By Brandon Hoffman–
Just heading south from Williams Lake there’s a charming old farm house tucked into the landscape. There aren’t a lot of buildings like this one around the Cariboo these days, so it might stand out a bit. Almost as distinct as the folk-Victorian style of the house is the big red barn next to it. It is definitely picturesque, but this property also has a pretty darn interesting history to it. Allow me to do my best Sage Birchwater impression for a moment, and gush about the Cariboo’s own Onward Ranch.
From his Suffolk England home in 2001, famed Canadian painter Joseph Plaskett wrote:
“I have known Sonia Cornwall since 1946. Her mother, Vivien Cowan, whom I met the year previously at the Banff School of Fine Arts, had invited me to the Onward Ranch. I fell in love with the Cariboo country and with all the Cowan family, and went back year after year to paint and pursue friendship. The Onward was a hive of artistic activity.”
Charles and Vivien Cowan established the Onward Ranch in 1918. Very soon after, Vivien, an avid painter, had an attic space converted to an artist studio. Given the beautiful rolling landscape of the area, she was not at a loss for subject matter.
In the early 30s, with the ranch now operating smoothly, Vivien went to study at the Banff School of Fine Arts. It was there that she met AY Jackson. Jackson, now recognized as a founding member of the legendary Group of Seven painting cohort, was an instructor at the school. The two instantly hit it off. They maintained a lifelong friendship, and Jackson would regularly come to the Cariboo to paint and visit his old friends.
At a very early age, both of Vivien and Charles’ daughters took interest in art. Sonia was painting and sketching by the age of five, while Dru (later Hodgeson) mostly took to pottery. As young adults, the two went to the Provincial Institute of Technology in Calgary to study art. Sonia dropped out before long, deciding to pursue her studies solo.
Sonia would regularly send pieces to family friend Jackson for his critique. “Not so much paint – too much like Tom!” one reported, speaking apparently of influential Canadian artist Tom Thompson.
In 1948 Sonia married Hugh Cornwall, and together they took over operations of the Onward Ranch. Sonia and Hugh ran the ranch until 1965. All the while the family maintained a strong artistic presence in the Cariboo and Canada alike.
In 1946, with help from honourary president AY Jackson, Vivien co-founded the Cariboo Arts Society—an organization still going strong today.
Years later in 1981, Sonia helped to establish the Station House Gallery in Williams Lake, which recently celebrated its 35th year.
Although currently owned and operated by another family, the Onward Ranch legacy continues. Devereaux Hodgson, daughter of Dru, continues to capture beautiful paintings of the Cariboo landscape among other things.
For July and August, the Station House Gallery is extremely excited to host a group show dedicated to the legacy of the Onward Ranch. Onward and Upward features the work of Vivien Cowan, Sonia Cornwall, Joe Plaskett, Dru Hodgson, and Devereau Hodgeson.
We decided to sway from routine just a bit and hold the opening a week early, so we can proudly showcase this quintessential history of arts in the Cariboo to our visitors during stampede weekend. The two-floor exhibition will be on display at the Station House from July 1 to August 27.
In the meantime, if you happen to be in the neighborhood during the month of June, make sure to stop in and see exhibitions by Annerose Georgeson and Shirley Gibson-Bull.
Vanderhoof artist Annerose Georgeson’s show Logging is a beautiful collection of mostly large-scale paintings, observing the change to BC’s landscape, and our relationship with the forest.
108 Mile painter Shirley Gibson-Bull’s collection Art Next is a series of exploratory paintings made to an enchanting effect.
I might add one last note while reporting from my upstairs office at the Station House Gallery. For nearly two years I have held my post as exhibition co-ordinator at the gallery. The board and executive director Diane welcomed me into the position with open arms and have been supportive and encouraging. It’s with a heavy heart that I leave my position here for new adventures. I sincerely thank the gallery for bringing this wandering troubadour into their establishment, and wish them the best of luck as they continue to make history in the Cariboo.