At Home at the Onward | The Legacy of Sonia Cornwall and Vivien Cowan


When looking at the development of the visual arts in the interior of British Columbia there are few who cast a shadow as wide spreading as Sonia Cornwall (1919-2006) and her mother Vivien Cowan (1893-1990). Through there desire to further their studies they inadvertently created a community which brought the art world to their home, the Onward Ranch, located near 150 Mile House just south of Williams Lake.

By the 1940's the farmed Onward Ranch and the Cowan family had already firmly secured their place in the annals of British Columbia's development. The origins of the Onward Ranch can be traced back to 1883 when Charles Eagle was granted title to the land located adjacent to the St. Joseph's Mission Ranch which has been established in 1860 by the Oblate Bros. The 11,000 acre cattle ranch and its grand Red Barn served as a livery year, road house and general store for the region and the miners heading northwards to the gold fields. During the long winters the milder climate attracted the miners who would seek refuge from the coldest days of winter before returning to their claims in the Cariboo. The Onward Ranch was purchased by Charles Cowan (1863-1939) and his wife Vivien in 1920 and served as the family home until 1964 when it was sold to the Oblate Bros. upon the sale of the Onward, Vivien and Sonia moved to the Jones Lake Ranch which once served as the yearling pasture for the Onward and there they would remain ranching and painting until their passing.

The incredible art history of the ranch begins in 1943 when Sonia's mother, Vivien Cowan, attended the Banff School of Fine Arts to further her own studies in painting. It was here that she met and befriended A.Y. Jackson a founding member of the Group of Seven. He was attracted to the idea of visiting a working ranch and gladly accepted an invitation from Vivien to spend some time painting and exploring the region. Vivien wired her daughter Sonia telling her to expect A.Y. to arrive by train and asking her to collect him from the station. This was to be the first of many extended visits A.Y. Jackson made to the Onward and it opened the door to many other artists to follow. In 1944 Vivien and A.Y. established the Cariboo Art Society which remains today as one of the oldest active art societies in B.C. It was Jackson;s visit to the Onward Ranch and his encouragement which rekindled Sonia Cornwall's interest in painting and over the intervening years their friendship grew and he become an invaluable mentor. 

Following on the heels of A.Y. Jackson the Onward Ranch quickly developed into something of an artist residency program hosting a constant flow of artists who would spend a few days to a few weeks at the ranch exploring the surrounding country. The artists were drawn to the rugged nature of the land and the incredible hospitality offered by Vivien and her two daughters Sonia and Dru. While at the ranch, the artists engaged in a wide array of activities including painting, printmaking, weaving, pottery and sculpture with the visiting artists teaching classes to both the Cariboo Art Society and the members of the Sugar Cane Reserve. The list of artists is impressive and include such notables as; Zelko Kujundzic, founder of the Kootenay School of Arts, Lilias Torrance Newton, Joseph Plaskett, Takao Tanabe, Molly Bobak, Herbert Siebner and Jack Hardman. The ranch became an invaluable hub of social activity with the Cornwall's welcoming a steady stream of travellers from artists to cowboys to everyone in between.

By the mid 1960's, with her children grown, Sonia increasingly devoted herself to painting the life and land she know and loved, creating a vast body of work unparalleled in the region. Sonia only ever painted with herself in mind and that honesty and knowledge of the land and its inhabitants comes through in her art. Today Sonia Cornwall is considered one of British Columbia's most important artists having received widespread recognition late in life. Her paintings embrace more than just the land's natural beauty, and serve as an invaluable record and document of the Cariboo and the cattle ranching way of life.

This exhibition is as much about the legacy left behind by Sonia and her mother Vivien as it is about the community of artists they brought together. It is incredible to think of the lasting impact this has had on the region and the development of the visual arts in British Columbia. While legendary amongst those in the arts community, this history has for the most part remained unknown. This is in large part due to the modesty of Sonia and Vivien who were more interested in painting than they were in self promotion. the intent of this exhibition is to highlight their contributions and provide some insight into what is possible when one pursues their passion and the incredible impact and lasting legacy they can leave behind even when one is located on the fringe of society. Had the Onward been located closer to a major metropolis, this history would have long ago become mainstream and the names of Sonia and Vivien would have been synonymous with those of their more famous guests. As history continues to teach us the cream does not always rise to the top and we often remember only this who have the best promotion rather than those who have helped build the foundation.