Memory Work, Memory Palace and a Homage to Sarah Harvie

February 10, 2007

This painting was done while I was working as art educator at the the National Gallery of Canada, from 1990 to 2000. I called it Homage to Sarah Homage

My job was a dream job for an artist with a deep interest in cultural studies that included history and Canadian studies. While there, I took on a very personal project that became a very public presentation at the NGC for several years – a tour of the NGC’s permanent collection through the lens of African Canadian contributions to Canadian history.

There were very few paintings specific to that topic, but I was able to draw on multitudes of parallel local histories with known histories of art and culture. An example is the way in which I was able to weave the story of Sarah Harvie into the narrative surrounding the 1885 painting by Robert Harris, A Meeting of the School Trustees.

Janelle Thomas is now a successful professional musician but in the 1990s she held a student summer job at the National Gallery of Canada. Even then she exuded a powerful creative energy. Perhaps that is why I wanted to paint her in to my story. I wanted a young self-confident, focused female model who would walk past that history without being weighed down by a rigid omnipresent Victorian conservative mentality. I was looking for a contemporary version of Sarah Harvie. There was something about the way Janelle shone that resonated with my image of the 19th century educator who seemed to be impervious to any constraints others might feel because of a politics of exclusion based on gender, race, age or geography.

I situated Janelle walking past one of CBC’s heritage moments paintings in the room devoted to members and Presidents of the first Royal Canadian Academy. The water court is visible behind her with Orson Wheeler’s bronze larger-than-life, portrait bust of the African Canadian sleeping car porter and community activist, Tommy Simmons, highlighted by natural sunlight beaming through three floors of Moshe Safdie’s glass and pink granite open architecture.

Robert Harris, RCA (Wales, 1849 – Quebec, 1919) was part of the first Royal Canadian Academy painters formed in 1880. In this painting entitled The Meeting of the School Trustees (1885) he immortalizing Kate Henderson’s1 confrontation with self-righteous Victorian values of rural Prince Edward Island. Kate came to represent progressive thought. One of the “women fighting invisibly at her side” (Williamson 1970) was Sarah Harvie. In the Bog, on Rochford Street, was an integrated school for the underprivileged. On Prince Edward Island in the 19th century, the gulf between the rich and the lower classes was enormous. Nowhere was this more obvious than in the Bog area of Charlottetown where many Black Islanders lived. For over fifty years in the Bog School (1848 – 1903) Sarah Harvie, trained more than two thousand children. Sarah, who was African Canadian, was highly respected for the positive influence she exerted on the locality (Hornby 1991). One can imagine the 1860 meeting in Charlottetown similar to the one portrayed here in the Heritage moment YouTube video. In his 1990 book entitled Some protested the fact that children of “respectable parents” were sending their children to Sarah Harvie to benefit from her progressive teaching (Hornby 1991) On the same street as the Bog School was Robert Harris’ family church, St. Peter’s. Harris who returned often to his Island home, was very attached to this Church. His brother was the architect of St. Peter’s Chapel and Harris contributed numerous paintings to decorate the interior. It is from here that Harris was buried in 1919. In the 1880’s Church meetings must have been heated when, against the wishes of more conservative members, St. Peter’s Chapel became a Chapel of Ease for the poor people of the Bog2. The Bog was razed in a redevelopment project shortly after the school’s closing in 1903. With the local community scattered many black Islanders became part of an exodus. Within ten years the Island lost most of its African Canadians. The majority went to Boston, joining thousands of African Canadians moving south in search of community and opportunity (Hornby 1991) In the 1950s when I was growing up in Charlottetown the Bog and its residents were forgotten. The Harris brothers were remembered in architecture, paintings and exhibitions. The fine Victorian mansion called Beaconsfield was the work of Harris the architect. The Harris connection to Charlottetown was revitalized in the Confederation Centre (1967). So it is to them that I link Sarah’s story in my memory palace, the National Gallery of Canada. The name of the one-room school teacher is on the book visible in on the scribbler on the desk in the foreground. In the 1870’s Harris did sketches of “urchins” from the Bog. In 1904 he sketched Sam Martin’s bridge. Martin, a former slave of a Loyalist was the founder of Charlottetown’s black in the early 1800’s. Harris himself had little sympathy with the impoverished. Harris, Robert, RCA. 1885. A Meeting of the School Trustees 1885 Robert Harris RCA (Wales, 1849 – Quebec, 1919) Black Islander: Prince Edward Island’s Historical Black Community. Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. Institute of Island Studies. no.3. Tuck, R.C. 1988. “St.Peter’s Basilica” The Island Magazine. My information was based on a telephone call with Canon Tuck March, 1997. Williamson, Moncrieff. 1970. Robert Harris (1849 – 1919) An Unconventional Biography. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart Limited. Flynn-Burhoe, Maureen. 1997. “Memory Work, Memory Palace and a Homage to Sarah Harvie” The Positive Presence of Absence: a History of the African Canadian Community through Works in the Permanent Collection of the National Gallery of Canada. Creative Commons License 2.5

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