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.
Arthur Wesley Dow
It’s the creative power of photographic art that gives us energy. Nellie Schnell, who I photographed, says that when she and her husband moved to St. Walberg, SK., she met people of many different ethnic backgrounds. As she got to know these people Nellie said “I found that everybody has something. One of the greatest lessons I learned of my entire lifetime was that there is a divine spark in everybody. No one is without it.” If we find that divine spark and work with it, we come to believe in ourselves.
Life is a gift and as Picasso says “The meaning of life is to find your gift and the purpose of life is to give it to others.”
One finds this gift through the art of creativity. We are all born to be creative, that is to do something with our hands or voice or with words.
My creativity came as a result of reading stories to pioneer women who came to Saskatchewan from many different countries during the early years of the 20th century. Gradually, as I got to know them they were excited to tell me about their experiences of loneliness, helplessness, poverty and hard work on this naked land. I listened and listened and got to know them really well. How badly they wanted to tell me these stories. I travelled with them to their former homesteads and finally asked if I could photograph them. They trusted me. I processed the negatives and prints in my own dark room. I wanted my photographs to show these women were committed to a new way of life, of courage, determination, compassion, unselfishness, dignity and a burning desire to help others.
“I’ve never liked a photograph of myself” said Laura Weir, “but I rather like this one, would you mind making me ten copies?” I had finally found my passion.
Olesa Guttormson, who I photographed, found her passion through her voice. She and her mother and five siblings left North Dakota and an alcoholic father and headed for Saskatchewan. Six-year-old Olesa remembers her mother crying all night. Her mother was not aware that the little girl could hear her. Olesa’s first memory of Saskatchewan was stopping at the Watson Hotel where her mother found work washing dishes and scrubbing floors. “I couldn’t go to school I had to help mama”, said Olesa later in life. Olesa and her sister used the power of song to bring happiness to many people.
I first met Olesa when she was 90 years old and living in a long-term nursing home. I listened to her singing How Great Thou Art. Many doctors and nurses at the home stood silently in awe of her voice. Another resident, who had a similar passion for song said, “If I didn’t sing I would have to take drugs for the pain.”
Olesa’s brother found his passion through writing. His Homestead Song has four versus and a chorus:
We came from North Dakota from a land so bright and clear
To our Canadian homestead which we now hold so dear
We tried to find some riches among the poplar stumps
But there were so many ditches, we often had some bumps
But we were happy, we’d sing and play
We’d go to parties on a one-horse sleigh
We’d dance all night till the sun shines bright
It’s no one’s business, it is all right
We need to realize that creativity transcends all of who we are.
Thelma Pepper (pepperportraits.ca/)
Thelma Pepper’s approach to portrait photography has always been to spend as much time possible getting to know her subjects – building their trust, understanding their stories, their background and their values. Only then does Thelma begin the process of taking out her camera and taking their portrait.
Although the majority of Canadian photography books have landscape as the primary focus, Thelma’s photographs reveal and share the stories of the lives of people who inhabit this land. These portraits provide an opportunity, and an insight, into understanding the potential strength, courage and dignity of the human disposition.
Thelma’s photographs can be found in archives, galleries and institutions across Saskatchewan. Read her full bio here.