Biographer in Penticton to revive inspirational woman

Biographer Sheryl Salloum will be delivering an illustrated talk about Sonia Cornwall, who was a rancher and painter

After encapsulating the life of an inspirational 20th century rancher and artist, biographer Sheryl Salloum will be delivering an illustrated talk about the woman at the Penticton Art Gallery on Oct. 24.

Sonia Cornwall was born in 1919 and spent nearly all of her life in Williams Lake. As a mother living on a ranch, she was tasked with taxing responsibilities yet managed to make extraordinary contributions as a painter.

“It wasn’t easy for her, but when the kids were small and she could send them out the door for the day, instead of doing her housework, she would spend the first hour or so reading about art or working on a painting,” Salloum said. “She would let everything else slide for a little while, and when she couldn’t let it slide any longer she would get busy and do the work around the home or ranch.”

Cornwall’s paintings, which Salloum suspects there are over 1,000 of, are mostly representative of B.C.’s Cariboo region and its culture.

“They’re very compelling, and they’re very evocative of the Caribou and the Interior. Instead of the lush greens of the Fraser Valley, she’s got the umbers and the golds of the poplar trees,” she said. “Sonia just knew it so well and developed her own style. I actually think of her work as a biography of the Caribou.”

Cornwall’s paintings have been a part of the Penticton Art Gallery, Kamloops Art Gallery and BC Art Collection. Salloum said they’re included in many private collections throughout Europe, the United states and Canada, including the residence of Lieutenant Governor Judith Guichon.

“She’s very well-known, she had many exhibitions throughout the years,” Salloum said. “It’s pretty hard to separate an artist from their life story, and she has a pretty engaging life story because it involves the history of the Caribou and the Interior in the 20th century: the history of ranching; First Nations, and the life of a woman in the 20th century, so it has a lot of different angles.”

Many of the regular chores Cornwall was tasked with on a ranch are now obsolete, and so is the culture that surrounded them.

“While she did go out and work on the ranch, once she was married, her husband really managed the ranch,” Salloum said. “He would do the branding for example, and she would prepare the food for the branding crew.”

The tasks of branding and haying were normally done by teams of people, but technology has made it possible for a single person to accomplish the same work. In the olden days, many workers often did their duties for credit, and payday wasn’t until autumn.

“In Williams Lake in the 1940s you didn’t pay your taxes until after the fall auction,” she said. “But then everybody would all get paid off all their debts for the year.”

After the auction was over, it was time for the community to party.

“Sonia often painted murals and table clothes to help out with celebrations, and without haying and branding parties, that doesn’t really occur anymore.”

Salloum said Cornwall’s work is a “lovely” record of the 20th century, capturing a rural lifestyle that will never be the same.

A copy of Sonia can be ordered through the publisher at Her illustrated talk is free to attend, and takes place at the Penticton Art Gallery between 2 and 4 p.m.