Pegi Nicol, despite her short life span, is now widely regarded as one of Canada's preeminent artists due to the originality and passionate exuberance of her vision.
She was born Margaret Kathleen Nicol in Listowal , Ontario in1904. Raised and educated in Ottawa, she began her art training by spending three years under Franklin Brownell at the Ottawa Art Association. She continued her studies with a year at L'Ecole des Beaux -Arts in Montreal, around 1922, where she won five medals for her outstanding work.
For the next few years she painted mainly landscapes in Ottawa and Quebec, with occasional forays into the West Coast to paint the aboriginal people. Her work during this period reflects the influence of the ‘Group of Seven' artists who rendered the Canadian Northern landscape in graphic stylized images of a rugged and desolate land.
When she was awarded the Willingdon Prize in 1931 for a landscape of the Gatineau River, one can discern a shift in her work. Despite the ordered formal arrangement of the scene, the painting is overlaid with a series of undulating sinuous lines, which communicate a tremendous vitality. This linearity and vivacity become increasingly important elements in her oeuvre.
From this point on her work is also increasingly emotional in its' impact and humanistic in its' subject matter. By the mid thirties she has adopted her signature style involving spontaneous curvilinear depictions of the teeming world around her. Her canvases seem to literally pulsate and throb with life.
After her marriage in 1937 to Norman Macleod, she moved to New York City, but she returned every summer to Canada, principally to Fredericton, N.B., her husband's hometown. It was here in 1940 that she had the idea of starting an art center at the University of New Brunswick which involved art classes as well as exhibitions. The Art Center enabled Pegi to inspire a whole generation of younger artists with her love of art and ‘joie de vivre'.
In 1944 she was commissioned by the National Gallery of Canada to paint the activities of the women's services. One hundred and ten watercolour and oil paintings are now in their war collection.
In 1949, she died in New York City after an eight month illness at the age of forty-five. In a tribute on the occasion of her death, the late Graham McInnis eloquently summarized her art with the following words: "Her painting was simple, gay and direct. It caught life on the wing, arresting for a moment in vivid pattern it's shifting kaleidoscope.”
"The completeness of her commitment, something she shared with others of her generation, can be described by those who remember her presence here in Fredericton. The enthusiasm, the excitement that seemed so electric and so contagious has proved to be, like her art, a thing of permanent value. Her art was her life and, because it was complete, it is eternal. The viewer who sees her work can ...find the truth of the vision and the experience they record confirmed on every hand and, because of them, see that truth clearer than before.
The late Donald Buchanan said of her, "she was only 45 years of age when she died, and the complete resolution of all her talents and experiments still lay before her. But what she had already done remains as a unique, a stimulating and a joyful contribution to Canadian art". Today, we can still share that joy and be grateful for the gift."
STUART ALLEN SMITH, 1981