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Cowley, Reta (1910–2004)

Reta Cowley was born on April 1, 1910. Her paintings are renowned for their remarkable ability to capture the experience of being in the Saskatchewan Prairies—evoking the expanse of space and depth of colour found only by a sensitive understanding of the light of the region. Cowley’s ability to communicate this breathtaking environment was achieved through a lifetime dedicated to studying, teaching and practicing art.

Born Reta Madeline Summers in Moose Jaw, Cowley spent her childhood years near Truax and in Yorkton before graduating from the Normal School in Saskatoon and beginning her teaching career in 1930. She taught at various rural schools through the difficult 1930s, moving to a permanent job in Yorkton from 1938 to 1946.

Having a lifelong interest in painting, Cowley began receiving formal training in 1937 when, encouraged by her sister, she attended the University of Saskatchewan Summer School at Emma Lake, established the previous year by Augustus Kenderdine. She returned every summer until 1940, studying art history under Dr. Gordon Snelgrove and painting with Kenderdine, from whom she adopted the plein-air tradition of the Barbizon school, painting from nature on the spot rather than in the studio. From 1941 through 1944, Cowley spent her summers at the Banff School of Fine Arts, focusing her practice on watercolours under the guidance of Walter J. Phillips. In 1945, she married Fred Cowley and was able to leave her teaching position and move to Saskatoon. She attended night classes at the University of Saskatchewan, studying with Eli Bornstein and Nicolas Bjelajac, and absorbing the influence of modern art, particularly Cézanne and John Marin.

While Cowley did not share Bornstein’s preference for avoiding reference to the natural world in her paintings, she did gain an understanding of how to structure her paintings according to form and colour and develop a patterning in her brush strokes. By the late 1960s, Cowley’s mature style had emerged, capturing the space and light of the landscape in a style informed by modernism. She taught at the Emma Lake Summer School in the early 1950s (and again in the mid-1980s), and attended the seminal 1963 workshop as a participant. She received her Bachelor of Arts from the University of Saskatchewan in 1966, and served there as a sessional lecturer until 1972. She continued to teach public school, retiring in 1975 to paint full-time.

From the 1950s on, Cowley has been honoured with more than twenty solo exhibitions of her work and has been in numerous important group exhibitions. Her work is held in collections across Canada. In 1990, she received the Saskatchewan Arts Board’s Lifetime Award for Excellence in the Arts and the Saskatchewan Order of Merit. Cowley died on November 23, 2004.

Christine Sowiak

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Further Reading

Dillow, Nancy E. Reta Cowley. Regina: Mackenzie Art Gallery, 1975; Ring, Dan. 1986. Reta Cowley: A Survey. Saskatoon: Mendel Art Gallery.
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