This past Saturday, March 6th, was the birthday of Doris Slater, Canada’s first female comic book artist. She was born in 1917 on a farm near Chatham, Ontario. She graduated from the Ontario College of Art and began her comic work in Anglo-American’s Grand Slam Comics Vol. 1 No. 1 which had the cover date of Sept./Oct. 1941 (see my previous post which was on this specific comic). This was just around the time that Wonder Woman had her first appearance in All-Star Comics No. 8. south of the border.
I’ve written a bit about Doris as the first female Canadian comic book creator here, but today I want to bring attention to something more current to do with Doris Slater. Remember that Doris’ first feature was done with writer Ted McCall and his creation of “Pat the Air Cadet” in Grand Slam Comics and they signed it with the pseudonym “Macduff.”
Doris Slater got married to popular Canadian crooner Russ Titus in September of 1944, but she continued to use her maiden name when signing the splash pages of her new feature “Penny’s Diary” in Active Comics. Sadly, the marriage lasted less than half-a-dozen years, but Doris kept her married name and was known as Doris Titus until her premature death in a motor vehicle accident in June of 1964. She signed her art sketches and paintings as Doris Titus.
The painting leading off this column is of Doris by well-known Toronto-based artist Dorothy Austin Stevens who also became the godmother of Doris’ daughter Patti. The painting looks to be have been done just prior to or around the time of her marriage. I’ve led this column off with this portrait of Doris because today’s column is about an upcoming exhibition of Doris’ work at Brantford’s Glenhyrst Art Gallery that I hope many of you will get to attend.
I was up at Glenhyrst a few days ago to deliver a piece of Doris original comic art from my collection for the exhibition. I was shown two of the exhibition rooms with a wonderful collection of Doris paintings propped against the walls around their perimeters ready to be hung. What impressed me most about these pieces was the diversity of styles she employed. There were examples of Expressionism, Cubism, regular portraiture and Abstractism as you can see below, but I’ve yet to learn the titles:
Doris was also an inspirational art teacher during her time in Brantford and later in Ottawa. Her students inevitably talk glowingly of her and one or two pieces of her artwork gathered at Glenhyrst were obtained from collections of her former students.
In preparation for informing you about this exhibit, I interviewed curator Matthew Ryan Smith.
IK: How did this idea for a Doris Slater/Titus Exhibit exactly come about at Glenhyrst?
MRS: Glenhyrst holds a work, Untitled (green abstract), by Doris in its permanent collection. We’ve been committed to showing it in exhibitions during my tenure at the gallery. This work was also included in the City of Brantford’s “Grand Exhibit” public art project, co-produced with Glenhyrst, that launched in 2019–it’s installed near the public library downtown. We’ve thought about further ways to highlight her work and its impact, so when yourself, Robert MacMillan, and Patti Thomas (Doris’s daughter) reached out to Glenhyrst to highlight her life and work we were hooked.
IK: What are the dates and times of the exhibit and do you plan on the exhibit travelling?
MRS: The exhibition opens at Glenhyrst as soon as possible, likely early March until May 2021. The pandemic and the unpredictability of lockdowns have disrupted our scheduling for the show, both this year and last. Doris’s work is slated to travel to Thames Art Gallery in Chatham from this coming November 19 to January 16, 2022. Since Doris was born just outside Chatham, it seemed like the ideal venue to travel the show to.
IK: What is the extent of the exhibit and can you share with us the process of searching out and acquiring the items you have on display?
MRS: The exhibition features over 25 original drawings and paintings of Doris’s work, from the 1940s to the early 1960s. The exhibition also includes a number of her sketchbooks, photographs, and other archival materials that were supplied to us by Patti. Works were brought together from across Canada and from England, where Patti currently lives. We’ve also had a large mural loaned from the Armoury in Brantford and a number of comics. We’ve also blown up a number of Doris’s comic works to poster size in order to demonstrate the quality of her compositions and narrative abilities. Ultimately, Patti’s commitment to highlighting her mother’s achievements in the Canadian comic book industry, fine art, and arts education have helped a great deal in telling her mother’s fascinating story.
IK: What are one or two items that stand out in your estimation?
MRS: In my opinion, there is a quick sketch that Doris made of her son Robin (Bobby) sleeping in bed, which shows what a master of drawing she was. It also reveals her love and devotion to her children. The second is a series of photographs and small mock-ups made for her murals at the Hospital for Sick Children some time in the 1940s or 50s. Little is known about these murals, which are based on nursery rhymes and folk tales, but I assume they have been destroyed (painted over). By exhibiting the photos and mock-ups, we hope to learn more about their history.
IK: What have you striven to achieve with the exhibit and the way in which you have curated it?
MRS: Doris died tragically in a car accident in 1964 at the age of 47. As the curator of her first exhibition in nearly 60 years, I feel a deep responsibility to narrate her life in the arts as accurately and convincingly as possible. I do not take the role I have been given lightly, at all. I hope the exhibition is evidence of this.
IK: Why is Doris Slater/Titus an important artist for the Glenhyrst Gallery, for Brantford, and for Canada?
MRS: Doris had connections to Glenhyrst as early as 1954/55 when she founded the Sketch Club at Glenhyrst Gardens (at Glenhyrst Art Gallery). There is a photo, possibly taken by Doris, showing members of the club drawing and painting in front of the gallery. She was also the art teacher at BCI for several years in the 1950s, where she advocated for her students and for arts funding.
There are articles in the Brantford Expositor where Doris not only makes a case for funding arts education but also attempts to change people’s attitudes towards abstract art. We reproduced her words from this article in a wall text to show how committed she was to experimentation. To this end, she constantly innovated her styles and approaches to painting.
She was fascinated by the emotions produced by painting (and seeing) abstract art. Patti shared with me that her mother used to use her own bathwater as a medium in her paintings during the 1950s, which would have likely been seen as a taboo among the public. For her work in the comic book industry, Doris broke many firsts for women artists. This history should be widely known, as should her contributions to the fine arts. This exhibition is a first step, a big first step.
IK: Doris Slater/Titus began her professional work as a World War II Canadian comic book artist. The last exhibit to feature the comic book work of Canadian World War II artists travelled across Canada to 13 galleries in 1973-74 and featured work from the holdings of the then National Gallery. Do you see any future scope for Canadian World War II comic book art to find gallery space in the coming years?
MRS: My focus is in the fine arts, so I won’t comment on what I don’t know. But I can say that Glenhyrst, in particular, has organized exhibitions by illustrators, zine-makers, and artists in the recent past. The exhibition “Say ‘Hi’ to the Sun” by well-known artists Fiona Smyth and Jason McLean is a strong example. There has been a turn towards comics in this region specifically, the largest being the Art Gallery of Hamilton’s survey show “THIS IS SERIOUS: Canadian Indie Comics.” Titus’s exhibition will add to this concentration on Canadian comics. They are stories that need to be told.
IK: Thank you for answering these questions, Matthew. Is there anything else you would like to add?
MRS: Thank you, Ivan. I only ask that readers try to support their local galleries and museums by walking in the door and seeing what they have to offer. To this end, please visit Glenhyrst, experience the story we’ve told about Doris, and take a walk through the gardens that Doris painted and drew 60 years ago.
I remember how fortunate I was to have been able to contact Patti, Doris’ daughter, online back in 2014 and interview her for the section on Doris in my book Heroes of the Home Front (2018) and with the additional energy and knowledge of Brantford resident Bob MacMillan and the interest and co-operation of the Glenhyrst Art Gallery and Curators/Head of Collections Matthew Ryan Smith and Gallery Director Ana Olson, Doris Slater/Titus has been given some of the due recognition she deserves.
Glenhyrst is open Tuesday to Friday from 10 am to 5 pm and weekends from 11 am to 4 pm. I understand that through covid restrictions only ten people will be admitted to the exhibit at a time. There is a cozy, sunny tearoom called The Golden Teapot attached to the south side of the building, however, it is open only by appointment. Again, get out and see this exhibit if you can.