Balancing on a Thread

By Amy Reiswig, September 2014

Pat Bovey’s new book on the life of Pat Martin Bates, and the transformative power of her art.

The term “local luminary” usually means someone who shines in the community, but in the case of Victoria artist Pat Martin Bates and art historian Pat Bovey, it can also mean people who illuminate. These two women are both stars in their respective fields who also shine light on the importance of art in society through dedicated community involvement and a deep desire to share their sense of wonder and possibility.  

Bovey is currently shining a light on PMB (as Bates is often referred to) in the new book Pat Martin Bates: Balancing on a Thread (Frontenac House, April 2014). Born in New Brunswick and a Victoria resident since 1963, PMB is an internationally-celebrated printmaker, sculptor, painter and, as Bovey shows us, overall boundary-pusher. 

Renowned for multilayered, perforated prints that change dramatically when lit or unlit, PMB was on the leading edge of artists working with plexiglass, mylar and lightboxes—taking printmaking off the flat page—and also helped inaugurate UVic’s printmaking program as the first woman teaching in the fine arts department. The first Canadian to attend the Académie des Beaux Arts in Antwerp and the only Canadian to achieve the Global Graphics Award in Holland, PMB’s chronology of achievements is stunning. Over her career (she’s now 87), her shows and awards have become too numerous to recount but include the Queen’s Jubilee Medal, membership in the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts, and fellowship in the Royal Society of Canada.

Yet with all her awards and firsts, PMB has not had, Bovey believes, the recognition she deserves at home, having garnered more attention and accolades internationally. Bovey goes out of her way to show that PMB deserves recognition not just for her innovative work (using gravel, pressed and folded copper, grommets and piercings with things like her grandmother’s hatpin or a gramophone needle) but for the way she lives her life, for the person she is.

Divided thematically rather than chronologically, the book introduces us to PMB the technical innovator but also PMB the traveller, thinker, friend and mentor with an interest in, among other subjects, Sufism, Buddhism, numerology, geometry, astronomy, theosophy and alchemy—all of which surface in her work. “She took the spiritual and technical in new directions,” Bovey tells me over tea in Oak Bay. “Before the Canadian world caught up to the idea of multiple religions and the dimensions behind cultures, Pat was there. She was exploring the roots, philosophies and entities of multiculturalism, pulling out those links. If more of us pulled out those links, we might not be seeing some of the things we’re seeing today.”

The book is therefore very personal, drawing on seven years of research, interviews and correspondence. As a result, we hear a lot from PMB herself. We hear, for example, about the early loss of her father (who built her first studio out of an old chicken coop), many moves for her husband’s military career and, often, a theme of survival, with PMB explaining that “The thing in mankind that will survive comes from seeing things and feeling things and the wonder of what they mean.” One stand-out instance came after moving from Ottawa to Wainwright, Alberta. PMB was challenged but allowed herself to be changed by the harsh winter landscape, especially the silence and snow: “It was like going into the desert to meet one’s soul,” she told a friend, and her meditative textured white-on-white works evoke that new vision. 

For PMB, who also taught children’s classes in Alberta, allowing creativity to transform one’s vision was key. “I soared like a red-shouldered hawk,” PMB told Bovey, “alive to looking.” 

This being alive to looking runs through much of PMB’s outer and inner explorations. Whether it’s retracing the route of Alexander the Great, walking Japan’s famed Kisoji Road, volunteering as a deckhand on a replica of Darwin’s Beagle, teaching printmaking to young women in India, or camping by Rumi’s tomb, PMB tells Bovey in an interview that “My travelling is not travelling to travel; it is travelling to get yourself to where you are so you are seeing things afresh—so your eyes get tuned in again.” 

This commitment to renewed vision and possibility was not just for her own development. A founding member of the Victoria branch of Zonta Interational (dedicated to improving women’s lives in developing countries), PMB travelled to China, Russia and parts of Africa. Here in Victoria, she founded Signal Hill Creative Centre (which became XChanges Gallery), and is a founding member of the Community Arts Council of Greater Victoria. Nationally, PMB is a founding member of Canadian Artists’ Representation/Le Front des Artistes Canadiens (CARFAC) and served on the National Prison Arts Advisory Board, among many other community and artistic involvements. As a teacher, she brought students into her art-full home and brought their work abroad—for instance, taking student Rose Spahan’s work, as well as that of other Coast Salish artists, to the Ljubljana International Print Exhibition. “I still run into her former students who say ‘I wish you’d talked to me for the book!’” Bovey laughs, noting so many have wonderful stories to share about the woman that friend and colleague Mary Kerr calls “a hope generator.”

It’s clear Bovey is the perfect person to write this book, as she shares many of the same values and drives, including taking non-traditional approaches. “I wanted to show that you can do art history differently, do biography differently,” she explains, noting the book came out of a sense of unfinished business, having been denied funding to produce an exhibit catalogue for a show of PMB’s work that Bovey curated at the AGGV years ago. It’s a book accessible to academics and non-academics and, through Bovey’s professional research and analysis, we also see sweet glimpses of the friendship between author and subject. “Walking with her, one is aware that she notices the tiniest of flowers…” Bovey writes, tenderly. With over 100 colour photographs, it’s a book written and designed, Bovey says, “with respect and affection,” down to the end papers: silver at the front and gold at the back to underscore PMB’s interest in alchemy and the transformative power of her art.

Less visible, but nevertheless behind the book, is Bovey’s own list of accomplishments. She is an author (including A Passion for Art: The Art and Dynamics of the Limners and Myfanwy Pavelic: Inner Explorations), arts consultant, international lecturer and former director of the AGGV (1980-1999) and the Winnipeg Art Gallery (1999-2004). Previously an adjunct professor at UVic's School of Public Administration, she now teaches art history, cultural policy and arts management at the University of Winnipeg but maintains a residence in Victoria, where she escapes to write. Last spring she curated a major retrospective of Carole Sabiston’s work at the AGGV (and wrote an accompanying book). Like PMB, Bovey also sits and has sat on an incredible list of boards, including at the National Gallery of Canada and the Federal Museums Task Force. A Fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts (UK), Bovey has received the Queen’s Golden Jubilee Medal, Canadian Museums Association Distinguished Service Award, Royal Canadian Academy of Arts Medal and, more locally, the Victoria Community Awards Arts Leader Award of Merit, among other honours.

Like PMB, Bovey is committed to nurturing future arts workers and promoting the arts to those who might not otherwise step into a gallery. During her tenure at the AGGV she initiated the Moss Street Paint-In. Back in Winnipeg, she started a gallery at St Boniface Hospital for visitors and patients. Just as PMB has called art “a nutrient,” Bovey refers to research showing that art gallery goers get out of hospital a few days earlier and live, on average, two years longer. “When I talk with health ministers, I cheekily say I’m helping with hallway medicine,” Bovey laughs. 

But Bovey is completely serious about the vital role art plays in society. She is like PMB’s hawk with new eyes, one who has built a career on helping people, from politicians to hospital patients, see things newly. Now, in Balancing on a Thread, Bovey helps us see Pat Martin Bates and her work anew, encouraging us to share in the artist’s sense of wonder and the many ways to shine in our community.


Pat Martin Bates: Balancing on a Thread is available at Munro’s, the AGGV, and Eclectic Art Gallery (with some examples of her work at the latter).

Writer and editor Amy Reiswig has new respect for the artist and woman that can be described simultaneously as a “one woman global artistic support unit,” “healing for the world” and “a kook.”