Artist Bev Tosh captures the essence of war brides through paintings of their wedding day photos
Bev Tosh captures women on what may seem the most important day of their life – their wedding day. Her studio is lined up with paintings of bride’s faces staring back at you, painted on brown, rough planks of plywood and lined up against white walls; to the right of each painting there is a white, thin-like material that features the name of each woman and her story. As I walked into her studio I couldn’t help but to wonder who are these women?
These women are Dutch war brides – women who married a Canadian foreign service man during World War II.
Photo by Aryn Guthrie
“They were brought together because of war and hostility,” Tosh says. “Couples who would have never met if it wasn’t for the war.”
Tosh has painted more than 140 war brides over an 11-year span, but has recently been working on a section of her piece that features only Dutch war brides. It is the first time she has accompanied the portraits with their stories in her studio.
“I’ve always done whoever speaks to me, or the wood (that) seems to need to have that bride on it,” she says. “Those stories of the occupation and liberation just really resonated recently.”
Tosh currently lives in the southwest of Calgary with her husband. She is 64 years old and is the president of the Burns Visual Arts Society. The society aims to provide studio space at a reasonable cost to working visual artists.
Her project started with a portrait of her mother who was a war bride that married a pilot with the Royal New Zealand Air Force and was expected to follow him by boat from Saskatoon after the war.
“I had no idea I’d be following through with this huge body of work,” says Tosh.
When Tosh was nine, she travelled by boat from New Zealand back to Saskatoon after her mother had left the marriage.
“My mother retraced the journey she had made as a hopeful young war bride a decade before taking her two daughters back to her family home in Saskatchewan,” Tosh says.
“I was old enough to feel my homeland slide away as the (boat) departed New Zealand. It remains a profound memory. I’m sure those who have emigrated by ship share a similar defining moment.”
In Saskatoon, Tosh pursued a degree in psychology, but soon realized her heart was with the arts. She ended up graduating with a double major in both psychology and fine arts from the University of Saskatoon.
In Calgary she graduated with a painting diploma from the Alberta College of Art and Design, and then went to get a masters of fine art from U of C. Tosh
Photo by Aryn Guthriehas taught at both institutions, and continues to teach at Red Deer College every summer.
“I’ve always loved art. I used to go to another high school after my high school hours when I was a teenager and studied art, but I never really considered it a career.”
“I worked very hard with the art, because you work hard at what you love without it seeming to be work – and that’s what happened with this body of work,” Tosh says.
Women’s stories have always been an interest to Tosh. She says what’s fuelling her is the stories told by ordinary women who were put in extraordinary situations.
“They all had to say goodbye to all they had known to follow a man that they’d married to a country they hadn’t really chosen. They had chosen the man. So often, some of them were not welcomed,” Tosh says.
Women who married Canadian service men became dependents of the solider. Once the military sent the soldiers home, it also meant they had to send their foreign wives with them.
“As a visual artist, and (someone with) an interest in women’s journeys, I feel honoured to be able to work through (the brides) and continue with them,” Tosh says.
However, Tosh describes her work as journey as well as a struggle to paint each one.
“People think that as a painter it just flows out… but like most things it’s about 90 per cent perspiration and 10 per cent inspiration,” says Tosh.
“If I don’t get the likeness, they don’t become one of the ones I show,” she says, referring to the essence of the person, what the bride feels like to Tosh.
“You think it would get easier after a length of time,” she jokes.
One of the war brides that Tosh painted was a woman named Margaretha Hemmings, who followed her husband to Nova Scotia from Amsterdam after the war. She now lives in a senior’s home in Calgary.
Hemmings recalls receiving her orders to board upon the boat that took her to Canada. “We having a saying in Dutch: When you say ‘A’ you need to say ‘B,’ meaning you can’t go back on your word. I married this man and now I had to go.”
“I was on the boat and saw Holland going away in the mist, and I thought when will I ever see (my family) again?”
Photo courtsey of Bev Tosh
Hemmings was an only child and was married at 18. Her husband didn’t know how to speak Dutch, and Hemmings only knew only a little bit of English from school. When Hemmings knew she would be going to Canada, she had her neighbour teach her English so that she could converse a little bit.
For Hemmings’ daughter, Margaret Iskander, Tosh’s portraits are more than just capturing a woman on her wedding day, but the impact these women had on Canadian culture.
“I think it’s great that (Tosh) is doing this. There’s a lot of focus on the soldiers, and there should be because they were heroes and gave their lives. But I’m glad the brides are being seen as contributing to the country and as a real change in our society of that time,” says Iskander.
Tosh isn’t 100 per cent sure where this project is going to go. She says she hasn’t felt the need to stop, and continually hears stories that fascinate her and inspire her to paint. She does however, believe that these painting will serve as a valuable archive, and when she is done will go to a public collecting agency.
Tosh is currently working on a proposal to have the Dutch war brides sent to the National Liberation Museum 1944-1945 in the Netherlands.