Skip to Main Content

First Hand

print small medium large 


a. Erica Rutherford, RCA

"Most of all we responded to Prince Edward Island," Erica Rutherford wrote in her autobiography, Nine Lives, of a trip that included her first visit to the Island in 1970. "I felt home there for the first time since I had come to North America" (see Rutherford). Erica Rutherford summered on the Island for many years, moving permanently "home" in 1985. Her work changed at this time, becoming "more decorative and richer in detail" (see Rutherford).

Rutherford's travels have taken her from Edinburgh, Scotland, where she was born in 1923, to England, France, South Africa, Spain, Italy, and many parts of North America. Throughout her remarkable, multidisciplinary career, she has been an actor, filmmaker, farmer, teacher, writer, and, always, an artist.

Although Rutherford is primarily a self-taught artist, she did study drawing, sculpture, and theatre design at the Slade School of Fine Art; historical design at the Central School of Arts and Crafts, both in London; and drawing and painting at L'Academie Julien, Paris. She has taught at several universities and colleges, including West Surrey College of Art in England, the University of Missouri, USA, and the University of Guelph, Canada.

In a career that spans over half a century, she has exhibited in hundreds of group and solo shows and is represented in major public and corporate collections including New York's Museum of Modern Art, the Arts Council of Great Britain, and the Canada Council Art Bank.

Born male, Erica Rutherford grappled with gender identity conflicts throughout her life, leading ultimately to transsexual surgery. Her experience of living in society as both man and woman offers rare insight into the way gender affects judgement of art. She writes:

I can testify that going from the role of a man to that of a woman is unquestionably a loss of privilege. The woman's movement has made us all more aware of all the preferential treatment given to men, but we are a long way from altering attitudes. The experience of changing from a man to a woman brings me face to face with the humiliations of being treated daily as an inferior. These attitudes are often ingrained, even among men who are consciously trying to avoid them. The expectations from men of a woman's achievement are higher than that for another man and I have experienced increased criticism of my work.

"Eric[a] Rutherford, who has come from away, and immediately caught the mood of the land. Perhaps Rutherford has been the most successful to date because [her] controlled abstract design interpretation reveals the true colour intensity to be found in Island space (see Williamson).

Rutherford has worked and excelled at a number of different media. Her early hard-edge geometric abstracts of the 1950s moved into torn paper, layered collages in the 1960s. Her painting became more figurative in the 1970s and she carried the simple, colourful shapes into screen printing of domestic still lifes and landscapes in the 1980s. Her 1998 Confederation Centre of the Arts exhibition, The Human Comedy, is a further evolution in style and content.

Rutherford has made a huge contribution to the development of the arts on PEI. She was instrumental in the formation of the alternative Great George Street Gallery in Charlottetown, providing local artists with a venue to show their work and view the work of other non-mainstream Canadian artists. Throughout the 1990s, she organized printmaking workshops at her studio with nationally known artists, leading to the formation of the PEI Printmakers Council. In 1999, Erica Rutherford was admitted to the Royal Canadian Academy.

back to top