Artist, Teacher, Organizer
Mary Ella Dignam
Mary Ella Dignam was born in 1857 in Port Burwell, Ontario, to Byron and Margaret Ellinor (Ferguson) Williams. From a very young age, Mary showed signs of an artistic inclination, sometimes pulling coloured wool out of the carpets to use in making pictures. As a young girl she stood in front of a bookstore in London, Ontario, and looked longingly at a box of paints displayed in the window. She carried her prized possessions, two leather-bound Latin textbooks, under her arms. Would the bookseller agree to an exchange? He did.
Mary's interest in art proved to be enduring, and she brought to it ambition, willpower and talent. She also benefited from the support of her family. When she was a teenager, her parents were able to send her to art classes in London, Ontario, where Paul Peel was a fellow student. In 1880, she married London businessman John Sifton Dignam. Their marriage was utterly atypical for Victorian Canada, in that Mary was able to leave her husband and children for extended periods to pursue her artistic and professional goals. Mary Dignam studied at the New York Art Students' League in Manhattan, and visited Italy, the Netherlands and Paris.
Soon after her return to Canada in 1886, Dignam came to the view that "women had no recognition or place" in Canadian art societies. Thus, she turned her energies and ambitions to other areas. She became a teacher, and later the head, of a ladies' art school in Toronto, and she organized the Art Studios of Moulton Ladies' College at McMaster University.
In 1886, Mary Dignam organized an informal group of women artists called the Women's Art Club, which later incorporated itself as the Women's Art Association of Canada (WAAC). Of these early years, Dignam wrote that "we had a Royal Academy branch in Toronto but I found I had to do something to open the door for women and the only way seemed to be the organization of the Women's Art Association." The WAAC's aims were to support women in the fine arts and to encourage the preservation and development of crafts in Canada. The organization's activities included exhibitions, lectures, and even outdoor dramatic productions. The WAAC taught jewellery making, weaving and ceramics, and marketed such items as traditional French-Canadian homespuns and hooked rugs. While a clear distinction existed at the time between the fine arts and crafts, the WAAC considered all of these to be art. By 1898, the WAAC boasted nearly 1,000 members and had branches in various Canadian cities. Dignam was president of the WAAC until 1913, after which she continued on as advisory president for many years. Mary Dignam returned as president in 1936 to mark the association's 50th anniversary.
Other Canadian women, including May Phillips and Alice Peck, were also prominent in promoting women in the arts and encouraging crafts, but Mary Dignam's inexhaustible energy put her at centre stage. Dignam held posts in numerous other organizations, including Convenor of Arts and Letters in the National Council of Women of Canada, and head of the Fine and Applied Art section of the International Council of Women. In addition, she suggested a Canada-wide competition to create a historical dinner set. The Senate purchased the 17 dozen pieces and presented them to the wife of the Governor General, the Countess of Aberdeen.
Mary Dignam was appreciated far more as an artist overseas and in the United States than in her own country. Canada's Royal Society of Art (RSA) and the Ontario Society of Artists (OSA) both refused her membership. After her death in 1938, one Toronto reviewer, G.C. McInness, wrote that "Mrs. Dignam was not -- nor did she pretend to be -- an outstanding painter; she was a sincere amateur who, in her enthusiasm for painting, practised what she preached." Yet Dignam exhibited paintings at the RSA and the OSA, at galleries across Canada, at the Chicago World Exposition, and in New York and Paris. Reviewers generally praised her paintings, most of which were landscapes, still-lifes and Dutch scenes. In Paris in 1926, the reviewers were unabashedly enthusiastic. One, commenting on Dignam's depictions of the Canadian autumn, saw in her use of flaming colour an "ornamental style . . . also revelatory of her deeply poetic side" [Translation]. The writer went on to declare that "Mary E. Dignam's beautiful talent is thus finally and officially recognized by Paris" [Translation].
Bonellie, Janet. "Mrs. Dignam's Pursuit: Art and Liberation in Victorian Canada." The Beaver. Vol. 80, No. 3 (June/July 2000), p.35-38.
Hopkins, J. Castell, ed. Canada: An Encyclopaedia of the Country. Volume IV. Toronto: The Linscott Publishing Company, 1898, p. 364.
Heaman, E.A. "Taking the World by Show: Canadian Women as Exhibitors to 1900." Canadian Historical Review. Vol. 78, No. 4 (December 1997), p. 599-631.
"Mary Ella Dignam Artist File" (no file number). Ottawa: The National Gallery of Canada Library.
McLeod, Ellen Easton. In Good Hands: The Women of the Canadian Handicrafts Guild. Montréal: Published for Carleton University by McGill-Queen's University Press, 1999, p. 36-41.
Morgan, Henry James, ed. Types of Canadian Women. Volume 1. Toronto: William Briggs, 1903, p. 89.