“And what about the woman’s expression?

Well, she isn’t in physical pain, let alone agony, but it is a strange, disturbed expression all the same. If it isn’t agonized, it certainly isn’t joyous. This is not a joyous awakening, it is a disturbing one, and her face registers a disturbed attending or hearkening to—an attempt perhaps to understand—whatever it is that is going on inside her.”

John Fraser, describing the 1977 drawing Revelation by Carol Hoorn Fraser.


It is difficult to determine how visible an artist is. The Canadian art world is still catching up with major oversights of the last 50 years. In the case of Carol Hoorn Fraser (1930-1991), I assume that few people are aware of her significant and important body of work. But, like bringing a friend to a party, that assumption can never be fully clarified until the introduction has been made, regardless of the potential awkwardness that the two people you are introducing have known each other for years.

Other than a website created by her husband, there is very little information about Fraser online. There are no critical essays, articles, or reviews of her work. Although I am interested in marginalized artists and understanding what factors lead to obscurity, I am not an obscurity fetishist. If anything, it confounds and frustrates me. I have hopes for history not repeating itself in that we can broaden our scope of recognition in the present, to be able to observe and consume vital art from angles that are not already defined.

Situating Fraser’s work in relation to any Canadian movement or artistic trend only presents loose relationships. More appropriately, her work relates to European surrealism (Max Ernst was one of her favorite artists), its associates, specifically Frida Kahlo (Fraser had a photo of Kahlo by her bedside before she died), and one of the movement’s predecessors (Henri Rousseau). Besides the connections to Surrealism, the work of this idiosyncratic artist recalls the world of horror films, including the works of David Cronenberg and Clive Barker.

Couple 1 (1971), Oil on linen, 128.5 x 103.0 cm. Image courtesy of Art Gallery of Nova Scotia

The painting Head Wound (1970) is best described as horrifying. It is Cronenberg materialized in a painting. Her drawing Revelation (1977) reminds me of the film Under the Skin, where an extraterrestrial disguises itself as a female human to lure people as food for its fellow extraterrestrials. Playground of Escape (1982) is reminiscent of the maze in Kubrick’s The Shining. The flayed figures in Grandparents 1 (1969) look like the half-formed antagonist in Clive Barker’s Hellraiser. Couple 1 suggests the 2008 movie Ruins, where an ancient parasitic plant invades human bodies.

Fraser was born in Superior, Wisconsin, and studied art at the Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota. Her major was in chemistry and biology with a minor in art and literature. During this time, she worked as a research chemist as well as a nurse’s aide. She met the writer John Fraser, who was doing a Ph.D. in English at the University of Minnesota, and in 1961 they moved to Halifax, Nova Scotia where he was a professor at Dalhousie University and where Fraser would live the rest of her life.

Fraser’s husband John has archived much of her important early work on a website called jottings.ca. The website is dedicated to his memories of Fraser as well as musings about individual artworks and her life as an artist. The writing by him at the beginning of this article describing the drawing Revelation has an honest confusion about it which I admire. To elaborate on his observations, I am going to suggest her representations of the inner workings of bodies, nature, human thought, and the dynamics of relationships are her way of expressing the expanse between agonized and joyous, which could also be described as day-to-day life. If Fraser’s work is an abstract representation of the quotidian, then, like Kahlo, her relationship to the surreal becomes complicated. Rather than emanating from the subconscious, the imagery could be a very real depiction of another type of reality, one that resides in emotions and observations of nature as its true self, a bizarre and almost incomprehensible world of systems and relationships.

There are very few examples of what could be considered Surrealism in Canada. Artists such as Alfred Pellan, Kittie Bruneau, and Jean-Phillipe Dallaire all touched on the surreal, but their work exists on the periphery of that movement and does not have the intensity that Surrealism embodies. The fact that Fraser is only one of a few Canadian artists that created work related to the Surrealist genre creates a very good case as to why her work has been subjected to low visibility. Surrealism was an anti-establishment movement generated out of the overtly anti-bourgeoisie Dada movement. Surrealism attempted to invade normalcy and the status quo with absurdity, the uncanny, and the grotesque. It is not a stretch to suggest that Canada’s only Surrealist artist working predominantly in Anglophone Canada (Mimi Parent and Jean Benoit, both French Canadian, lived mostly in Europe where Surrealism was canonized) did not receive recognition because Canada is a country built on maintaining a status quo. The art world in Canada does not take dissenters lightly. Furthermore, the fact that a female was the individual presenting these works in the 1970s might have been too radical for the gatekeepers at the time.

The writings by her husband are the largest source of information about her available. Although John Fraser’s writings have been invaluable in researching Fraser’s work, I am skeptical about the opportunity for objectivity when a partner writes about their life partner posthumously. My role as a viewer without personal attachments to the artist is to be able to see the works as objects outside of their time of creation. I can sense who Carol was and what her paintings are describing. Everything is the way it is for a reason, in that everything a person does, including how they make art, has come from very particular sources. This is the obvious fact that presents itself when we are confused and trying to decipher a work of art— or a person for that matter. A Buddhist monk can learn a lot about a person just by watching them meditate.  A folk painting has the qualities it has because of certain determining factors, as does a color field painting, as does a Woodlands School painting. With Fraser’s work, the essential qualities that emanate are precision, fear, entrapment, horror, astonishment, depression, compulsion, escapism, and dread. I can not say for certain how any of these qualities relate to her life, but I can confidently say that I am able to observe these qualities in her paintings.

The Equilibrists (1977-1985), Oil on linen, 129.0 x 103.5 cm. Image courtesy of Art Gallery of Nova Scotia

Her figures are hybrids of humans and flora, a chimerical jumble of nature and the human mind, set in places reminiscent of Rousseau’s jungles. These figures collapsing into nature possibly indicate her connection to the natural world but perhaps also an awareness of inevitable death and the reintroduction of a human into nature. The work Fraser did as a nurses’ aide early in her career may have contributed to this awareness. Her painting The Equilibrists (1977-1985) portrays bodies and parts of bodies within a sanguine landscape, punctuated with flowers, organs, and veins, with what appears to be intestines or brain matter in the distance. The title suggests these figures are acrobats, walking a metaphorical tightrope between form and annihilation.

The heading “Departure” on jottings.ca is a section dedicated to Fraser’s death. Here, John Fraser relates vividly an account of his wife’s deterioration. Reading these passages is unnerving. As beautiful and well-intentioned as his passages are meant to be, and completely appropriate considering it is a husband remembering his wife, I could not help but feel like a voyeur—without consent in my invitation to be a witness to one of the most personal moments in anyone’s life. There is no consent with how we are remembered or portrayed after we are gone.

Fraser’s work has undoubtedly been forgotten. Whatever the reasons that have led to her obscurity, her work resonates today due to recent trends in Neo-Surrealism as well as our current environmental anxiety related to anthropogenic factors. The horror-movie-like worlds that Fraser depicts, consisting of fragmented bodies within landscapes that do not feel wholly natural, appear to be poignant depictions of humanity’s current state of crisis. Her paintings make sense right now. As was the case with Swedish artist Hilma af Klint (1862-1944) whose work has only recently received acclaim, certain trajectories in art are buried and later unearthed in more hospitable conditions.

The Grandparents I (1968-1969), Oil on linen, 129.3 x 103.5 cm. Image courtesy of Art Gallery of Nova Scotia