When the Moose Jaw Museum & Art Gallery began researching Ellen Vaughan Kirk Grayson toward producing an exhibition of her work, her nephew, David Grayson, mentioned that there was an unpublished manuscript that his aunt had written about being an artist in the Canadian Rockies. It arrived one day in the mail, still in its old green box, tied with string like a box from the bakery. It contained one handwritten and one typed version of her manuscript, with some ink drawing illustrations, and a few poems. Probably written in stages over the 1950's and 1960's, it covers her reminiscences and experiences hiking and sketching in the mountains from when she was a young woman, who first traveled there with her parents around 1910, through to the completion of the manuscript, in the 1960's. This publication contains that previously unpublished manuscript and it is a natural complement to an exhibition of Grayson’s work.
Her book had never been edited and the suggestions she left for accompanying illustrations did not include her many colour silkscreens or paintings; I assume this was only to make the book less expensive to print. It is my greatest hope that we have made her book stronger and created more of a sense of the significant skill and accomplishment of this extraordinary, but little-known Canadian artist. During the editing process we endeavored to leave her manuscript very similar to the way we found it, but we did correct place names so that locations could be found on today’s maps and her steps could be followed. In the summer of 2004, I travelled to the Banff area and retraced Grayson’s steps as depicted in a few chapters of her book. In Chapter II, she described one of the hikes that I retraced - up to the place Grayson called ‘The Lakes in the Clouds.’ It is a beautiful and strenuous uphill walk from the hotel beside Lake Louise, to Mirror Lake, and then on to Lake Agnes. Much of what she described has changed - the hotel she first stayed in was likely the old wooden lodge, which was destroyed by fire, and the views she could clearly see of all three lakes, Lake Louise, Mirror Lake and Lake Agnes, are no longer possible because the trees have grown too high. But the descendants of the chipmunks at Lake Agnes, which were a nuisance to Vaughan Grayson while she sketched, also drove me into the tea house to make my notes and reread her book.
Vaughan Grayson was born in 1894, on a farm outside Moose Jaw that belonged to her parents, John Hawke Grayson and Adela (Babb) Grayson. John Grayson was born in Yorkshire, England in 1867, and came to the Moose Jaw area in 1883. John and his brother, William, both married sisters from the Babb family. After Vaughan’s birth her family moved into Moose Jaw, which was experiencing a period of rapid growth. John became a prominent citizen serving as Moose Jaw’s postmaster from 1900 to 1907, and Alderman from 1901 to 1904, and again in 1908. Along with his brother William, who was a lawyer, they formed an insurance and loan business. The family prospered financially and built a new brick house on the Main Street in Moose Jaw across from Zion Methodist Church, which the family had helped found and where Adela spent many hours volunteering. Her family, especially her father and uncle, were enthusiastic travelers who very early in the last century traveled to remote villages on the northwest coast of Canada, as well as the cultural capitals of Europe. Vaughan, her younger brother Keith, and her parents, traveled by train to the Canadian Rocky Mountains for the first time when Vaughan was about fourteen years old. They stayed at the hotels that were built by the Canadian Pacific Railway to accommodate and attract visitors to the Canadian Rockies.
Vaughan attended elementary and high school in Moose Jaw and then went on a trip to Europe, South America, South Africa and Egypt, traveling with her first-cousin, Ethel Kirk Grayson. Ethel was William’s daughter who later in life became a published author. William Grayson collected art and over his lifetime, acquired a large art collection of largely 19th century European and Canadian paintings. Vaughan would have had access to this collection, which was housed in a grand brick house across the street from the home in which she grew up. She recalled how she liked to draw as a child and how she was encouraged and given informal lessons by a local amateur artist named Gertrude Rorason. There are a few very early paintings in existence. One is of Lake Louise that was likely done while she was still in her teens. It appears to be unfinished, but is painted to a greater extent in a more realistic-style. These paintings are probably influenced by the art in her Uncle William’s art collection as it would be unlikely that she would have encountered much of the work of the Canadian landscape painters prior to her travels to the east.
Vaughan’s post-secondary education began at the Curry School of Expression in Boston - a progressive education for the wealthy and artistically inclined young ladies of the era. She specialized in acting, or what at the time they called elocution - the oratory presentation of memorized plays, prose and poetry. She went on to finish with a Bachelor of Science degree from Columbia University in New York City where she studied art education. Also, in the 1920's she studied briefly under Marion Long at St. Margaret’s College in Toronto.
In the early 1920's she came back to Moose Jaw, first as art curriculum advisor to the Moose Jaw Public School Board, and then as instructor of art at the Normal School (teachers’ college) in Regina. In 1929, she became the Director of Art at the Normal School in Moose Jaw. During the 1920's she began writing two books on art appreciation for elementary and high school students that went on to become widely circulated - one book even went into a second printing later in the 1930's. These books cover a series of art lessons that pair pieces of significant European or Canadian art with a few paragraphs of interpretation and suggested correlations between music, poetry and prose. She went on to use a similar idea in her later manuscript where she paired each chapter with quotes from poetry or literature. It is revealing to read these books now for how she interprets the work of artists who are in, what she describes as, the New Canadian School - because very similar comments could be made about her own work. In one chapter she describes Harold Beament’s work, The Mountain, with “Beament’s painting follows the New Canadian School, where big masses and vigorous brush-strokes predominate.” In another chapter she compares J.E.H. MacDonald’s, The Beaver Dam with Tom Thomson’s, The West Wind. Grayson writes,
“Both artists paint after the manner of the modern school. There is a lively freedom in brush technique and in the use of colour, with a disregard for old-world technique. Careful draughtsmanship is forgotten in the desire to express the emotional theme. The Beaver Dam suggests a story-theme relating to man through the canoe, and to the beaver through the dam, while The West Wind is an intangible theme, expressed through design and pattern of the mountain, lake, and trees.”
In her own mountain landscapes she rarely includes any indication of human intervention in the landscape and no narrative is suggested. The rare exceptions are her few self-portraits and the handful of paintings done on the prairies, which most often include buildings.
During the 1920's Grayson continued to travel to the mountains during the summers and even joined a few excursions with the Canadian Alpine Club. This group organized ambitious summer trips that included the opportunity for guided mountain climbing expeditions. Its members were drawn from climbers and mountain enthusiasts from around the world. There is no evidence that Grayson actually climbed to any summits during these summers, but rather preferred to hike to places that would provide satisfactory views for sketching and painting. In 1926, she traveled into the Tonquin Valley with the ‘Alpiner’s’, as she called them, to draw, paint, and hike. After her first few trips with the Alpine Club she seems to have elected to organize her own expeditions - hiring a guide and traveling alone, or with a friend or two, into remote mountain valleys. She filled numerous sketch books and used her stories from these adventures to write her manuscript, which covers trips taken from the 1920's through the 1950's.
In 1929, Vaughan Grayson married Arthur J. Mann who worked at the agricultural experimentation station in Summerland, British Columbia, in the Okanagan Valley. They bought a house at Oyama, near Kelowna, and Vaughan continued to sketch and paint each summer in the Rocky Mountains. Her work, however, increasingly took on the lakes and hills of the Okanagan as their subject. In the early 1930's, Grayson finished writing her books about art appreciation and for the next twenty years she took part in group exhibitions of art in the Okanagan and taught local art classes.
In the 1940's she gained some success submitting her work to the large juried exhibitions organized by the Vancouver Art Gallery. In 1942, visitors to the 11th Annual British Columbia Exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery voted her painting, Mount Rundle, to be the 3rd most popular piece out of the 133 works shown. Also during the 1940's, she led sketching trips into the mountains for the Banff School of Fine Arts along with Janet (Holly) Middleton, whom she knew well from the Okanagan.
Her primary intention in writing her manuscript seems to have been to pass on her fascination and love for the mountains. From the first page of the first chapter she radiates this intense feeling of exhilaration and freedom she associates with travel and painting in the Canadian Rockies. She uses numerous quotes, from poetry and literature, to evoke that sense of awe - sometimes these fragments seem to have been so completely internalized (presumably as a result of her early training in elocution) that it is hard to know when she is using her own words and when she has lapsed into Alfred Lord Tennyson’s words. That sense of the sublime in nature, which occupied the work of many of the 19th century romantic poets, makes their work and sensibilities well suited to Grayson’s aspirations for her book.
Perhaps it is that very quality of grandness in nature that makes her less focused on the people that are in the mountains - she is more likely to mention the name of her mountain pony than her artist friends. The comradeship that occurs between people that come across each other on the mountain trails is mentioned, but she rarely identifies these people by name. Even the artists she undoubtably met and whose work she likely felt some connection with are not mentioned in her book; A.Y. Jackson whom we know she met and others whom she never mentions like J.E.H. MacDonald and Walter J. Phillips are never discussed in her book. Perhaps she viewed these artists as fellow mountain enthusiasts and travelers not unlike herself, while Carl Rungius, who is mentioned, differed because he was a wildlife painter with a permanent studio in Banff.
In the early 1950's she began silkscreen printmaking after taking a course in Edmonton and participated in an Edmonton exhibition of serigraphs along with George Weber, Helen Berry, Janet Middleton and others. Silkscreen printmaking was mostly used for advertising and was still relatively new as an art-making technique. Walter J. Phillips used woodblock printing which was, at the time, considered a serious artistic medium. Grayson’s first prints appear to mimic the look of woodblock printing, but her later prints use a very abstracted painterly approach that could only be achieved by screen printing. Her prints were included in numerous group exhibitions, including an exhibition of the National Serigraph Society in New York City, in 1957. It is also likely that she began writing her manuscript in the 1950's and finished it sometime in the early 1960's. In 1962, Grayson submitted the manuscript to MacMillan Co. of Canada for publication, but it was refused.
After her husband died, Grayson spent the winter months in Moose Jaw, and the summer months in the Okanagan Valley. In the 1960's and early 1970's, she took trips to New Zealand, Alaska and Japan, studied art in Mexico at the Instituto Allende in San Miguel de Allende with Fred Samuelson, and in Victoria, she took lessons in Chinese-style brush techniques with Stephen Lowe. During the 1980's her work was the subject of a few solo exhibitions organized by the public galleries in Moose Jaw and Kelowna. In her artist statement for a 1985 Kelowna Art Gallery retrospective exhibition she states that the mountains, “are where my heart is.” She goes on to say that she, “especially liked massive mountain forms or jagged rock, rich in colour, and the lovely colours of the many mountain lakes,” and that, “Hopefully these paintings will recapture the wonder and pleasure I felt in the valleys and mountains...”
Her lifelong quest for travel and adventure in the Canadian Rockies is evidenced by her words and her art. Unfortunately, she died in 1995, a few years before I arrived in Moose Jaw and so we never met. By all accounts she was an elegant and educated woman who, although serious about her art work, never tried to sell her work and in later years did not seek out exhibition opportunities. Friends and family were privileged to receive gifts of her work - but the bulk of her art was in her own collection when she passed away at the age of 100. They passed on to her nephew, David Grayson, who gave many of them to the Moose Jaw Museum & Art Gallery and the Kelowna Art Gallery. The creation of this traveling exhibition presented a wonderful opportunity to publish Grayson’s manuscript within the context of her accomplished paintings, silkscreen prints and ink drawings. It is my sincere desire that this presentation of the extraordinary life and work of Vaughan Grayson be inspiring and enlightening for all.