In a genre-bending book, Penticton’s Julie Fowler weaves her search for an understanding of her own passion for art and the mesmerizing story of one of B.C.’s pioneer communities.
“It was a window into a world that held such fascination for me, the life of a Cariboo cowboy,” said Fowler.
Passionate about art and the Cariboo, Fowler created the Grande Dames of the Cariboo. Her writing quest was to find out more about Sonia Cornwall (1919-2006) through interviews, letters, original artworks, articles, imagining conversations and Fowler’s own reflections on the experience. She pieced together a story of pioneering, love and the pursuit of art. By searching for Cornwall, she found the artists’ mother Vivien Cowan (1893-1990) who became a larger part of the story.
“It was creative writing and I always hoped to get it published and heard of Caitlin Press whose focus is stories from the Interior about women by women. My story fit perfectly,” said Fowler, who had a contract sent to her from the publisher within 24 hours of Caitlin Press receiving the book.
Cowan spearheaded the Cariboo Art Society with noted Canadian Group of Seven painter A.Y. Jackson. They had met earlier that year at the Banff School, as well as another Canadian artist of note, Joseph Plaskett. The painters, along with many others would visit Cowan at their property near 150 Mile House, the Onward Ranch.
Fowler said Cowan became the Grande Dame of the Cariboo, hosting some of Canada’s greatest talent while at the same time promoting the work of local artists and creators.
Since releasing Grande Dames of the Cariboo, Fowler has travelled around the province holding talks. She said the book has grown a life of its own and continues with each talk.
“It has been great having people come out and share their stories. I have heard from people who have been part of the Cariboo Arts Society over the years and now don’t live in Williams Lake talk about their stories of Sonia or Vivien,” said Fowler. “One person told me that they learned about art from Vivien and he told the story of girls in the 1940s all being named after her.”
One of the first people Fowler interviewed was Cornwalls’ sister Dru. Also an artist, all three were active in growing the arts scene in the Cariboo. She died about a year after Fowler met her
“It made me realize just how history can slip through your fingers if you let it. I had gone to meet with Dru to hear about Sonia but I started hearing more stories about their mother,” she said. “I found out about her involvement with the Group of Seven, who basically created a Canadian aesthetic, to make Canadian art in a time when it was all coming from Europe and Britain.”
Fowler said she also discovered bits about herself and her passion for art as she researched and wrote the book. Near the end of her writing process, Cowan’s family found and passed along an unpublished autobiography written by Vivien.
“On the cover of the autobiography was a letter from the publisher saying, ‘Sorry Vivien. Thank you for submitting but we are not interested,’” said Fowler. “She tried to get it published and didn’t have any luck so in a funny way I almost feel she is working through me to get her story out. I developed this relationship with Vivien Cowan and her story is now being told.”
Fowler completed her MFA in Creative Writing at UBC Okanagan and has a background in art history.
For more information on The Grande Dames of the Cariboo visit www.caitlin-press.com.