Canada lost one of its true artists in March this year with the passing of popular B.C. painter Sonia Cornwall at age 87. Affectionately known as the ‘grand dame’ of the Cariboo art community and one of the region’s early pioneers, Sonia Cornwall will be remembered for her powerful, often humorous, always sensitive exploration of ranch life in the Cariboo.
Sonia was born in 1919 in Kamloops, B.C. the daughter of a property agent, travel guide, writer and one-time officer in the RCMP. She grew up on the Onward Ranch, an 11,000 acres cattle ranch in the Williams Lake area, and took an interest in art at an early age. A close friend of many prominent painters including A.Y. Jackson, who visited the Onward several years in a row during the 1940s, Sonia managed to break away from her ranching chores for a few months in 1946, seven years after her father died, and went to Calgary to study art at the Provincial Institute of Technology.
However, for the most part she was a self-taught artist who took every opportunity to study and learn colour and technique from visiting artists such as Molly Bobak, Joe Plaskett, Herbert Siebner, Takao Tanabe and Jack Hardman who were all part of a University of British Columbia Extension Department Outreach Program. A devoted mother and wife, and an active ranch hand, Sonia always found a little time to paint until her family was grown and she was able to concentrate more fully on her passion.
What impresses me so much about Sonia's work is its freshness. It is not derivative. It cannot be labeled. And while there are hints of other painters such as A.Y. Jackson, the style is singularly that of a painter with a strong sense and understanding of life - its humour and its hardships - and the grandeur of the vast Canadian landscape that presents itself throughout the Cariboo region of British Columbia. It is the style of Sonia Cornwall.
Sonia's loose, sometimes impressionistic, but always bold and confident brush strokes capture the vastness and uniqueness of the Cariboo with clarity and effect. Her colours are rich, brash, ranchy! And her images are memorable. And throughout them all there is a wonderful sense of space and movement.
There is also a certain ethereal quality running through her work that evokes a sense of tranquility and comfortable solitude. And yet, at the same time, it is a documentary of a region, a people, a way of life that most of us only ever experience from the outside.
Sonia Cornwall was an in-your-face painter. She pulled no punches. She painted the Cariboo as only a true pioneer, a life-long resident, and a sensitive and talented artist could paint it. And it is great stuff! And she will be missed.