A few years ago, a granddaughter embarked on a labour of love.
Rae Bates — and her mother, Katherine MacDonald — are both well-known local artists and art teachers. In 2018, Bates decided to compile a narrative of her grandmother’s accomplishments. Her grandmother, Rae Hendershot, was a talented Hamilton artist who worked and exhibited from the 1940s to the 1980s.
“The project was done out of love for a brilliant and loving woman and the rare and powerful art that she created,” Bates tells me. “My mom has supported me in this work, supplying historical materials and her deep knowledge.”
Their work resulted in the Rae Hendershot Project (raehendershotproject.ca), a newly launched online record of Hendershot’s life in art.
Bates and MacDonald believe Hendershot (1921-1988) was less successful than she could have been because, first, she was a woman and wife, and second, she did not embrace abstraction. Instead, she worked in a lifelike style, tackling many subjects, including still life, landscape, portraits, self-portraits and classical mythology.
“In her art, she explored women’s lives and experiences, especially through the themes of motherhood, obscurity, and creative identity,” Bates says.
And like many women who painted women’s subjects, she found that her work was not taken seriously.
“She was inventive,” says MacDonald. “But she was a figurative artist in an age that had little use for her. If given a chance, she might have become one of the most insightful and sensitive public portraitists of her day.
“As an artist who felt called to express herself through figurative forms, she had to discover how she could use these forms in new and contemporary ways.”
In 1950, Hendershot married T.R. MacDonald, an artist and the Art Gallery of Hamilton’s first director.
“As the wife of the director, she had a whole number of cultural duties connected to this role, like hosting people and preparing and serving them meals,” Bates says.
“It was very difficult for a married woman to also be recognized in an identity that was independent of her husband and home,” MacDonald adds. “Hendershot could never fully overcome the identity of director’s wife.”
Hendershot’s husband supported her as an artist. MacDonald says they sometimes painted together, on sketching trips in the Laurentians, Georgian Bay and Guelph area.
Sketching trips led to landscapes. In “Homestead” from 1942, Hendershot focuses on a rural landscape. The buildings link land to an expansive sky. To express the airiness of clouds, she applies her paint lightly, contrasting this with the layered, heavier strokes of the land.
“The Three Graces” from 1946 is a remarkable painting. It takes its inspiration from classical mythology. The three goddess types epitomizing idealized feminine beauty were popular with male artists for more than 2,000 years. They were almost always painted as nudes in three tantalizingly different poses.
Hendershot clothes them and brings them up to date. She envisions them as contemporary waitresses. There’s a bit of tension among them. The two on the left are close together and in similar poses. A space exists between them and the one woman on the right, whose pose is different.
Hendershot’s portraits include those close to home. “Katherine,” a portrait of her daughter, was executed in 1962. The painting is small, the head and shoulders dominate.
“Both my parents encouraged me to do whatever it was I wanted to do, whether art or something else. I was never pushed into art,” MacDonald recalls. “My mother was encouraging because she understood both the challenges and rewards of having a child.”
“The Artist in her Studio,” from 1979, is one of Hendershot’s most striking self-portraits. The frame of a mirror leads to the artist — mirrors are essential tools for self-portraits. She shows herself pausing in her work to acknowledge the viewer’s presence. An expanse of ceiling looms large above her, almost dwarfing her.
Bates and MacDonald are putting together a complete catalogue of Hendershot’s works. To this end, readers are invited to reach out via the website, raehendershotproject.ca, if they have any paintings or drawings by the artist or know where any of them can be found.