Finding inspiration in the rugged Cariboo hills

Esther Darlington MacDonald talks about meeting Cariboo painters Sonia Cornwall and her daughter Vivien Cowan.

by Esther Darlington MacDonald

The impulse that has turned into the craft we call fine art is not confined to the Cariboo region of the B.C. Interior. But Cariboo and Art have been part and parcel of the development of our fledgling communities from Ashcroft to Prince George for well nigh half a century or longer.

One of the leading painters of the Cariboo landscape, whom I met shortly after arriving in Williams Lake way back in the early 1960s, was Sonia Cornwall. Sonia was certainly the doyen of the Cariboo Art Society in that community at that time. I was eager to meet her personally, after seeing her paintings in various shops and on the walls of public buildings in Williams Lake. I had barely begun my own career as a visual artist at that time, and had embarked on portraiture and figure work. But the first sighting of those valleys from Lac La Hache to Williams Lake was an inspiration to embark on a new theme. Just as Sonia herself had been influenced by the work of Group of Seven painters, A.Y. Jackson, a visitor to their family ranch on the Mission Road near 150 Mile House, I was struck by Sonia’s simplicity of form and the intensity of her color. Gently rolling hills, sloughs and lakes, cattle grazing in the meadows, sunflowers filling the hills every spring. These themes in Sonia’s work stayed in the mind’s eye for years.

Sonia and Hugh Cornwall ranched at 150 Mile House where they raised a family and a large herd of Hereford cattle. Busy as her life was as a ranch wife and mother, Sonia managed by hook or by crook to express herself in art. When times were tough, she used any kind of material at hand to paint on. Small pieces of cardboard, wood, paper – the impulse to create was strong enough to keep producing the paintings that soon became part of the social and cultural scene in Williams Lake. And even in the early 1960s, an enthusiastic group had put together a drama and visual art place in an old one roomed school house just off the main street downtown. Playwright, Gwen Ringwood of Williams Lake was writing plays that became regular features and the drama group was so full of enthusiasm, that they had barely got one of their plays produced and staged, when they were thinking about the next. And amateur painters, likewise, were numerous and could be counted upon to produce the stage sets. An art show was held annually and was one of the highlights of the year for the town. The work of Sonia and her mother Vivien Cowan was featured prominently and always sold well.

Sonia was raised on the family ranch on the Mission Road, just west of 150 Mile House. Her mother loved meeting new people, particularly artists, and the handsome two storey heritage house of the Cowan family hosted many a gathering. A. Y. Jackson loved to visit, and his work greatly influenced the teenaged Sonia and her sister Sybil. Sonia’s mother, Vivien Cowan was also a painter. A gentle visual eye, Vivien’s themes were her quite different from her daughter’s.

My first solo show was held in Williams Lake in 1963 in that school house building. The little wooden building was bursting at  the seams when the doors opened that evening. The Williams Lake Tribune sent a reporter. My drawings and several paintings found buyers, including a portrait of Alkali Ranch manager, Bill Twan.  I had painted Bill one weekend when I visited the Twan log home, as well as a landscape or two. Nana Twan, another wonderful hostess, came out into the field where I had set up the easel, with a lunch tray for me.  I can still see the tall slender Nana coming through the tall grass with tray in hand.  Nana Twan, from Scotland,  had been a governess to the Cookie Woodward family, (of Woodwards department store) owners of the ranch some years before. When Bill Twan of Castle Rock, was hired to manage the ranch, a romance developed. They produced three handsome children, Patty, Bucky, and Bronco. Yup. That’s what they were called.

At my show that evening, Sonia introduced herself, along with her mother. She seemed rather shy. Vivien invited me to visit the family ranch and to paint the surrounding hillsides, which I did. I recall being served cucumber and water cress sandwiches. All served in the main front room of the house, Vivien’s easel was set up nearby, with work table, smock hanging over the wooden kitchen chair. The Cowan home was a typical ranch farm home. Easy familiarity mingled with the original paintings of Sonia, Sybil and their mother on the walls. A real mixture I found charming. No wonder A.Y Jackson liked to visit the Cowan ranch! The outbuildings were almost as interesting. Big red barns, the dirt roads, cattle in the nearby fields. There was a painting in every vista.

Fresh from the Vancouver arts scene, I was amazed to find such a flourishing arts community at Williams Lake in 1962. The town, quite somnolent in a cloud of golden dust from the mills at Glendale, a suburb, and inside the town, was the last place you would think the arts would be alive and well. It was after I left the town, that the place began to “boom” in a remarkable way. Paved roads, highways in every direction, new homes, subdivisions on the northern flank of the town. The whole atmosphere changed. Yet, the arts still flourished, in fact, did not diminish at all, but added a few more, like pottery. And Sonia Cornwall became famous. Now framed and on canvas, her sophisticated yet simple forms of the Cariboo range land and wooded ridges remained the major themes of her work. Sonia has passed on now. But her work remains a legacy to the beautiful country she loved, and has increased in value a thousand fold.

Esther Darlington MacDonald

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