This Anglo-Japanese artist illustrates the fascinating blend of cultural themes at play in the 1940s in Victoria.
ELIZABETH YEEND DUER is following her cousin Katharine Maltwood through the woods. It’s a breezy March morning in 1941. The trail meanders across Katharine’s hilltop property overlooking Cordova Bay. They pass by dappled groves of wildflowers and blossoming trees. Elizabeth is listening intently to her cousin, trying to pick up each word about “their project.” Every few steps, Katharine whirls around and gestures in the air with her walking stick. “With your painting skills we can document every flower and tree in the whole area,” she says. “I’m sure local shops would be happy to sell your cards, and I’ll contact Hallmark about your designs.”
These two mature women on a painting excursion are a study in contrasts. Katharine, 63, overflows with ideas and energy; Elizabeth, 52, moves along like a quiet stream.
Elizabeth Yeend Duer in kimono, circa 1920s
Katharine reminds her cousin about an upcoming exhibition. “My two sculptures are ready for the Island Arts and Crafts show,” she says. “and you could enter some originals.” Katharine resumes their hunt for one of her favourite trees, an ancient madrona that towers over a steep ocean cliff. When found, Katharine runs her hands over the smooth green trunk speckled with curling red bark. “Did you know the madrona tree is sacred to the local Indians?” asks Katharine. “These trees saved them during the great flood.”
Katharine snaps open her camp stool and positions herself so she can see the sparkling ocean and Mount Baker beyond. In her sketch book, she begins a series of sharp, flowing gestures with her pencil. Elizabeth settles down to observe the lower branch of the arbutus showing a spray of white flowers. She closes her eyes and takes a breath. In her mind, Elizabeth sees her beloved teacher, Atomi Gyokusho, kneeling in front of a fuchsia-coloured spray of cherry blossoms. Elizabeth recalls the exact angle of Atomi’s brush, the single delicate strokes building up the fragile blooms, bringing them to life in traditional Nihonga style.
This memory calms her and sweeps away her constant worries.
The rumblings of a world at war recede. Born in Japan to a Japanese mother and British father, Elizabeth has always known racism, the feeling of being an outsider. Now she is an outsider in Canada, far from home and family. She managed to exit Japan in 1940, using her British passport, and find refuge with her cousin in Victoria. But her siblings remain in Japan, and she fears for their safety due to their British connections. (Indeed they will soon be imprisoned in Japan.) While in Canada, she is suspect for having Japanese heritage.
When the contradictions of her life overwhelm, Elizabeth finds strength and solace in her art practice. She examines the arbutus closely, and summons up her skills. First she paints the stem, carefully placed on the 8-inch by 10-inch silk board to create a balanced vertical composition. Next she adds the green leaves, taking care to note the mottled texture, small holes and imperfections. Nature as it is. The small white blossoms, shaped like minuscule jugs, take shape at the end of the curving stem.
“Arbutus Menziesii Madrona” by Elizabeth Yeend Duer (March 1941) watercolour, silk on board
On outings like these, circa 1941, Duer created over 100 accurate watercolours of the local plants and trees, each documented as to the exact date it was in bloom and the plant name and species. Believed commissioned by Katharine Maltwood, 50 of these paintings are now in the Maltwood Collection. The series is presented in an important show at the Legacy Gallery called Translations: The Art and Life of Elizabeth Yeend Duer—Gyokusho, January 12 to April 6, 2019. Translations showcases the movement of ideas, aesthetics, politics, and people between England, Japan, and Victoria by looking at the life and work of Duer. Co-curator Carolyn Butler Palmer initiated the project as Legacy Chair, the academic responsible for bringing forward Michael Williams’ vision for contemporary arts of the Pacific Northwest. “This is an unexpected story,” says Butler. “We were surprised to find a person with Japanese heritage painting local wild flowers and exhibiting her work at this time in history.”
Butler is referring to the forced relocation of Japanese Canadians following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour on December 7, 1941. The attack was followed by the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong on December 18, resulting in the death or capture of 2,000 Canadian soldiers. In January of 1942, the federal government designated all coastal land in BC within 100 miles of the coast as “protected,” and forced adult males to leave the area. Property and possessions were seized. In March 1942, a second edict forced all people of Japanese origin to leave the protected area. Duer managed to escape internment due to her British citizenship, but at least 21,000 people were confined in cramped, unsafe housing and stripped of their human rights. Various discriminatory policies continued after the war. In 1988, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney finally offered an apology and symbolic reimbursements.
“Kamass Camassia quamash; Camas” by Elizabeth Yeend Duer (April 1941), watercolour, silk on board
How do these gentle, meticulously-detailed watercolour paintings coincide in time and place with such chaos and hatred? A symposium on January 19, 2019 will address the issues. The event will welcome members of the Japanese community who experienced internment, as well as academics in the field. Guests will include curator Haema Sivanesen from the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria and renowned ethnobotanist Dr Nancy Turner. Turner’s research into culturally important plants of the WSÁNEĆ (Saanich) people was published in 2012.
Looking closely at Duer’s arbutus painting, Turner tells me, “Her attention to botanical detail is remarkable. The creamy white flowers are perfectly shaped, and a new greenish twig emerges from a broken red stem.” Turner confirms the arbutus tree (Arbutus menziesii) is sacred to the WSÁNEĆ. Arbutus is never used as firewood.
“Camas” is the signature painting of the Translations exhibition. There are two species of edible blue camas in our region. Duer’s details clearly define this plant as the common variety (it’s titled “Kamas Camassia quamash”). Camas was an important source of food and commerce for the WSÁNEĆ people. In the painting, the flowers are slightly asymmetrical and one petal is separate and points down. “Few people would have noticed this defining feature,” says Turner. Also, she notes, the structure of the flowering stems and the purple blue hues are carefully copied.
Duer entered “Skunk Cabbage” in the 1941 Island Arts and Craft Society show. This cheerful painting must have been a crowd pleaser. As our wetlands are drained, skunk cabbage has become less common. Turner notices the vivid yellow colour of the flowers, and smooth waxy texture of the opening leaves in Duer’s artwork. “Even the reddish bracts below the leaves are included,” says the ethnobotanist. Called “swamp lantern” by some, the plant is used by Saanich peoples as a natural waxed paper. Cooked berries can be spread to dry on the leaves.
While the public can see Duer’s paintings during regular hours, Legacy Gallery also invites the public to experience Translations via a March event hosted by Cindy Mochizuki. (March 8, 4-8pm and March 9, 11am-3pm). The Vancouver-based artist reimagines historical events using a combination of fact and fiction, multi-media installation, and community engagement. Several members of her own family experienced internment. Mochizuki honours the traditional medium of Nihonga with an embroidery style called Bunka Shishu. Gallery visitors are invited to try the punch needle technique while listening to tape recordings of Japanese women. As well as bird and flower motifs, expect some visual entanglements to emerge that inform the group’s artwork.
Our shared history holds many entanglements. Translations encourages us to view past events through various viewpoints and cultural lenses. This builds understanding and compassion, key ingredients for envisioning a kinder, more inclusive society.
Translations runs from January 12 to April 6, 2019 at the Legacy Gallery, 630 Yates St, Victoria. It is open 10am-4pm Wednesdays through Saturdays. Opening with Curator Talk, February 2, 2pm. 250-721-6562, uvac.uvic.ca
Kate Cino writes about the arts for Victoria publications and her own website, artopenings.ca. She has an Art History degree and Public Relations certificate from the University of Victoria.
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