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Photographer focuses on ‘ordinary’ pioneer women

Thelma Pepper wanted to highlight their strength and resourcefulness

Last May, Saskatoon photographer Thelma Pepper was one of six recipients of the Saskatchewan Order of Merit. The award recognizes the achievements and contributions of the province’s outstanding citizens, and at 98, Pepper is the oldest recipient in the award’s history.

Pepper’s black and white photographs, taken with a Rolleiflex camera, often feature the ‘ordinary’ women of Saskatchewan — the pioneers — whose inner strength of character she wanted to capture. Her latest book released in 2011 Human Touch: Portraits of Strength, Courage and Dignity, highlights these women.

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Thelma Pepper (nee Stevens) was born in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley in 1920. Both her father and grandfather were photographers, and as a youth, she spent many hours in her father’s darkroom, learning the art.

After high school Pepper received a scholarship to Acadia University, graduating with a bachelor of science degree, and later, completing a graduate degree in botany at McGill University. It was during this time that she met and subsequently married Jim Pepper, a scientist.

In 1947, the couple moved to Saskatoon where Jim taught at the University of Saskatchewan, and Thelma stayed home to look after their four children.

“The children were my first priority. I wanted to do the best job I could of raising them,” she says.

By 1980 all the children had left home, and Pepper was wondering what to do next. It was at this time she received a parcel from her sister containing hundreds of negatives from her father and grandfather’s estate, dating from 1900 to 1940. She began printing them and, “I was very pleased with the results,” she said.

It was then that Pepper, at 60 years old, knew she needed to follow her instincts and seriously pursue photography. “My son, Gordon, encouraged me to believe in myself. He told me, ‘you are a different person when you do something creative,’” she said.

Pepper had her first solo exhibition in 1986. Next she created a show called “Decades of Voices: Saskatchewan Pioneer Women” which documented the lives of a number of women she’d interviewed and photographed while volunteering at a seniors’ home in Saskatoon.

“I tried to ask them about things they’d be interested in or events they could relate to. Their strength and resourcefulness impressed me, particularly those who had gone through the Depression,” she said.

Pepper’s next project was documenting the lives of 10 pioneers living along Highway 41 in Saskatchewan, resulting in the exhibition “Spaces of Belonging: a Journey along Highway 41.”

“Some of these people remained on their homesteads while others moved away, taking something with them from that time and place. I didn’t photograph them until a long time after I got to know them as I wanted them to be themselves; to feel comfortable and relaxed, and to trust me,” she said.

“Untie the Spirit” was a work Pepper compiled after a joint project with artist Jeff Nachtigall at Sherbrooke Community Centre, a long-term care facility in Saskatoon. Sherbrooke Centre had adopted a philosophy called the Eden Alternative that incorporated healing arts as part of treating the whole person through art, music, children, pets and plants. A National Film Board documentary was produced in 2009 called “A Year at Sherbrooke,” that featured Pepper and Nachtigall working with the residents.

Pepper likes to quote American painter, printmaker and photographer Arthur Wesley Dow: “Art is the most valued thing in the world. It is the expression of the highest form of human energy, the creative power nearest to the divine. The power is within — the question is how to reach it.”

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