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Thursday, March 9, 2017

Mary Ella Dignam

Silver Birches, ca. 1893, Mary Ella Dignam
Mary Ella Dignam was a Canadian painter. And though she painted some richly colorful images of her country's landscape (above), it is not for her paintings that she is best remembered. Mary Dignam was also an art instructor, and apparently an outstanding one. But her reputation as an artist rest most proudly on her skills as an artists organizer. In 1886, she founded and served twice as president of the Women's Art Association of Canada (WAAC). A few years later, Mary Dignam became the driving force behind an effort to commemorate the 400th anniversary of John Cabot's discovery of Canada in 1497. Her efforts took the form of a hand-painted, eight-course, 24-place dinner set, the illustrations all being Canadian subjects, with no two pieces exactly the same. The proceeds (except for 10%) would go to the artists.
Painter, artist educator, and organizer.
Mary Ella Dignam (pronounced DIG-nam) was born Mary Ella Williams in 1857. She grew up in Port Burwell, Ontario, along the north shore of Lake Erie, and studied art at the Western School of Art and Design in London, Ontario. In 1886 she went to New York City to further her training at the Art Students League. A few years later she followed the tracks of most serious young artists of her day by spending time studying in Paris. But it was during the years immediately following her art student days in New York when she returned to Ontario that she made her most indelible mark on the Canadian art world, at least insofar as women artists were concerned.

In the Vineyard, 1893, (attributed to) Mary Ella Dignam
Dutch Interior with Wool Spinners,
1893, Mary Dignam
In the years following her return to Canada in 1891, Mary Dignam taught at a ladies' art school in Toronto and later organized the first Art Studios of Moulton Ladies' College at McMaster Univer-sity. Such was her standing among the women artists of Canada that she was one of six artists chosen to represent Canadian Women Painters at the 1893 Chicago World's Ex-position. Her In the Vineyard (above) is believed to be one of her entries as well as a genre scene, Dutch Interior with Wool Spinners (left). Mary Dignam's painting Peonies (below) was also part of her collection at the World's fair. All three paintings are typical of both her style and subject matter as an artist. She died in 1938 at the age of eighty-one.
Peonies, ca. 1893, Mary Ella Dignam

During her time as president of the WAAC, the group decided in 1896 to commission a state dinner service to be painted on china by members of the association. A competition of Canadian ceramic artists was held, and the work was divided among them according to their individual proficiency in the painting of various subjects. Mary Dignam did not contribute her painting skills to this effort, but instead supervised the work of three of the sixteen artists who did. Design subject matter included Canadian historical scenes, birds, ferns, fish, flowers, and fruits. Each artist was given twenty-four blank ceramic pieces. The artists painted each piece separately with similar (though not identical) designs (below). When finished, each piece was sent back to Doulton in England for final firing.

A sampling of designs by the sixteen ceramic painters of the WAAC.
In July 1897 the service was put on display in Toronto. The project was hailed as the most valuable and interesting work on so large a scale, ever accomplished by the representative talent of the Dominion. It was hoped that it would be accepted by the government and placed where it may be seen, studied, and preserved, marking the first era in ceramics in Canada. However, the government was unwilling to pay the asking price of CDN$1,000. Undeterred, Mary Dignam and her friends petitioned, some members of the Senate and House of Commons for help. They arranged for the service to be bought by private subscriptions from members of the Senate and House of Commons of Canada. In June, 1898, the service was formally presented to Lady Aberdeen after the end of the term of her husband as Governor General. Strangely, the set today rests, not in Canada, but in Scotland where it is on display in the present day home of the Countess and Earl of Aberdeen.

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