Dolly McRae of Port Alberni holds one of five paintings she created while attending Alberni Indian Residential School in Port Alberni. She won an art award when she was a youth, but some of her winning paintings disappeared. SUSAN QUINN PHOTO

The case of the missing paintings

Dolly McRae was a budding painter, until a residential school teacher took away her dream.

Dolly McRae is known for many things: her cooking, cookbooks such as Where People Feast, her former restaurant in North Vancouver, her entrepreneurial spirit, and her written memories of growing up as a member of the Gitxsan First Nation, and attending Alberni Indian Residential School (AIRS).

What many people don’t know about her is that she is a talented artist. And if it weren’t for the impatience of a teacher at the residential school, McRae could have had the kind of artistic career that her sister, noted Gitxsan artist Judith P. Morgan, has had.

Dolly McRae learned to can salmon from her former mother-in-law, the late Louisa Watts, long after she worked in a cannery in Carlisle, B.C. on the Skeena River starting when she was 11 years old. Dolly started her first food business selling from a table just outside the front doors of the Museum of Anthropology at the University of B.C. in Vancouver. In 2001 she was recognized with a National Aboriginal Achievement Award for Business and Commerce, and in 2010 she earned a citation for the BC Aboriginal Business Awards for Individual Achievement.

Her first notable award, though, was an art scholarship she earned in 1949 while living at the residential school.

Dolly’s sister Judith won an art scholarship in 1948, under the tutelage of AIRS art teacher George Sinclair, and went on to attend art school in Victoria. Her art resembled that of Emily Carr and A.Y. Jackson, and she quickly rose in the B.C. art scene. The provincial archives had purchased five of her paintings and her work was exhibited at the National Museum in Ottawa.

“I recall asking her how she won a prize at summer art school in Victoria,” Dolly McRae wrote in My Name Is Dolly, a self-published book that came out in 2014. “She said she had painted five pictures. It seemed exciting, so I asked where I could get drawing paper. I asked where I could do drawing and the principal told me I could use a classroom after school was out. There were no painting classes.”

With no instruction from anyone, Dolly created her five paintings, and she won the same scholarship — the Memorial Art Scholarship of $75 awarded in memory of Indigenous people who had died in war (likely the Second World War) and intended to assist recipients to continue their study of Indian art. She was 12 years old.

Where Judith Morgan had been permitted to attend the entire two-month art program in Victoria, Dolly was stuck with a principal who told her, “I don’t want to be stuck babysitting,” so he brought her home from art school early and gave her the $75 cash.

“I was so mad, I threw out all my art things,” Dolly said. “Two months is worth a lot of money when you’re talking about art.”

Her experience upset her so much, Dolly never picked up a paintbrush again.

Dolly’s paintings — five in all — were on exhibit at the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria for a month in 1950. The oil paintings were all painted from her memories of growing up in Kitwanga.

Among the four paintings were a bear and a bear cub; mist rising from the Skeena River; and a painting of a gravesite that was surrounded by carvings. They were all painted in oil in a similar style.

The final painting — the one Dolly still has — depicts a bear headdress that her father, hereditary Chief Wallace Morgan wore as part of his traditional regalia. Her inspiration came from a story belonging to the Wolf Clan that she heard growing up in the Gitk’san First Nation: “My relatives were going to go pick berries. They had to cross the river and go up the mountain,” she said. “One girl always lagged behind. She was a beautiful girl. All of a sudden a man came out and said to her, ‘I’m looking for a wife for my son.’ He was a chief of the bears in the forest but he had disguised himself,” she said.

“She went along with him into where the bears were.”

Her father had a headdress that was not finished: the carver died before he finished the details, so her father placed the headdress between the floor joists and he cautioned Dolly and her 13 siblings never to take the headdress out until it was finished.

“I used to put my hand in there and feel it,” Dolly said.

She painted what she thought the headdress looked like, according to what she was feeling.

Years later her father had the headdress finished by another carver and it looked just like Dolly’s painting.

After the exhibit at the RBCM closed, Dolly’s paintings were returned to the residential school and hung in a hallway. One morning Dolly came downstairs from her dorm in the morning and four of her paintings had disappeared; she was only able to retrieve one, ‘Bear Headdress.’

“It was the only one left so they let her take it,” Dolly’s husband Ken McRae said.

Dolly had the painting hanging in her restaurant in North Vancouver for a few years, and McRae hung it in his office at Port Alberni’s city hall when he served as mayor from 2001-11.

McRae said they will likely never find out where the other four paintings went. There was an art teacher at the school, George Sinclair, but Dolly was not one of his students. Dolly remembers other staff members at the school as being English, possibly from the United Kingdom, so the paintings could have been claimed by one of those members and taken overseas.

“We tried to find them, but we couldn’t,” Ken McRae said.

The oil paintings are signed “D.B. Morgan,” for Dolly’s maiden name: Dorothy B. Morgan.

“They’re probably either hanging on someone’s wall or in some big museum somewhere.”

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