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Endless Little Bits | Tricia Sellmer and Julia Bullock-Webster (1826-1906)

It is always gratifying to get a request from a scholar or an artist who wishes to access and study the works in our permanent collection. This was the case shortly after I arrived in Penticton when I received a phone call from the Kamloops based artist Tricia Sellmer who was researching the life and work of Julia Bullock-Webster (1826-1907). Not only was I excited that Tricia would travel to Penticton to go through our holdings, her research was also my introduction to the work of Julia Bullock-Webster and the encounter provided the impetus to look deeper into our permanent collection.  As a result, the focus of our collection’s policy has shifted to documenting the artwork of contemporary and historical women living and working in British Columbia and, we are currently mounting an exhibition based on Julia Bullock-Webster’s work.

Tricia Sellmer’s interest in Julia Bullock-Webster is twofold. On the one hand, artistically, Tricia is intrigued by the portrayal of place especially as it is captured and defined by the domestic lives of women.  Secondly, the two women literally shared a sense of place as both had lived in the Similkameen Valley albeit more than fifty years apart, and the familiarity of landscape, family and place names deeply connected them.  Over the ensuing years as I became more aware of Tricia’s direction, I proposed that we host an exhibition at the gallery drawing upon her experiences and research into the life and work of Julia Bullock-Webster. The resulting exhibition is a conversation which spans the decades and draws upon the commonality of experience and the same joy and wonderment found observing the landscape while taking the time to truly see and document the daily changing world.

Julia Bullock-Webster was a 69 year old British widow when she left Oxford, England in 1894. Accompanied by two of her daughters, she crossed the Atlantic and the continent arriving in the Similkameen Valley where her two sons had homesteaded in 1891.  During her stay in Keremeos from 1894 to 1896, Julia Bullock-Webster created detailed journals of her activities along with a superb body of artwork. Written over her twenty month sojourn, Julia Bullock-Webster documented the homestead’s daily domestic activities, her interactions with the area’s local residents and her perceptions of the seasonal changes in the valley’s landscape. She also used watercolours to render botanical sketches of the Similkameen’s flora and to paint seasonal landscape images.

In October, 1895 she wrote, “If this country is a grand field for a Botanist, one might call it a paradise for the Artist, everything that is lovely in nature is to be found...   Skies, rocks, water, trees, most brilliant colouring.  Mountain valleys.  Endless exquisite little bits, perfect pictures in themselves, for Nature seems to place itself to be artistic, even fallen trees will be lovely to the last & graceful to the last.  I cannot imagine anything more intensely enjoyable than a first rate artist coming to this country which offers to him such beautiful subjects for pictures.” 

Born in the Penticton Regional Hospital in 1949, Tricia Sellmer spent her first seventeen years living on an orchard in the small village of Cawston, located three miles southeast of Keremoes. Having left the Similkameen Valley over forty years ago has not tempered her childhood memories andher ingrained connection to the places and landscapes that Julia Bullock-Webster both painted and wrote about. Her quest to find Julia Bullock-Webster brought Tricia back to that place of innocence and wonderment and to a time where little had changed in the fifty years which separated their connection to the valley.  It also reinforced Tricia’spersonal artistic exploration which has concentrated on making the invisible, visible and finding the extraordinary in the ordinary.  Tricia finds inspiration in the personal and veiled subtleties of the garden, the shifting patterns of the landscape and the domestic lives of women and this she also found in abundance in the work of her muse.

Julia Bullock-Webster’s diaries are now in the collection of the Provincial Archives in Victoria and the Penticton Art Gallery is the fortunate recipient of numerous watercolours which were donated to our collection in by the artist's grand-daughter and the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria. Until very recently, works and collections such as these were not seen as artistically important as the women who created them were not deemed to be professional artists. The fact is most women took at lessons as part of their finishing school and created artwork throughout their lives. These works once regarded as banal or whimsical are now finding a new and appreciative audience amongst the art viewing public and increasingly amongst art historians as well.

Tricia Sellmer is a multi-layered, multi-medium Canadian artist working primarily within the parameters of painting and drawing. Her interests are three pronged.  The first probes the hidden workings of a garden. The second finds the extraordinary in the ordinary and focuses largely on the domestic lives of women and in particular those lives that have been silenced. The third connects the dots and blurs the boundaries between genres, often in collaboration with other artists who work in a different medium. She holds degrees from the University of British Columbia, Thompson Rivers University and the Transart Institute.  Her work hangs in public and private collections throughout North America and Europe. When not traveling, Tricia continues to live in work in her studio just outside of Kamloops.

The exhibition Endless Little Bits offers us a unique and honest look into the lives of both of these women and the daily world of the Similkameen Valley which they both cherished.