Mary (Spice) Kerr

1905-82

Mary Kerr’s sense of colour and design was innate; she worked out colour and form across the surface of her paintings in her own way.


Mary Spice was born in Yorkton, Saskatchewan. Educated in English and Library Science, she became a high school teacher in Yorkton before studying art and literature at the University of Manitoba (Winnipeg). She later went to England, where she did her Master of Arts Thesis on the effects of the Depression on the novel.

In London she was re-acquainted with Illingworth (Buck) Kerr, whom she had previously met in Regina. At the time, Kerr was involved with film-making and supporting himself as a writer for Blackwoods magazine, and Mary, who was a skilled typist and editor, began helping him with his work. Their relationship grew and the pair married in Ontario in 1938. They spent their early married life in France before returning to Canada. The Kerr’s set up home in Montreal where Buck worked with other artists on projects to represent Canada at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Buck and Mary then headed back to Lumsden, where Illingworth had been born.

In due course the Kerr’s moved to British Columbia, first to White Rock, then Cultus Lake and finally Vancouver. He continued to paint, exhibit often, was a member of the BC Society of Artists and the Federation of Canadian Artists, which was chaired by Lawren Harris. In 1946 Kerr began to teach at the Vancouver School of Art. During this time, Mary Kerr worked as a librarian at the University of British Columbia and served as Secretary of the Federation of Canadian Artists. In August 1947, the Kerr’s headed for Calgary, where Buck Kerr began his twenty year career as head of the Art Department of the Provincial Institute of Technology and Art (later the Alberta College of Art and Design). Mary worked at the Calgary Public Library.

In Calgary, Mary experimented with art-making. She took instruction in ceramics at the Institute and became reasonably skilled as a ceramist. As a painter, however, she was mostly self-taught, albeit within a rich environment of art-making through her marriage to Illingworth Kerr and her contact with the other teachers and students at the art school. In addition, she was able to accompany him on painting expeditions throughout Western Canada and also on trips to Arizona, where she did some of her best work.

In 1959, Buck Kerr was awarded a Canada Council Senior Fellowship to travel to the United States and Great Britain to visit schools that offered industrial design. This allowed both Mary and Buck to travel by car to Minneapolis, New York, and Boston. They spent time in London as well as travelling to Munich, Venice, Florence, Rome, Barcelona and Madrid. With their retirements and to avoid the winters, the Kerr’s traveled to St. Lucia, Arizona, Maui, Barbados, Jamaica and Mazatlan. During these trips they both avidly painted.

She was considered a natural artist whose favourite subjects included landscapes, flowers, and animals. Her husband noted that “Her sense of colour and design was remarkable but somewhat primitive, and it always remained that way. You couldn't teach her perspective, but she worked out colour and design in her own way.” Mary chose to devote more of her energies to support the career of her husband than to fully develop her own; consequently her exhibiting record was limited and infrequent. Although never prolific, there is a solid body of work from this dedicated artist, which occasionally surfaces from long-held collections.