Free Spirits in the Fine Arts
It was not unusual for young Nova Scotians in the late 19th century to head off to find work in the United States. It happened in many sectors, though not often in the arts. So how does one explain the Prat family in Wolfville, who produced not one but three daughters who in the 1890s sought careers working in the arts in the USA?
Part of the answer is that across the western world there were opportunities emerging for women to work outside the home. The Arts and Crafts movement, in particular, attracted many women. The Prat sisters were part of that larger phenomenon, yet their family must also have been one that encouraged adventure and ambition.
The eldest, Annie Prat, set the first example. In 1896, aged 35, she set off for the Art Institute of Chicago where she trained as a painter. The next year, 29-year old Minnie moved to New York to study artistic bookbinding at a renowned Arts and Crafts bindery headed up by the celebrated Evelyn Nordhoff. Soon after, 25-year old May Rosina Prat came to the same bindery, concentrating on decorative leather working. By 1900, Minnie and May had opened their own successful bookbinding and leather-working studio in New York.
All three sisters won honours or acclaim for their work, and came back to Nova Scotia as often as they could. On one visit home, in 1901, Minnie fell ill with typhoid and died. In 1904, May Rosina closed the bindery in New York and returned to Nova Scotia, where she married and did artistic bookbinding from her new home. As for Annie, she too came back to the province and painted miniatures and wildflowers. Before she died in 1960, aged 99, Annie Prat donated over 200 of her watercolours to the Public Archives of Nova Scotia.