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In the 1960s, long before Jennifer Dickson moved to Ottawa, she was considered a budding superstar in the London art world. One magazine touted her emergence with a spread that declared her one of the “prettiest girls in modern art.”
Dickson and I had a hearty laugh about that headline during a wide-ranging interview in a meeting room at the Ottawa Art Gallery, but the label didn’t land well at the time.
“It really pissed me off,” recalls Dickson, who’s now 87 and still speaks in a proper British accent. “All the chaps wouldn’t take us seriously at all. It was a key moment in my development as a feminist.”
Decades later, Dickson is one of five artists to be honoured by the Ottawa Art Gallery – not for their looks – but for their contributions to the city’s art scene. Dickson is the only woman to be feted in what the gallery calls an investiture ceremony, but could also be considered a lifetime-achievement award.
She is sharing the honour with Norman Takeuchi, Russell Yuristy, Duncan de Kergommeaux and Michael Sproule, all of whom have had a hand in the establishment of the Ottawa Art Gallery and the evolution of the arts in Ottawa.
For her part, Dickson has been making art since childhood, growing into a practice that encompasses painting, photography and printmaking, including hand-tinted photo etchings, giclee, black and white silver gelatin and cibachrome prints. She has had more than 60 one-person exhibitions in six countries, and participated in more than 400 group exhibitions.
Dickson is widely known for her studies of ancient gardens in England and Europe, and for her lectures on gardens, which ran in Ottawa, Montreal and Australia in the 1980s and 90s.
But when the artist and her husband first moved to Ottawa in the mid-70s, she thought the city lacked an artistic culture. There were talented artists but the National Gallery of Canada paid little attention to them, and municipal councillors thought that having another gallery would be a waste of taxpayers’ money.
We started to get upset with what was happening at museums and public galleries because it hadn’t occurred to any of them to pay the artists. They thought if they showed your work, you could live on fresh air
It was former mayor Marion Dewar who championed the notion of providing space for the arts, Dickson recalls. In 1986, the city handed over the old courthouse and police station building at Daly and Nicholas to a 30-member board of businessmen and members of the arts community. Arts Court held its first exhibition in 1988.
The vision for a spacious and modern gallery was finally realized in 2018 with the grand re-opening of the Ottawa Art Gallery after a $38-million renovation.
Dickson was also an early supporter of CARFAC (Canadian Artists’ Representation/Le Front des artistes canadiens) and a key force in the fight for artists’ rights, a battle that went to the Supreme Court of Canada.
“We started to get upset with what was happening at museums and public galleries,” she explained, “because it hadn’t occurred to any of them to pay the artists. They thought if they showed your work, you could live on fresh air – while they printed your work on coffee mugs or posters and sold them in the shop.”
In 2014, the artists won when the Supreme Court found in favour of minimum artists fees.
Dickson’s most recent project is a selection of short poems. Her third volume of poetry, Poems for a Phantom Lover also includes photographs drawn from her research into the structure and symbolism of historic gardens, and autobiographical passages.
The book was written during the pandemic after the death of her husband, when she sold their house, moved to a seniors’ home and gave up her studio space. “Instead of going round the bend, I wrote this book,” she said. “That’s where I am today.”
Born in South Africa, the second eldest in a family of six children, Dickson started drawing on the walls of the family home, to the consternation of her father. He signed her up for some art lessons at a nearby convent, where a nun taught watercolour painting. “I absolutely loved it,” Dickson recalls. She was an enthusiastic art student throughout school.
Dickson attended Goldsmith’s College School of Art in London, where she discovered etching, and studied in Paris with Stanley William Hayter, the master printmaker who was known for his work with the likes of Picasso and Chagall. She spent five years in Paris, where she met a chartered accountant named Ron Sweetman, the jazz enthusiast who became her husband.
The young couple settled in England to pursue their careers. Dickson was teaching a graduate print-making program at Brighton College of Art, and her own work was in demand. Life was busy and fulfilling until their son was born. After just 10 days off, Dickson went back to work while a full-time nanny cared for the baby. She was not happy.
They made the decision to leave England, and Sweetman joined an accounting firm in Kingston, Jamaica. But living in Jamaica had its own challenges, including the poverty, racism and political unrest that led to the Trenchtown riots of the late 60s.
The family moved again, this time to Montreal, partly because both Dickson and Sweetman spoke French. Dickson was delighted to land a job at the Saidye Bronfman Centre for the Arts because she could use the printing press for her own projects on the weekends.
One weekend Dickson was working on her portfolio when she happened to meet Bronfman. The art-loving philanthropist bought Dickson’s work on the spot and arranged an exhibition. The opening took place in October 1970, the same night a British diplomat in Montreal was kidnapped by members of Front de libération du Québec (FLQ) and RCMP filled the streets.
“That was my launch into the art world of Canada,” Dickson recalls.
They lived in Montreal for a few more years until Sweetman landed a job in the federal government. In 1976, they moved to Ottawa.
Luckily for the city, they stayed.
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