Dorothy Knowles

About the Artist

saskatchewan river bridgeDorothy Elsie Knowles was born near Unity, Saskatchewan in 1927. She grew up on a farm in the Saskatchewan parkland overlooking a prairie valley. Prairie valleys, and particularly the Saskatchewan River Valley, are a recurring theme in her work.

Because she was eight years younger than the youngest of her three brothers, during her childhood Knowles was alone most of the time, and landscape made a great impression on her. However, she did not set out to be a painter, initially studying biology at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon from 1944 to 1948. She then studied to be a lab technician, but in the summer she graduated, a friend persuaded her to enroll in a six-week art course at Emma Lake. There, under the guidance of workshop leaders Reta Cowley and James Frederick Finley, Knowles discovered she had an aptitude for art.

Knowles continued to study painting. Between 1948 and 1952 she took night classes from Eli Bornstein and Nicholas Bjelejac at the University of Saskatchewan. She spent the summer of 1952 at The Banff Centre, in the Rockies in Alberta, where another artist encouraged her to study in England. She then enrolled in the Goldsmith School of Art in London, but when she discovered the art displayed in museums and galleries, she spent more time there than in class.

That same winter Saskatoon artist William Perehudoff traveled to London and persuaded Knowles to leave school, to marry him, and to spend the winter in France. They were married in Paris and spent the better part of a year in France before returning to Saskatoon. They started a family, and both continued to paint. For Knowles, the Emma Lake Artist Workshops became her most important source of inspiration and guidance as she developed her unique  techniqueAny method of working with art materials to produce an art object. Often implied is the sense that techniques are carefully studied, exacting, or traditional, but this is not necessarily the case. Examples include basketry, blotting, carving, constructing, découpage, embossing, encaustic, exquisite corpse, firing, folding, hatching, kerning, laminating, marbling, modeling, necking. (artlex.com)   and style.

Art critics and commentators point to the 1962 Emma Lake workshop led by Clement Greenberg as pivotal to Knowles’ development. Some accounts suggest Greenberg told her to paint directly from nature, or that she discovered the importance of working directly from nature. Terry Fenton, a critic and close friend of Knowles, offers an alternative viewpoint, noting that many artists at the workshop came away from it feeling liberated:

The liberation didn’t come from Greenberg giving directions, at least not specific ones. For example, he didn’t ‘tell’ Knowles to paint from nature. She was already doing that when she came, and he encouraged her to continue. The sense of liberation came from the experience he brought to bear and from the fact that he discovered and encouraged the best in everyone. He gave Knowles confidence and the sense of direction that led to the discovery of her own artistic vision. After the workshop she no longer worried about ‘going back’ to nature. Looking ‘up-to-date’ ceased to be an issue. (Fenton, 1983)

Reflecting back on the 1962 workshop years later, Greenberg wrote: “The problem was how to master the Prairie’s lack of features… Knowles was the only  landscapeA painting, photograph or other work of art which depicts scenery such as mountains, valleys, trees, rivers and forests. There is invariably some sky in the scene. (Artlex.com) Landscape is also a term that may also refer simply to a horizontally-oriented rectangle, just as a vertically-oriented one may be said to be oriented the portrait way. (Artlex.com)  painter I came across whose work tended towards the  monumentalIn art criticism, any work of art of grandeur and simplicity, regardless of its size, although it often connotes great size. (Artlex.com)  in an authentic way.” (Greenberg in Newlands, 174)

In 1965 Knowles purchased a van, which became her portable studio on trips outside Saskatoon,  paintingWorks of art made with paint on a surface. Often the surface, also called a support, is either a tightly stretched piece of canvas or a panel. How the ground (on which paint is applied) is prepared on the support depends greatly on the type of paint to be used. Paintings are usually intended to be placed in frames, and exhibited on walls, but there have been plenty of exceptions. Also, the act of painting, which may involve a wide range of techniques and materials, along with the artist's other concerns which effect the content of a work. (Artlex.com)  scenes directly from nature and taking slide photos for later use back in her cramped basement studio. For farmers in the country surrounding Saskatoon, Knowles’ maroon van became a familiar sight along the back roads as she captured the nuances of the prairie landscape in all seasons.

Knowles’ life and her work have had a significant influence on many younger artists, including her presence as a participant and leader of the Emma Lake workshops. She received the Saskatchewan Order of Merit in 1987 and was named a Member of the Order of Canada in 2004.


On Dorothy Knowles
On William Perehudoff
Canadian Heritage University of Regina Mackenzie Art Gallery Mendel Art Gallery Sask Learning