Edna McPhail : Inspiring Spirit

By Jody FarrellEdna McPhail

Edna McPhail greets you at the door with an energy that defies her 82 years. She’s got a handshake and a look that somehow puts you both at ease and attention. This is one firecracker of a woman.

“Never downsize,” she advises as she moves swiftly through her brightly lit condo unit in the heart of Dawson Creek. “I’ve had to get rid of so much, and now I can’t find a thing.” She easily removes a heavy, framed watercolour from above her bed for better viewing, then is off to dig out little mementoes of her abundant career of giving to the arts.

The few scrapbooks and photo albums she still has document over half a century of service to the community. She pours over them wistfully, sometimes stopping to laugh at a memory, or share it with Jim, who sits quietly nearby reading the newspaper. Asked what it’s been like to live all these years with an artist, her husband pauses, and, with a smile that says more than he’ll betray, simply replies, “Interesting.”

McPhail came to Dawson Creek in 1950 as a teacher. Born in Medicine Hat in 1923 and raised in British Columbia, she wanted to experience the province’s more northern reaches. By 1970, she and Jim had already given enough of themselves to be awarded Dawson Creek’s Citizens of the Year, and still, nearly 35 years later, she’s the person most will credit with continuing to shape and support the visual arts in this South Peace city.

Winters EdgeWhile McPhail left full-time teaching to raise her family shortly after her marriage to Jim, she never stopped teaching art to children and adults, and still runs the Wednesday seniors art program at The Dawson Creek Art Gallery. These experiences would keep any single human busy, let alone a mother of four, and yet, Edna has done much more than teach. She’s been part of the development of many civic projects, including a library, and in 1985 was awarded a lifetime membership to the local curling club for her work at local and district levels. Other awards have recognized her outstanding contribution to cultural heritage. Still, it’s the visual arts she feels most passionate about.

One of her proudest achievements came while serving a second term as president of the South Peace Art Society in 1982. The Society ran a public art gallery in a space it shared with the area museum. Cramped quarters and a desire for something grander spawned an idea to save one of the remaining Alberta Wheat Pool grain elevators. “I was standing there (near the grain elevators), thinking about what we could do, and it just came to me,” she says today. It all happened fairly quickly, as the committee wishing to save and move the elevator and its annex from its original location to its current site five blocks east, learned that the sale was conditional upon their moving the buildings in 40 days. The elevator was renovated and opened as The Dawson Creek Art Gallery, and now, 20 years later, attracts as many history buffs as arts enthusiasts throughout the year.

“It was really interesting to watch,” McPhail says of the hours-long relocation of the elevator. “Here it was, this big building slowly moving down the street, and hardly a person batting an eye. The pigeons came right along with it, never moving off.”

Watercolours from a series McPhail painted following a visit to the Galapagos Islands.We laugh about how blasé we tend to be about the oddest sights: Entire living accommodations are rolling down the Alaska Highway bound for some unknown destination we presume has to do with the oilpatch. “Who really knows what they’re doing out there?” Edna titters mischievously. That’s the true artist’s imagination at work; the one that inspires awe and a sense of the wildest possibilities.

McPhail’s own art – several watercolours and acrylics hang alongside those of such well-known friends and relatives as Robert Guest and Allison Forbes – is primarily landscape and still life. Her mixed media and collage works are housed somewhere else. McPhail’s compositions are playful, and her style loose and happy. The titles reflect not only a keen eye for everyday miracles, but a sly sense of humour: She has named a watercolour of ravens feasting beneath a restaurant garbage bin Breakfast at Smitty’s.

It’s the desire to share this sense of wonder that keeps McPhail teaching. “I try to teach them to look at things their own way. Nothing should be a forgone conclusion.” Then, looking up from her fat, weighty scrapbook, with not a whiff of pretense, McPhail adds, “I have also always thought you should leave something to show you were here.”


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