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Profiles of Alberta Women

Annora Brown

Annora Brown
Image courtesy of the estate of Annora Brown.

Early life and education

Annora Brown was born in Fort Macleod, Alberta, in 1899. Her father, Edmund Forster Brown, was a member of the Northwest Mounted Police who came to Fort Macleod through the Crowsnest Pass with the infamous Kootenay Brown as a guide. There he met Elizabeth Ethel Cody, who herself came to Fort Macleod from Ontario to become one of the first schoolteachers for the community. It was Elizabeth who introduced her daughter Annora to art. While in Ontario, Elizabeth had taken art classes with Canadian artist Florence Carlyle, and she in turn encouraged her daughter to try her hand at painting and drawing.

Annora was also influenced at an early age by her mother’s friends and acquaintances. Elizabeth served as the club librarian for the Fortnightly Club, a literary and cultural group for women. While Annora herself was too young to attend, upon returning home Elizabeth would tell her about meetings where they studied different countries, including the artistic heritage of places such as Italy, France, and Japan. In addition to the Fortnightly Club, Elizabeth was also a member of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), through which she and Annora met women including Nellie McClung, Louise McKinney, and Henrietta Muir Edwards, who gifted Annora some of her own unused art supplies.

I was brought up in two worlds.

There was the real world of great prairie distance, high skies, foothills, blue mountains, berry picking, snow, winds, frostbite, mosquitoes, humble frame houses, elevators, wheat fields. That was my home, I grew up there.

There was also a dream world where nothing ever went amiss. A world of castles, beautiful churches with marvelous choirs, concert halls, trees, sugaring off parties in the maple woods, ocean waves, sandy beaches. That was the world of the grown-ups. All the adults that I knew had been born in wonderful places called Down East, the Old Country, Home.

It seemed that someone was always feeling sorry for me. ‘What a pity that she has to grow up in a place like this…’

My mother, so alert to the struggles of my mind, so wise in guiding it to larger thinking, said emphatically, ‘No. Those people are thinking of their childhoods. They can’t see what is in front of them for looking at what is behind them. Don’t spoil your life by looking in far corners for what is right before your eyes.’

Annora Brown, Sketches from Life (Edmonton: Hurtig Publishers, 1981), 6-7.

As a young woman, Annora traveled to Ontario to attend the Ontario College of Art from 1925 to 1929. While there, she studied under notable Canadian artists including Arthur Lismer, Lawrence Harris, and J. E. H. MacDonald. All three were members of the Group of Seven, artists dedicated to the creation of a distinctly Canadian art movement, rooted in the depiction of landscapes in innovative ways. The schooling at the Ontario College of Art encouraged development of individual style, and drove students to represent Canada’s many distinctive regions in unique ways.

Annora was deeply influenced by the new modernism of these artists, driven both to contribute to a burgeoning art movement that was distinctly Canadian, and to break from traditional, conservative approaches to art that predominated at the time.

I acquired a profound respect for the intellect and ability of women and a conviction that their activities need not be limited to polishing furniture and raising babies. This conviction sustained me in later years of doubt and discouragement.

Annora Brown, Sketches from Life (Edmonton: Hurtig Publishers, 1981), 77.

In addition to being taught by legendary Canadian artists, Annora also met and befriended other Alberta artists while in Ontario. These included Gewn Hutton and Euphemia McNaught, the latter of whom Annora would later travel with on sketching trips in Alberta. As westerners in an eastern Canadian school, Annora and Euphemia, as well as fellow student Illingworth Kerr, shared the realization that the Canada from which they came did not figure into Canada as represented in art, a lack that Annora and her fellow western artists would set out to change.1 As a student, Annora excelled, receiving multiple scholarships and graduating with a Diploma in Applied Design with Honours.

Painting and teaching Alberta

In 1929, after she completed her diploma, Annora returned to Alberta and took a position teaching art at Mount Royal College in Calgary. While there she took on the task of developing the art program at the school, but had her time at the school cut short when, in 1931, she was obliged to return to Fort Macleod to care for her ailing parents. While the move meant separation from the wider art community, through determination and a home studio Annora was able to forge a successful and enduring career in the relative isolation of her hometown.

While staying in Fort Macleod, Annora found work with the Faculty of Extension at the University of Alberta. She was hired to teach community art classes, which brought her all around southern Alberta to areas including Lethbridge, Medicine Hat, Crowsnest Pass, Brooks, and High River. It was during this time that Annora was able to develop her enduring style, sketching and painting the scenes she encountered while traveling. People, flowers, structures, and landscapes all found their way into her work, brought to life in bold colours as she captured the unique regional identity of her prairie home. Following her modernist training, Annora articulated a sense of place for southern Alberta, connecting it to the emerging Canadian identity while retaining a unique regionality for a part of the country that had up to then been seldom depicted in art.

Illustration from Totem, Tipi & Tumpline (1955)
Illustration from Totem, Tipi & Tumpline (1955). Image courtesy of the estate of Annora Brown.

In 1945 Annora found work teaching at the Banff School of Fine Arts, where she taught mainly during the summers until 1950. In 1951 she was able to travel to England and France, taking the opportunity to meet with other artists while reaffirming her own identity as an isolated artist working to capture less well-trod subjects. It was also in the 1950s that Annora was commissioned by the Glenbow Foundation for her most enduring project: the creation of two hundred paintings of the wildflowers of Alberta.

A lifelong gardener of wildflowers, Annora had a deep knowledge of the many specimens found in the prairies and foothills of her home, and herself raised almost one hundred varieties. It was this knowledge, coupled with her artistry, that led her to travel Alberta for three years, finding, sketching, and painting with watercolour and casein two hundred rare wildflowers for the Glenbow Foundation. She produced an additional three hundred images of flowers on behalf of private persons in Alberta, resulting in an average of three paintings a week. Eschewing the more dry, biological approach to depicting flora, Annora instead used vibrant colours to paint the feel of the flowers, including in her pieces the backgrounds in which the flowers were found, opting to bring them to life rather than pin them to a page.

Foothills village painting
Foothills village. Image courtesy of the estate of Annora Brown.

Annora also channeled her knowledge of Alberta and its flora to writing, illustrating, and publishing her first book, Old Man’s Garden, in 1954. The book, featuring depictions of flowers in pen and ink, weaves Indigenous knowledge of the plants of southern Alberta with stories of exploration and settlement, and Annora’s personal concerns around conservation. A true labour of love, the book was the product of decades of traveling, researching, gardening, and conversing with the land, plants, and people of southern Alberta. Of particular note are the Blackfoot people, whose knowledge, culture, and lore make up a large part of the work. The Blackfoot creator god Old Man, or Napi, lends his name to the book title, and appears in the work as the creator of the garden that Annora describes and depicts.

The Indians . . . had a perfect genius for choosing the most poetic and significant names for things about them. ‘Earth Ears,’ they called these furry ears [crocus] which, so soon after the snow drifts melt, the prairies thrust up to listen for the first rustling of spring.

Annora Brown, Old Man’s Garden (Sidney: Gray’s Publishing, 1970), 12.

In addition to publishing and her work for the Glenbow, Annora continued to engage in the artistic communities of Alberta and Canada through exhibitions and organizations. Throughout her career her work was exhibited by many groups, including the Art Association of Montreal, the Canadian Society of Artists, the Ontario Society of Artists, the Glenbow, Coste House, and Canadian Art Galleries, a commercial gallery in Calgary. In 1961 her paintings of wildflowers and nature were shown at the Calgary Exhibition & Stampede Salon of Fine Arts. Featured next to cowboy bronzes and paintings of ranches, her works were affirmed as true regionalist art pieces. Likewise, her participation in groups such as the Calgary Sketch Club and the Alberta Society of Artists, of which she was the first female member, pronounced her ties to the Alberta art community, despite her relative isolation. In the case of her position with the Alberta Society of Artists, it should be noted that the organization only offered her membership at the start of the 1930s after the Government of Alberta made clear that the organization would only be able to form if a woman member was included.2

As she grew older, Annora was eventually driven to move from her home in Fort Macleod as her health started to fail. In 1965 she moved to British Columbia, spending some time in Sydney before moving to Deep Cove. It was there that she finally found herself a part of a local collection of artists, befriending writers, artists, and musicians in the area. She spent the remainder of her life there, publishing her autobiography Sketches from Life in 1981, and passing away in 1987 at the age of eighty-eight.

Many of her paintings of flora, landscapes, and Blackfoot culture are still held at the Glenbow Museum in Calgary and have been digitized for viewing online. They have been featured in multiple exhibits, including Annora Brown: Daughter of the Prairies at the Galt Museum & Archives in 2016. In 2020 her book Old Man’s Garden was republished with a new introduction by Mary-Beth Laviolette and commentary from Sidney Black, Indigenous Anglican Bishop from Fort Macleod. Since she painted them, some of the wildflowers Annora captured have gone extinct. Her paintings in the Glenbow and her illustrations in her book thus take on added importance, as they capture in vivid colours and detail what are otherwise lost pieces of Alberta’s natural history.

Although she moved from her beloved region before her death, Annora remains an important figure in the artistic and cultural history of southern Alberta. Through both teaching and painting, Annora helped to bring Alberta and its landscapes into the Canadian art movement. Her influence was recognized in 2018 when Parks Canada renamed the Waterton Park Board Room in the Waterton Work Compound the Annora Brown Room. The room was decorated with a plaque and prints of some of her paintings, acknowledging Annora’s importance to the region as well as Waterton Parks importance to her.

Read more about Annora Brown


1 Mary-Beth Laviolette, A Delicate Art: Artists, Wildflowers and Native Plants of the West (Victoria: Rocky Mountain Books, 2012), 89-90.

2 Joyce Sasse, “Annora Brown: Pioneer Interpreter of the Western Canadian Landscape,” Macleod Gazette, June 8, 2016,

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