THORNTON, Mildred Valley

Author Tags: Art, First Nations, Mitchell Press

"Discouragement, lack of funds, ill health, indifference from others--I knew them all in full measure but persisted because I was determined to finish the job I had set out to do." -- Mildred Valley Thornton

Whereas Emily Carr is famous for her paintings of Indian villages, Mildred Valley Thornton's art is more intimate and mainly concerned with faces. As a portrait artist, Thornton loathed all superficial comparisons with Carr. Between 1935, when she painted Mary Capilano, matriarch on the Capilano Reserve, and 1952, when she painted her portrait of Mary Moon, matriarch of the Comox people, Thornton was on a self-appointed mission to respectfully portray, as realistically as possible, the faces of some of the most prominent Indians of British Columbia. She said she never posed her subjects. Mostly she sought out old people who could remember customs and traditions, talked to her subjects as she painted them, and then recorded any socially significant comments soon afterwards.

Born in Dresden, Ontario in 1890, Thornton first met Indians when wagonloads of them toured rural Ontario selling baskets. "I know now that they were Delawares, of the same tribe as the illustrious Tecumseh," she recalled in the 1960s. "They had good baskets, better than those the stores sold and much more colourful; skilfully contrived they were and sold in many beautiful shapes. Like the country stores, if you didn't have ready cash, the Indians would take in exchange butter, eggs, or anything they needed. I do not know why I was afraid of the Indians in those days, unless it was because I had heard people say they might steal our chickens; this of a race who traditionally looked upon thievery as a most heinous offence that would not be tolerated by any tribe! But they fascinated me and when they went over the hill in their creaking wagons and happy carefree manner, a bit of my heart always went with them."

She moved with her family to Regina in 1913 and became interested in the Plains Indians. She began to paint professionally in the 1920s, painting portraits of more than 300 Indians. "I discovered early in my travels that there was one tongue all could understand--the language of the heart--and that would take you anywhere," she wrote. "... Go to them with sincerity, genuine affection and respect as fellow Canadians and no people could be more affable, courteous or friendly." In response to the Depression, she came with her family to Vancouver in 1934. Having attended Olivet College in Michigan, the Ontario School of Art and the Art Institute of Chicago, she wrote for the Vancouver Sun as an art critic from 1944 to 1959. Thornton was inducted into the Royal Society of Arts in 1954 and became president of the Canadian Women's Press Club, but she could never attain her greatest wish: to have the government of Canada accept her donation of her work en masse. She claimed the Kwakiutl of the Clan Eagle had named her "Ah-ou-Mookht," meaning "the one who wears the blanket because she is of noble birth," and the Crees had named her "Owas-ka-esk-ean" or "putting your best ability for us Indians."

One of Thornton's many subjects was Sarah Gunanoot, the widow of Simon Gunanoot, the Gitksan trapper who evaded police for 13 years. The wife of British Columbia's most famous fugitive was found working in the Cassier Cannery on the Skeena River in 1948. Having caught a bus to Port Edward from Prince Rupert, Thornton managed to hop a ride on a fish packer leaving for Cassiar. "There are days when magic is in the air," she recalled, "when you can't go wrong--days when you just step out in faith and things begin to happen." Thornton met Sarah Gunanoot in a loft mending nets. The two women hit it off. Sarah Gunanoot was happy to be painted. Thornton knew Simon Gunanoot had been charged with murdering two trappers, Alex McIntosh and Max Leclair, near Hazelton in June of 1906. The sole evidence was that he had fought with McIntosh and threatened him. Rather than risk a trial before a white jury, Simon Gunanoot had fled into the mountains. He outmanouevred and outwitted manhunts for 13 years, helped by food supplied by Indian people in the Skeena region. Sympathy for Gunanoot grew among whites and Indians. By the time he surrended to authorities on June 24, 1919, one of the province's foremost lawyers, Stuart Henderson, ably defended him at a trial in Victoria. Simon Gunanoot was acquitted. Sarah Gunanoot was reunited with her husband until he died in 1933. "In repose her face took on something of the sadness and sorrow she had known so many years ago," Thornton recalled, "when fate had dealt her a cruel blow. She had been young and happy then and doubtlessly very attractive, too. Two halfbreed trappers, who had used insulting language to her, were found dead and the police thought her outraged husband had taken the law into his own hands, settling the score quickly and thoroughly in the Indian manner."

After her husband died in 1958, Mildred Valley Thornton moved to England in 1959 to live with one of her sons. A major exhibit of her work was mounted by the Royal Commonwealth Institute but she was afflicted by a skin disease and could not attend. She came back to Vancouver in 1961. Thornton's first book Indian Lives and Legends (Mitchell Press, 1966) pertained mainly to B.C. and included twelve, hand-inserted colour plates. "Painting the Indians has been a rich experience for me," she wrote in 1966, the year before her death. "Often I have lived with them, journeyed with them, joyed and grieved with them. I am filled with gratitude that I was privileged to do this work at the last possible time that anyone could do it, recording a colourful and important phase and era of Canadian history which is all but over now." Thornton gradually succumbed to her skin disease, dying in 1976, at age 77. Embittered by the lack of official support for her art, she had a codicil in her will that requested all her paintings should be burned to ashes after her death. This codicil was not acted upon on the grounds that it had not been legally witnessed. The collection was saved but it has been mostly sold piecemeal. Westbridge Fine Art of West Vancouver has become the exclusive representative of her artistic estate. Her 1966 book has been retitled Potlatch People: Indian Lives and Legends of British Columbia (Hancock, 2003), edited by her son John M. Thornton. Its preceding companion volume, Buffalo People: Portraits of a Vanishing Nation (Hancock, 2000), contains 38 paintings pertaining to the prairies.


Indian Lives and Legends (Mitchell Press, 1966)
Buffalo People: Portraits of a Vanishing Nation (Hancock, 2000)
Potlatch People: Indian Lives and Legends of British Columbia (Hancock, 2003)

[BCBW 2003]

The fourth book in The Unheralded Artists of BC series

During her lifetime (1890¬1967), Mildred Valley Thornton (HON. CPA, FRSA) was noted nationally and internationally. The full story of this distinctive artist, accomplished with
landscapes and portraits, watercolours and oils, is being told for the first time. Born in Ontario, Thornton later moved to Regina where she met her husband, taught art at the Regina College and gave birth to twin boys. Thornton’s early works—vibrant landscapes—were inspired by artist J.W. Beatty, her instructor at the Ontario College of Art. Later, portraits of the FirstNations peoples of Western Canada became the genius loci of her oeuvre.

During the Depression, her family moved to Vancouver where she continued, for the rest of her life, to carve out a unique career as a fiercely independent, adventurous and confident
artist driven to create. Between painting, writing and travelling
around the province, she became an advocate for First Nations peoples and made important historical contributions to British Columbian art and culture. Thornton was also a noted journalist,
Vancouver Sun art critic (1944¬1959), book reviewer, published poet and recipient of a Canadian Authors’ Association Award for her book Indian Lives and Legends (1966).

Before she died, Thornton unsuccessfully tried to interest Canadian institutions in purchasing her collection of approximately 300 portraits of First Nations peoples of Western Canada. Identified in her work are ancestors from twenty-four
Western First Nations: in B.C., these include the Cowichan, Chilcotin, Haida, Heiltsuk, Kwakwaka'wakw, Nuu-chah-nulth,
Ktunaxa, Squamish, Stó:lo, Suknaqinx and Tsimshian; on the plains, these include the Cree, Kainai, Piikani, Saulteaux, Sitsika and Tsuu T'ina, among others. When she realized no
government agency or gallery was going to purchase her work, she was so anguished that she wrote a codicil to her will. She stated that her paintings of First Nations peoples should either
be auctioned off or destroyed. To the relief of her executors and heirs, the codicil was improperly witnessed—the work remained intact. That historic legacy is now dispersed in private
as well as corporate, First Nations, public gallery and museum collections. These include the Royal B.C. Museum and Archives, the Glenbow Museum, the Heiltsuk Nation, the McMichael
Canadian Art Collection, the National Gallery of Canada, the Simon Fraser University Gallery, the Squamish Nation and the Vancouver Art Gallery. She has yet to be recognized as an important early Canadian painter.

Sheryl Salloum was born and raised in British Columbia. She has lived and worked in various regions of the province. Sheryl graduated from Simon Fraser University with an English major
and Early Childhood minor. She has taught in the public school and college systems. A freelance writer for over twenty years, Sheryl has published articles in numerous Canadian magazines
and newspapers. Her areas of interest include Canadian art, culture and history, and children’s issues. In 1995, Sheryl published Underlying Vibrations: The Photography and Life of John Vanderpant (Horsdal & Schubart). That book was a finalist for the Hubert Evans Non-Fiction BC Book Prize. In 1987, Sheryl published Malcolm Lowry: Vancouver Days (Harbour Publishing).
She and her husband have one daughter. They live in Vancouver.

Sherrill Grace, who has written the foreword for this book, is Professor
of English at the University of British Columbia, where she has served as Head of Department, Associate Dean of Arts, and ubc Senator. In 2003, she was appointed a ubc Distinguished University Scholar, and in 2008, she won the Canada Council Killam Prize in Humanities. In 2010, she won the Lorne Pierce Medal of the Royal Society of
Canada for her books on the North. She has published 23 books, including
the two-volume edition of Malcolm Lowry’s letters, Inventing Tom Thomson (2004), and Canada and the Idea of North (2002; 2007). Her most recent books are the biography Making Theatre: A Life of Sharon Pollock (2008) and On the Art of Being Canadian (2009). In 2011, Dr. Grace was awarded the title of University Killam Professor.

The Life and Art of Mildred Valley Thornton (Mother Tongue $35.95)
Review (2011)

from David Stouck

Sheryl Salloum’s The Life and Art of Mildred Valley Thornton (Mother Tongue $35.95) challenges the assumption that Emily Carr stands alone. Historically these roughly contemporary B.C. painters have been compared because they were women and because they painted this province’s landscapes and Native subjects. But the comparison has not been kind to Thornton who has been dismissed as technically inferior and lacking an artistic vision.

When researching her subject Salloum showed Gordon Smith photos of Thornton’s work. She tells us he was surprised by how “really, really good” Thornton is. “She did not make pretty pictures” like most women of that era, he observed: “she was gutsy.” Smith’s response is key to this book and its place in Mona Fertig’s important “Unheralded Artists of BC” series because, as part of a younger generation that included B.C. Binning and Jack Shadbolt, Smith had dismissed Thornton chiefly because she was not moving towards abstraction. As art critic for the Vancouver Sun she had carried the banner for representational art into the 1940s and 50s and seemed dated, out of touch. But Smith now sees her work differently, as containing something of “the freshness of Tom Thomson,” and has pronounced certain pieces such as the remarkable Hao Hao Dance of the Bella Coolas as “terrific.”

Terrific is also a way of describing the production values of this fourth volume in the “Unheralded” series: selected watercolours and oils have been given excellent reproduction to highlight the vibrancy of their rich colours and the painter’s bold brush strokes. Thornton may not have embraced abstraction, but she was thoroughly modern when she highlighted the act of painting itself by making visible the rough textures of paint and brush, this post-impressionist technique is especially evident in the book’s cover scene of boats at Kitsilano Beach.

Salloum gives us a lucid, engaging account of the artist’s life. Mildred Valley Thornton (1890-1967), the seventh in a farm family of fourteen children, was born and raised in southern Ontario, attended classes at the Ontario College of Art and, like Carr, had some training in the United States. In 1913, when she was 23, she moved on her own to Regina where she met her future husband and established herself as one of Saskatchewan’s prominent artists. But the Depression ruined her husband’s restaurant business and they relocated with twin sons to Vancouver in 1934 where Thornton immersed herself in the city’s artistic and cultural communities. Her generous, outgoing personality and energetic style were the opposite of the shy and abrasive Emily Carr. Forthright and sociable, she was a devoted wife and mother, and enjoyed friendly relations with her clients and members of the community. But she was like Carr in that she was a woman determined to realize her ambitions as an artist.

Especially important to that goal were her relations with First Nations. Salloum gives us a very balanced view of those relations. Thornton admired and respected Native people and worked hard to dispel negative stereotypes on their behalf, but in today’s terms her efforts were limited by being outside the culture. For example, she advocated for better educational opportunities, but did not recognize the destructive nature of residential schooling. Her retelling of Native myths and stories was unintentionally romantic and patronizing.

At the same time her admiration and respect for Native people was at the heart of what she regarded as her life’s mission—to paint portraits of as many Native elders as possible. Like Carr, she wanted to record a way of life she feared was disappearing and, again like Carr, she went on long expeditions to find her subjects. She travelled wherever she could get a ride, toting her heavy supplies, and sometimes her young sons along. The result was more than 250 portraits of the Native people of western Canada. It was what she considered to be the heart of her life’s work, but it also became the source of heartache. Her goal was to find a gallery or government agency that would buy her “Collection,” but as she was excluded from the art establishment none was to be found. In her last years, Salloum tells us, she experienced the kind of discouragement that Carr knew much of her life, and in a codicil to her will she directed that her First Nations portraits either be auctioned off or destroyed. Fortunately that codicil was improperly witnessed and the work remained intact.

Ultimately, Thornton and Carr should not be compared because, in what is perhaps their best work, they do very different things. Carr, who painted few portraits, moved beyond Native materials to paint the forests and the skies. Here lies her transcendental, what some might call self-absorbed, romantic vision. Thornton’s vision, on the other hand, remained earth-bound. She created her monumental collection of Native portraits, but went on in her larger canvases to portray the activities of the aboriginal people—carving, whaling, assembling for potlatch, engaging in ceremonies, dancing. She is especially good at portraying women at work—cleaning fish, erecting teepees on the plains. These were different subjects and required different technical skills.

There is an unfortunate note in an otherwise informative foreword supplied by Sherrill Grace. She writes that for every major artist like Emily Carr there are hundreds of artists like Thornton who play minor roles in the development of an art form, its appreciation by the public, and its acquisition by less wealthy art lovers. To keep Thornton in the shadows this way is exactly what Salloum’s book does not want to do. Rather it is designed to celebrate a painter whose work is unique and to extend the boundaries for making judgments about art. This Salloum does exceptionally well.


David Stouck is a novelist, short story writer and the biographer of Ethel Wilson.

[BCBW 2011]