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Exhibition reveals Sarnia’s early appreciation of fine art

Cathy Dobson The public has less than three more weeks to view a small but remarkable exhibition that highlights the importance and breadth of the JNAAG’s permanent collection.
JNAAG Assistant Curator Sonya Blazek discusses a Group of Seven painting by A.J. Casson that is being exhibited for the first time. Cathy Dobson

Cathy Dobson

The public has less than three more weeks to view a small but remarkable exhibition that highlights the importance and breadth of the JNAAG’s permanent collection.

The permanent collection belongs to the Sarnia-Lambton community and includes more than 1,500 pieces of art donated or purchased since the 1920s.  It boasts many notable works, including numerous painting by the Group of Seven.

The Judith & Norman Alix Art Gallery (JNAAG) is attempting to get more of the permanent collection out for the public to see this summer with a series of exhibitions.

A Keen Eye: Early Donors is on until June 25 in the Dr. J. Telford Biehn gallery at the top of the stairs on the second floor.

Fittingly Dr. Biehn donated a number of paintings to the permanent collection in the 1980s including works by Franklin Carmichael, Arthur Lismer and J.E.H. Macdonald.

Several local families that donated paintings to the collection are honoured, including the Biehns, the Pokornys, the Gurds and the Cowens.

Those keen eyes belonged to members of the Sarnia Women’s Conservation Art Association, who were urged by members of the Sarnia Library Board to donate funds for art exhibitions at the old Carnegie library.

Later, they bought art and set the wheels in motion for a public art gallery built in the 1960s with the downtown library.

Was it great taste or great foresight – or both - that convinced the women to invite artists to their first exhibition who would later form the Group of Seven?  How could they have known the importance of their purchases when the Group of Seven had no profile or national recognition yet?

“At the time, the Group of Seven were very contemporary in the way they used colour in their landscapes,” explains assistant curator Sonya Blazek who chose the paintings for the current exhibition.

Nine of the original 25 works purchased by the art association are on display. Four are Group of Seven and the others are their contemporaries, including Lowrie Warrener.

His painting called The Happy Cottage was chosen for this exhibition because it demonstrates a departure into the abstract that was rare in those days.

Warrener was born in Sarnia in 1900 and inspired to paint after meeting Arthur Lismer at the 1920 exhibition hosted by the Sarnia Women’s Conservation Committee.

A generation of Sarnians became familiar with Warrener’s work when they walked into the library and saw The Happy Cottage, which hung in the children’s department for many years.

In fact, The Happy Cottage had been commissioned by the Lambton Loan Company on Maria Street.  The loan company didn’t like the way Warrener had distorted the building and sold it to the committee.

While A Keen Eye: Early Donors seems to focus on earlier donations to the permanent collection, there’s at least one that was given to the gallery in 2016.  A.J. Casson’s October Storm – Lake Baptiste was a gift from Judy Biehn and Arthur Craig in memory of Dr. Beihn, and has never been exhibited before.

The exhibition is generating a lot of traffic at the gallery, said Blazek.

“I think everyone in our community should take pride there’s such rich art history here.”

On Friday, a concurrent exhibition opened on the JNAAG’s third floor that focuses on modern works within the permanent collection and newer donations.  It’s called The Bold & The New and runs until Aug. 6.

Anyone who wants to see more of the collection’s Group of Seven should plan on going to Heavy Hitters, which is scheduled July 7 – Aug. 6.

The Arts Journal highlights the cultural life of our community. Contact [email protected] with story ideas or call 226-932-0985.

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