The Personal and the Universal: Bernice Vincent

Bernice Vincent. Photographed by Don Vincent, early 1970s

With artworks that explore and celebrate common subjects as well as passing moments that are too often overlooked, Bernice Vincent’s work fits seamlessly into the Regionalism movement seen in London, Ontario. During the 1960s and ‘70s, London was incredibly lively and a great place to exchange ideas. There were a large number of individuals both creating and doing. As Christopher Regimbald noted in his article ​Institutions of Regionalism: Artist Collectivism in London, Ontario, 1960–1990, “What brought these artists together was . . . not a particular approach to art-making but instead a shared desire to produce work out of personal and local experiences.”

Vincent’s work fit so well into the Regionalist movement due to the fact that her work truly focused on the value of what was physically closest to an individual. Her work did not suggest that people had to look far beyond their own daily encounters to find subjects worthy of consideration, but instead insisted that everything they sought to discover could be found right in front of them.

Vincent was born in Woodstock, Ontario but moved to London in 1952 to attend H.B. Beal’s BEALART program. At the time, nearly everything art-related in London was happening at Beal and she did not have to go anywhere else to find a vibrant and inspiring art community. She later travelled to Mexico in 1954 to study painting, anatomy, watercolour, lithography, and fabric painting at Instituto Allende. However, in ​A Driving Force, their survey of the work of London’s women artists, the McIntosh Gallery explains that, “The emphasis on abstraction in Mexico did not resonate with Vincent and when she returned to London she felt a need to develop a more individual sensibility in her art making.”

Vincent’s work rarely happens to be overwhelming. It draws you in and is captivating in a very subtle way. In his obituary appraisal of his friend’s work in ​The London Yodeller, ​Bob McKenzie wrote that, “The things she painted were quiet, diminutive, much like her”. Vincent’s work is deeply observational. She saw beauty and value in things that many people might not even bother to look at; transforming the ordinary into the extraordinary by nothing other than the deep care and passion she put into depicting such common subjects and scenes.

During Regionalism’s initial excitement, Vincent’s early and quieter work was often dismissed as domestic as she mainly painted her home and studio (Goldie Rans, 1983). This side-lining was comparable to what happened to Mary Pratt who was drawn to similar sorts of subjects and was routinely overshadowed by the bolder and colder realist paintings of her husband, Christopher Pratt. His work initially gathered more attention and acclaim. However, today, it is Mary Pratt’s work which seems to be enjoying the greater reputation.

When talking about her celebrated series of sky paintings, in 1974 Vincent said, “I tried to get the painting as close as I could to what I saw. I wasn’t looking for exciting
things to happen in the sky; if nothing happened, that was important too.”

Bernice Vincent (Canadian, 1934 – 2016)
London, Ontario – May, 1976, 1976
acrylic on wood
Collection of Museum London. Gift of the Blackburn Group Inc., London, Ontario, 1997

Vincent wasn’t trying to create huge works that would change the world per se. But in challenging herself with such humble-seeming subjects, she was perhaps trying to change the way that viewers of her art perceived the world. Bernice Vincent instinctively understood the mystical dynamic which William Blake explored in his poem, ​Auguries of Innocence: “To see a World in a Grain of Sand / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower / Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand / And Eternity in an hour.”

It is arguable that more than any other artist working in London’s Regionalist movement, Vincent understood that the local and the personal are the surest gateways we have to the universal. More often than not, we find our sense of purpose in deeply connecting with what’s closest to hand. Many of her paintings seem to depict a moment when time has been frozen, thus establishing for us an opportunity to really contemplate what might otherwise not hold our attention due to the fact that we see it every day and take it wholly for granted. But, if we do not take that time to really connect and read into the immediate and miniscule things in one’s daily life, where do we expect to find meaning?

Vincent’s daughter Esther told me that what made her mother so different as both an artist and a person was that she thought that things like the kettle in her kitchen were beautiful and deserved attention. Or she would see laundry on a clothesline and become so excited, she felt obligated to make a work about it. The idea might seem absurd or preposterous until you actually set eyes on ​The White Sheet; at which point you are exposed to the astonishing beauty of something that’s probably been around you all your life and never appreciated until this moment.

The White Sheet, 1984
Acrylic on board
91.4 x 121.9
McIntosh Gallery Collection, Western University

 

At the beginning of Vincent’s career, like many artists, she struggled to define herself and to cultivate her own voice in the art community. Although she was intuitive and boldly independent, she was not extroverted – nor was she male, as the vast majority of her London artistic colleagues were. Particularly, at first, she was quite shy about her own work and had difficulty discovering what style she wanted to convey her ideas in. Regardless, she persevered through these challenges and the level of engagement she always brought to her work soon awakened others to its value.

Luckily, Vincent was surrounded by a number of artists who supported, motivated, and inspired her. For example, she was heavily inspired by the colour palettes of Jack Chambers and, further afield, Georgia O’Keeffe. As many artists do, she had times when she struggled with her work, but she never stopped seeking opportunities for inspiration. It never took her long to come up with new ideas for a potential work, as she was constantly looking at other paintings and was a part of the Forest City Gallery. Being surrounded by other artists assisted her both in feeling motivated and learning different ways to execute her ideas and concepts.

As her career progressed, Vincent’s subject matter slowly began to change. Much of her work became more conceptual and experimental, and she broadened her sense of social and political awareness. A lot of this was simply a reflection of what was different in her daily life. Though being a mother would always have a lot to do with her subjects, she began to lift her gaze from her most immediate surroundings to the larger world outside as her children became old enough to begin going to school all day. Now Vincent had the time as well as the physical and mental space to develop more complex and larger scaled works.

Bernice Vincent (Canadian, 1934 – 2016)
The View Ahead, 1990
acrylic on panel
Collection of Museum London. Gift of the artist, 2006

Vincent’s increasing complexity of outlook on the world is demonstrated in her work titled, ​The View Ahead, created at a time when London was expanding and developing into the surrounding countryside. Yes, there is a sense of simplicity here, but also a sense of excitement and even beauty. Vincent acknowledges that urban expansion sacrifices the integrity of nature and divides landscapes (and Vincent was always an avid gardener and felt such disruptions acutely). But roads also bring people together and allow us to travel – a form of recreation Vincent always enjoyed. This social awareness reached its peak when she made a painting about the Montreal massacre; an especially important work for Vincent as she believed these women were very brave to seek training in the male-dominated world of engineering. She wanted to commemorate their aspiration as it resonated deeply with her. At first this piece might seem atypical for its lack of a direct connection to her own life or her community, but dig a little deeper and you’ll find she was responding to something more than a tragic current event. Part of the connection she felt with these women derived from her own struggle for acknowledgement in a mostly male art world. But an even stronger link was provided by the fact that her daughter, Esther, was the very same age as the women who were killed.

Bernice Vincent (Canadian, 1934 – 2016)
All Around Me…All Around You, 1992-1993
acrylic on wood and photocopies on paper
Collection of Museum London. Purchased with financial support of the Canada Council for the Arts and the Volunteer Committee, 2005

In 1993, Vincent produced the most dramatic work of her career, entitled, ​All Around Me . . . All Around You.  This work is a circular painting with fifty-two panels. On one side of the panels, Vincent painted in high realism her own naturalistic observations made each week between spring equinoxes. On the other side of each panel, she painted the very same image abstracted, highlighting its colours and forms. This painting does not have a subtle presence. It is extremely captivating and much bolder than her previous work. One of the most intriguing aspects of this painting is the format Vincent chose. In his appreciative essay, ​All Around Me . . . All Around You: Bernice Vincent, ​ Robert McKaskell explores the idea that our vision is typically expressed in a horizontal manner, as we would see in a landscape painting. However, time is measured by vertical means; for example, the markings on a chart that measure
a heartbeat. McKaskell declares in his essay that, “​All Around Me…All Around You ​ is the culmination of twenty years of experience with painting the passage of time.”

Bernice Vincent’s works are a crucial part of the regionalist movement in London due to the fact that her work is so focused and truly appreciative of London as a city, a community, and a place to live. The act of observing and finding beauty in what is right in front of you can be applied to any location and certainly does not have to be exclusively to London. Vincent’s ideas can be applied to any place at any time, in the same capacity as Regionalism as a whole.

 

Rebecca Dawdy has completed her first year study in the Photography and at Beal Art, H B Beal Secondary School

All art work is published with the permission of the relevant galleries and with the permission of Esther Vincent, the license holder for Bernice Vincent’s estate.

 

This article is published at part of the Senior Artists Writing Project as funded by  the London Arts Council. 

1 Comment

  • Congratulations Rebecca Dawdy on a fine article. I found it very interesting to read and quite moving. I appreciate how you followed the evolution of Bernice Vincent’s personal expression within her community. Discussing two major works, in context of her early paintings, community influences and personal perspective makes a valuable insightful contribution.

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