When Bonny MacNab got off the train to visit her grandparents in northwestern Saskatchewan in the early ’80s, she only expected to stay for a short visit. Raised in B.C., MacNab was heading to Toronto to pursue a career in the arts. But the Prairies, which she’d loved since she was a child, surprised her all over again.
“I loved it here,” says MacNab. “I stayed for about five months and met Gary and decided this was where I was going to stay.”
MacNab and her husband and son run a cow-calf operation near Mervin, Sask.; she has two other adult children and one grandchild. For 25 years, she has run two successful commercial greenhouses. But MacNab is also a visual artist with an impressive resumé: she is a painter with several solo exhibitions to her name. She was also commissioned to paint an 8×12-foot mural at Regina’s new Mosaic Stadium.
Over the last year, MacNab has focused on her silk painting business, selling scarves online and from her home studio/gallery and several Saskatchewan boutiques.
To say MacNab is busy would be a bit of an understatement, but she’s used to it.
“I don’t do as much on the farm now that our son has come home and is farming with us, but I used to help Gary go out and calve cows and haul grain and all the other things farmers do,” she said.
These days, she runs painting classes and retreats in her studio while running the greenhouse business. She also leads ArtSmart programs in local schools, teaching K-12 students curriculum through artistic media.
“I couldn’t do it without my family,” says MacNab. “They help me with the greenhouse if I need it, and I help them if they need it. And honestly, for Gary to support me and my art practice is very important because it is such an odd, different — I don’t know how to put it! — way to make a living.”
Even with her family’s support, MacNab’s artistic career hasn’t been easy, mainly because of the relative isolation of her community. To enrich her education or participate in artistic events MacNab has to travel long distances.
“It’s a huge struggle,” says MacNab. “Any courses I want to take I have to drive to North Battleford, Saskatoon, Regina or Swift Current. I know from talking to the Saskatchewan Arts Board and CARFAC that they’re looking for ways to involve rural artists.”
The distances haven’t held her back. Each summer she attends artists’ retreats, and every second year she searches out a course or residency where she can deepen her craft.
“Artists who live in cities have more opportunities, like being able to attend gallery openings and have the camaraderie of other artists,” says MacNab. “I’m that much out of the loop.
“But most of us work in isolation anyways! I’m happy not to have anyone around — I go out in the Prairies and paint in the countryside by myself. Artists need to be alone.”
And there are opportunities for those who want to find them, she says. A CARFAC mentorship she took about a decade ago yielded important connections that still support her. She just completed her first webinar course online through the Saskatchewan Arts Board. She’s also involved with the Saskatchewan Trade and Export Partnership (STEP), which assists her marketing her silk outside of Saskatchewan and offers personalized market and export expertise.
Much of MacNab’s work, especially her murals, dwells on ranch life and depicts scenes from nature. “Everything around me is inspiration,” she says. “I am always looking at the light that’s hitting the land or the cattle or the people. I’m looking at the colours.”
She says some artists look down on printmaking or making reproductions, but she views success on her own terms.
“My original work is who I am — my prints and what I have to do to survive as an artist is my business. I can go down whatever road I want,” she says. “I’m always looking at the glass as half-full, or all the way full — we have so much to be grateful for.”