International Women’s Day
March 8 was International Women’s Day. One woman who had a particularly important influence on the local art scene was Miss Jessie Topham Brown.
Miss Jessie immigrated to Canada from England in 1909, and later arrived in Vernon in 1916. She began working at the St. Michael’s Boarding School for Girls, located on East Hill, as a cook, coach, and art teacher. After World War One, she started teaching at the Vernon Preparatory School, and in the summers, offered art classes for both children and adults from a camp on Okanagan Lake near the Killiney Wharf.
Summer Art Camps
Those who attended these camps would pack out their supplies on horseback, and spend several days sleeping beneath the stars and painting during waking hours. The groups would sometimes venture to other locations, including the Mara and Shuswap Lakes, to capture different landscapes.
Described as a “paragon of the arts,” Miss Jessie had been exposed to creative pursuits since childhood, having spent three years at the Slade School of Art at University College, and although she did not paint much herself, loved cultivating the talents of others.
Art Studio and Art Gallery
Miss Jessie later opened her own studio on 32nd Street, which she then moved to the former Post Office building at 30th Avenue and 30th Street. Besides drawing and painting, she also taught pottery, weaving and silk screening until her retirement in 1967. Many of Miss Jessie’s former students went on to be accomplished artists, one of whom was Joan Heriot, good friend to fellow artist Sveva Caetani.
Miss Jessie was also integral in creating a facility to house a permanent collection of local artwork. The Topham Brown Public Art Gallery was originally located in the top floor of the Vernon Museum (now used as a storage space for artifacts); it later moved to its current location at 3228 31st Avenue, around the same time as its name was changed to the Vernon Public Art Gallery. To honour Miss Jessie’s contribution, the main gallery at the VPAG continues to be known as the Topham Brown Memorial Gallery.
In 1971, “in recognition of her service, contribution, influence and encouragement in the field of the arts to all residents,” Miss Jessie was granted Freedom of the City. She passed away a few years later, in 1974, at the age of 92.
To explore more of Vernon’s history, check out our other blog posts!
Gwyneth Evans, Head of Archives