Galt Museum curator Wendy Aitkens found a kindred spirit when Lethbridge resident Katharine Twiss donated a nineteenth century work box to the museum and traced the origins of its owner Edith Kirk — a well travelled Victorian era artist, who called Lethbridge home among other places at the turn of the century.
So Aitkens decided to follow in her footsteps and write the the story of her life by going to the same places and following her travels.
“ I’ve written lots of press releases and information panels, but this is my first book,” she said.
“I spent three weeks in England. I went to the houses she lived in. I even went into the house where she was born. Because in England you can do that. Here, it would have been torn down,” enthused Aitkens, who noted one of her favourite works is a pastoral landscape which features mountains and atmosphere.
“She signed it ‘For Myself’ which means she painted it just for her. And it captures much of her work. There’s lots of atmosphere, and mountains. And it is something that I would paint,,” she said of the work, which is one of several Twiss donated.
Edith Fanny Kirk was born to a middle class family in Sheffield, England in 1858 and passed away in Lethbridge in 1953.
Her mom died when she was three and her father took care of her after that he remarried, she didn’t get along with her new stepmother, so her father gave her the means to study art in school and eventually pursue her dream.
“This is the first book the Galt Museum has published in a long time. I’m very proud of it. It’s been my baby. When we took it to the printer, I couldn’t change anything anymore,” she said.
Aitkens developed an instant connection with her subject by delving into Kirk’s life.She talked with a lot of people, did a lot of research on line and even did a genealogy search into her life.
Kirk studied in Europe, moved to Canada in 1918 and moved coast to coast from Halifax to Vancouver, before settling in Lethbridge, then moving to Atlin in northern B.C. at the tail end of the Yukon gold rush. She was an art teacher for a while, which gave Aitkens her next clue to unravel a six year-long mystery.
“ As soon as I found one of her pieces in our archives, the story became so personal to me. I love making water-colours paintings and I love nature too,” Aitkens enthused. She added Kirk fascinated her because she stood out for her time as an independent young woman who never married, travelled the world on her own and made a living as an artist.
“ That was difficult at the time even for a man,” she said.
“She fell in love with the prairies and the mountains,” Aitkens observed.
She tracked down former students and looked into Kirk’s own mentors and art teachers.
“ I found works by one of her teachers, Alfred Rich. He was her mentor and passed away before she did,” Aitkens said, adding the exhibit also has works by some of Rich’s other students, which typifies the art of the time.
At the end of it all, she discovered 25 works from Kirk, some of her students and contemporaries to make up the exhibit which coincides with the launch of Aitkens’ first book “ A Legacy of Adventure and Art: The Life of Miss Edith Fanny Kirk.”
The works were either donated to the Galt Museum or loaned to the museum.
Eric Lowe, who most people know for being part of Playgoers of Lethbridge edited the book.
He had never heard of Kirk before Aitkens brought the project to him.
He was immediately taken with Aitkens’ enthusiasm for Kirk’s live.
“ It is really two disjointed stories,” Lowe said, adding he helped Aitkens interweave the two stories.
“ I just changed one word. I added the word ‘My’ in front of Edith Kirk, which helped convince her to add her story to Kirk’s story,” Lowe said, adding he also helped Aitkens temper her enthusiasm for Kirk.
“ I had some questions. So I talked with her about them. I wanted to make sure the readers would not be left with their questions unanswered,” he said.
“ She was a Victorian lady who defied conventions,” he said.
The exhibit officially opens June 7 from 2-3 p.m. but the exhibit will be on display until Oct. 12.