Thelma Pepper: Ordinary Women. A Retrospective highlights the life’s work of one of Saskatchewan’s preeminent senior artists, Thelma Pepper (1920-2020), an important photographer, feminist and activist. Known for her black and white photographs, Pepper documented the lives of prairie women and men, putting their experiences and resilience into focus. Connecting through shared stories, Pepper illuminated the critical roles women held within their seemingly ordinary, everyday environments. Her photographs of elders are exemplified by compassion, dignity and intimacy, coming from her deep curiosity and warmth, putting her subjects at ease. Pepper was a vibrant spirit and brilliant storyteller.
Thelma Pepper produced three bodies of work, printing the portraits and panoramic landscapes out of her apartment darkroom and studio, each series published in a monograph. In Decades of Voices: Saskatchewan Pioneer Women (1990) she combined photographs, a script and recorded interviews of women, all over the age of 85, gathered over eight years. Pepper said, “I wish to honour these ‘ordinary women’ of Saskatchewan who … are often regarded as unimportant, separate from our society, their knowledge out of date and their interests irrelevant to what is happening now.”
Pepper’s landscape photography evolved directly from her portrait work, as she often travelled to the small towns where her subjects lived. The Spaces of Belonging (1996) series began as an exploration of the towns along Highway 41 that were slowly disappearing or already gone. Untie the Spirit (2004) highlighted the dynamic lives of the elders living at the Sherbrooke Community Centre, a long-term care facility in Saskatoon.
Pepper was introduced to photography early in life, as both her grandfather and father were amateur photographers. Before embarking on her own creative path, her interest in photography was reignited by developing many of their negatives, recalling the techniques she learned as a young girl in her father’s darkroom. The exhibition includes some of these early images as well as a selection of works by Rosalie Favell, Mattie Gunterman, Dorothea Lange, Frances Robson and Sandra Semchuk—offering intimate and critical insights into Pepper’s work. Ordinary Women focuses on the depiction of elderly women, women in rural and small town life, and a selection of audio interviews Pepper recorded. Including select work of other important female photographers adds context and enhances the perceptions of women, providing a larger frame in which to consider Pepper’s work beyond its value as an historical record.
Thelma Pepper: Ordinary Women. A Retrospective is co-curated by Sandra Fraser, Curator (Collections), Remai Modern and Leah Taylor, Curator, University of Saskatchewan Art Collection.
Thelma Pepper (1920-2020) was a Saskatoon-based artist, who was born in Nova Scotia, where she was introduced to photography by her grandfather and father. Pepper studied biology at Acadia University in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, completing a Bachelor of Science and later, a Master of Science at McGill University, Montreal. Having moved to Saskatoon in 1947, it was not until after her four children were grown that she began her own photographic work.
Pepper was active with The Photographer’s Gallery, an artist-run exhibition and resource centre dedicated to photography as an artistic practice. At the age of 69, she had her first solo exhibition in 1990, entitled Decades of Voices: Saskatchewan Pioneer Women, which went on to travel across Canada and to Scotland.
Pepper was the subject of a National Film Board of Canada production, A Year at Sherbrooke in 2009, and was the recipient of the Lieutenant Governor’s Arts Award—Lifetime Achievement (2014) and the Saskatchewan Order of Merit (2018). The exhibition coincides with the publication of Pepper’s biography, written by Amy Jo Ehman and published by MacIntrye Purcell.
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