P.K. Page is best known as one of Canada’s finest poets but, under the name P.K. Irwin, she is a gifted and accomplished painter as well. Her paintings, which are very beautiful in their own right, throw a fascinating light on her poetry, with which they share many themes and motifs.
PK’s remarkable gifts as a visual artist were evident from a very early age (see Dancing Man, which she drew when she was only 4), but it was not until her early forties, when she had moved to Brazil with her husband Arthur Irwin, the Canadian ambassador, that she began to paint in earnest – under the name P.K. Irwin, to distinguish her paintings from her writings as P.K. Page. At first she worked in isolation without any training, using whatever materials came to hand, to record her immediate impressions of the exotic new world around her. See, for example, Leaves as Large as Hands, for which she used a felt pen marker. As she began to paint she fell silent as a poet, a silence that would last several years. However, she continued to write, with her trusty Underwood typewriter (see Typewriter), the journal entries that would eventually form the basis of the Brazilian Journal, an extended prose-poem in praise of Brazil, its landscape and people. After some initial hesitation about working in colour, PK began to produce vivid gouaches, reminiscent of Raoul Dufy, portraying the Canadian embassy (see Pink Embassy and Stairwell) and its natural setting (see Flowers) Although most of her early works were realistic, from quite early on PK was drawn to more fanciful subjects and styles, as in Angels, one of her very few paintings which can be directly linked to a particular poem (“Images of Angels”); and Fowl Yard. There are also a number of abstractions, especially a series of “womb paintings” done soon after PK learned she would be unable to bear children (see Womb Form); and Stone Fruit, “the first picture in which I allowed my pen to dream.” These foreshadow the paintings which she was to do in Mexico, both in theme and form.
The years in Mexico, a time of spiritual turmoil and searching, saw PK considerably expand and deepen her repertoire of techniques and themes. Perhaps the most characteristic medium of these years was egg tempera which she developed under the guidance of the surrealist painter Leonora Carrington (see And You What Do You Seek), who also initiated her into the mysteries of gold leaf (see Planet Earth). The paintings of this period are rarely realistic but their biomorphic forms (see A Kind of Osmosis) suggest a deep rootedness in the natural world. Although Carrington’s paintings are very different from PK’s, the example of her openness to mysterious spiritual undercurrents contributed to some of PK’s finest and most complex paintings, such as the disturbingly intense Cosmos (“When Leonora saw it she said ‘I feel I am having a heart attack.'”) and the ecstatic Dance, inspired by a performance of a Chinese opera.
Around this time PK studied etching in New York, while Arthur saw to duties at the UN. The most accomplished and engaging work which she produced at this time is the richly textured Bright Fish very much in the spirit of Paul Klee.
Towards the end of her stay in Mexico, PK seems to have attained a spiritual serenity which, despite the usual buffetings of life, never was to leave her. The paintings she began to produce in Victoria, where she and Arthur settled, are more patterned than her earlier work. See, for example, Excalibur’s Handle, which consists of layers of hole-punched coloured paper embedded in plexiglass; and the mysterious Votive Tablet. Around this time, she also produced a series of austere gouaches, generated by the application of strict geometrical principles to various “kernels” (see Harlequin). Much of her most recent work marks a return to the biomorphic forms of her Mexican period but in a more playful spirit (see Small Suns and Evening Dance); and her Star Bursts (see Star Burst ), produced in her late 80s, express a remarkable joyful exuberance.