiritual presence, while existing in our chaotic world. She is currently studying for her Bachelor of Fine Arts and Major in Interdisciplinary Arts at NSCAD University.
Images are courtesy of the artist. See other works of art by this artist at:
This article is part of the “Young and Emerging Visual Arts Writers Project,” which is gratefully supported by the London Arts Council .