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  • Victoria Arts Council celebrates 50 years

    Leslie Campbell

    A new exhibit of works by Pat Martin Bates is just one of the events planned.


    Art-lovers can join in the festivities as the Victoria Arts Council puts on a year-long celebration of its 50 years advocating for the arts and local artists.

    There are a number of important events planned for just the next few months—including the annual LOOK show in April and an evening of celebration and performance art in recognition of International Women’s Day on March 8.



    Pat Martin Bates in 1996


    Kegan McFadden, who took the reins as executive director of the non-profit organization in November, is perhaps most excited to be presenting an exhibit of works by one of Canada’s grande dames of the arts, Pat Martin Bates. Entitled “Inscape Golden Timeless Threads—Points of Starlight Silence,” it will give Victorians a chance to see artworks spanning the last 50 years, including her innovative lightbox art, prints, copperplate etchings and plexiglass work.

    The Bates’ exhibit provides a great opportunity to recognize such a revered artist and community contributor, says McFadden. Bates—or PMB as she tends to be known—has won many international and national honours, including the Queen’s Jubilee Medal and Global Graphics Award, along with fellowships in the Royal Society of Canada and the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts.

    She is regarded as an innovator both in terms of techniques and content. PMB, writes her biographer Senator Patricia Bovey, combined “details of reality with abstraction in her art, concentrating simultaneously on detail and wholeness. The carefully executed symbols and objects are perfectly balanced by the precision of her technique. Her compositions are filled with flowing, rhythmic piercings, delicate applications of thin gold and silver threads and meticulous draftmanship and calligraphy.”

    But it’s not just her artistic accomplishments that made PMB a natural choice to honour during VAC’s 50th year: “A charter member of [VAC], she worked tirelessly from its inception in 1968 to support emerging and established artists working in all media and engaging audiences of all backgrounds,” writes Bovey.

    Paul Scrivener, who served as executive director in the 2000s, calls her a “cross-pollinator,” always connecting people. He noted, “Her positive impact has been felt in the careers of hundreds of people here. Guiding the Art Council’s program development, her greatest contribution has been as an active arts advocate.”

    It wasn’t just VAC she did community work with. As Bovey writes: “PMB felt it was her responsibility to serve community organizations and artists of all generations when asked. She lived up to those self-expectations and never said no.” She served on boards of the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, Zonta International (to promote women), CARFAC, Maltwood Gallery, the Bastion Theatre and other groups.

    Running throughout March in VAC’s Store Street gallery, the exhibit is co-curated by McFadden and art intern Monica Liu who is doing her work study for her art history degree at UVic. Liu’s curatorial experience for a show about such a revered Canadian artist is surely an art intern’s dream come true.

    Special events in the Store Street gallery during the exhibit include UVic art historian Carolyn Butler-Palmer speaking about her history project on the lives of women artists of the region (March 16, 2pm); and on March 30, 2pm, a talk by Pat Bovey, PMB’s biographer, once head of the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria and the Winnipeg Art Gallery, and now Senator.


    I VISIT PAT MARTIN BATES at her home in Oak Bay, a sprawling, century-old home full of art—literally floor to ceiling—along with piles of books and other intriguing things on every surface. I am keen to hear about the Victoria “scene” in the 1960s—when she first came to Victoria, and when the Arts Council was formed.

    As anyone who knows PMB will attest, even at 92, she has a magnificent memory and is a practiced raconteur of stories from her fascinating past. Her life has been a great adventure, full of travels, her art, community work, world-wide friendships and a loving family. Despite her super busy life, she enjoyed a healthy 67-year marriage and raised two loving children. Her daughter Jocelyn has moved into the house since husband Al died a few years ago; son Philip is often by her side these days on excursions for openings at the Belfry Theatre and other art events.

    Inspired by everything from alchemy, architecture, Persian art and poetry (particularly that of Rumi), Greek myths and world religions, especially Sufism, to Rembrandt and geometry, PMB has sought out and befriended many philosophers, poets and other artists to explore such subjects more deeply. People like Nobel-winning writer Doris Lessing have become friends and visited her here.

    Born a fifth generation Maritimer in New Brunswick, PMB married the young man she first set eyes on at age 13 and predicted she would marry. Clyde “Al” Bates was an army man and their early years together were somewhat at the mercy of his postings, though it’s clear PMB did not let that—or two children—stop her from pursuing her artistic visions.

    Posted to Antwerp in Belgium in the 1950s, PMB earned two fine arts degrees there while her two young children attended school. She did her thesis on Goya. By 1957, the family moved to Ottawa, where PMB held three jobs, yet still found time to immerse herself in that city’s cultural scene and develop her art, eventually having a solo exhibit at the prestigious Robertson Galleries.

    She loved Ottawa, but Al’s career soon forced a move to the backwaters of Wainwright, Alberta where the family lived on an army base. Despite the isolation and sparse vistas, PMB thrived in Alberta, making and teaching art and joining an artists’ cooperative in Edmonton. It was there she started using her iconic piercing technique, as well as illustrating sounds and silence, and using a lot of white in her work. She told her biographer Bovey, “I soared like a red-tailed hawk, alive to looking.”

    Still, at the end of 1963, she was happy to move to seaside Victoria where Al had landed a job as comptroller of the Naden base (now part of CFB Esquimalt).

    “This idea of Victoria being ‘little olde England’ never entered my mind,” she tells me. Instead, the artist, then in her mid-thirties, who had met the likes of Chagall and Magritte and many Canadian icons, found Victoria exciting. She was enamored with both the local Chinese community and the First Nations people, and generally found it full of all sorts of talented, interesting people. She already knew some important folks here like Colin Graham at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, and soon connected with others like PK Page, First Nations carver Tony Hunt, and all the internationally-renowned artists who would form the Limners. A self-described bookaholic, PMB also mentions Alice Munro who had just opened Munro’s Books with her husband. She tells me, “Alice had the most wonderful hair then—it seemed electrified like she had all these ideas going on—which she obviously did!”

    A trip to New York City on a scholarship working at the Pratt Institute of Fine Arts in 1966 inspired her to help local artists literally have room to grow. “It was the time of Warhol; a very open time of protests and experimentation,” says PMB. New York artists were taking over lofts in warehouses and forming collective studios. She wanted that for Victoria artists, so, with help from Al (who suggested she rent a building recently vacated on the base) and PK Page and others, artist studios and gallery space at Signal Hill became a reality. (That enterprise still continues today at Xchanges on Bay Street.) The exhibit space was important as in those days there was only one commercial gallery.

    The Sixties was a time, of course, when many women were making their voices heard. PMB rather gleefully recalls attending meetings where “women were saying the most outrageous things!” She tells me she participated in many peace marches and protests during those years.

    In 1964 she was hired as a part-time instructor for University of Victoria’s new Fine Arts program. She taught printmaking, lithography, screen-printing, and drawing, using her own press at first.



    “The Angel of the Blue Sky is Crying Parallax Tears” by Pat Martin Bates (1998). Lightbox with BFK Rives paper, silver threads, oil pastel, printed estampile areas, chine collé, threads, needle perforations, 48 x 32 x 4 inches.


    It was a time, however, when women academics were few and often treated in dismissive or belittling ways. She mentions a couple of women (who went on to very big things) who the university actively tried to get rid of. “The tallest poppies get lopped off first,” she says, explaining her relative security by her low status and near invisibility. “They didn’t know what I was up to—I was working in the basement of the MacLaurin Building.” She often held sessions in her home as well. She still feels dismay over the male dominance of those years, including in her classes. “What about all the other women whose talent was stopped up because they hadn’t had the opportunity” due to unsupportive families, demanding children, or lack of finances, she wonders with sadness.

    It wasn’t until virtually the whole fine arts faculty quit over some internal political skirmishes that she got a full-time appointment. By then it was 1971 and she was far away on a Canada Council-sponsored multi-month trip “following in the steps of Alexander the Great”—with her husband and daughter via Volkswagen van through Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey. She and Jocelyn wore chadors when necessary. Being the days before cell phones and internet, she learned of her new job when friend and fellow artist Nita Forrest telegraphed her, saying “Congratulations on your new appointment!” The family hadn’t intended to return to Victoria; she and Al had quit everything and put all their belongings in storage. She was looking at job offers from Sir George Williams in Montreal and York in Toronto.

    Thankfully for Victoria, PMB was lured back here, where she continued to produce her revered art, mentor other artists, and help encourage a vital cultural scene. When she started back at UVic, she says, “The first thing I wanted to do was get another woman in.” Soon thereafter, sculptor Ruth S. Beer was hired.


    THE VICTORIA ARTS COUNCIL was born in 1968 (as the Community Arts Council of Greater Victoria). PMB recalls early meetings held in Dunlop House on Camosun’s campus. She mentions Pam Ellis, former Mayor Peter Pollen with his wife Marianne, former Premier Dave Barrett, Shushan and Joseph Egoyan, and Bill West among the supporters.

    “The ’60s were a very rich time in Victoria for the arts,” says PMB. The illustrious Limner Group of artists was beginning to form, with renowned artists like Myfanwy Pavelic, Herbert Siebner, and Robin Skelton. “There was an artist-underground-thing going on—just there waiting to happen. So many things are off-shoots of the people here then who were all for the arts; the arts were the important thing,” she tells me.

    While it has understandably had many changes over its 50 years, VAC has stayed true to its roots. As is stated in VAC’s recent strategic plan, through education, civic advocacy, and programs, “We strive to elevate the profile of local artists and performers, while igniting a passion for arts and culture throughout Greater Victoria.”

    PMB’s continuing involvement over the years no doubt has helped carry out that mission. “I was often on the board [of VAC],” says PMB; “I don’t know how many times. I would be asked to step in when people had to leave.” With Scrivener, she was instrumental in creating VAC’s annual LOOK show. The idea was to give all member artists a chance to exhibit that cost very little. “Everybody can exhibit one piece; everyone has a chance, no one is excluded,” says PMB. April’s LOOK show is in the enormous old Staples building at 747 Fort Street.

    It was also during those years under Scrivener’s leadership that the Council started having satellite exhibit space in the Downtown library, the Victoria Airport and other places, which continues in an expanded fashion today—always featuring works by local artists. McFadden says, “I am not familiar with any other city that hosts such [satellite] galleries in libraries; it’s a nice way to support working artists.”

    McFadden, who has an impressive background in the Winnipeg and national arts scenes, feels that so much is already happening here arts-wise that there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Rather the hope is to “find community partners and support what they are doing.” An upcoming example takes the form of helping Theatre SKAM fund its bursary program for high school students. VAC is also working with the Victoria Film Festival and the Victoria Festival of Authors. And then there’s Artishow Artist-in-Residence Program in which artists are paired with high traffic hotels over the summer where they demonstrate their craft, talk to visitors, and sell their work.

    The Arts Council receives funding for particular programs from BC Arts Council, the CRD, Victoria Foundation and also from BC gaming grants. But it relies on fundraising too. Four hundred members indicate its health, but McFadden is “absolutely” keen on getting more. (Memberships are $40/year).

    As for PMB? She says she wants to tell younger artists to believe in themselves. In her biography she makes a statement that is encouraging as well: “Art and the doing of it are their own rewards. Art for me is a bridge to another level—a silent communication—a nutrient—and if only one person and one person alone finds some one thing in what I do, don’t you think that is important?”


    Visit the Gallery at 1800 Store Street, Tuesday through Saturday, noon-5pm. The Pat Martin Bates exhibit is on all of March, with talks on March 16, 2pm (Carolyn Butler-Palmer) and March 30, 2pm (Senator Patricia Bovey, PMB’s biographer).

    Leslie Campbell thanks all the artists who enrich and enliven this magazine and community.

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