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Station House Gallery exhibit testimony to Cornwall, Matthews friendship

The show will run until Saturday, April 27

An enduring friendship is at the heart of the latest exhibit at the Station House Gallery in Williams Lake.

Paintings by William Matthews of Lillooet interspersed with seven paintings from his Sonia Cornwall collection grace the main gallery walls.

A rancher and artist who lived in the Cariboo, Cornwall was the daughter of artist Vivien Cowan, founder of the Cariboo Art Society.

The mother and daughter often hosted notable travelling artists at their home on the Onward Ranch, just south of Williams Lake.

Originally from Winnipeg, Man., Matthews always wanted to be an artist. For most of his professional career he worked as a jeweller and by 1982 his work was published around the world.

“My work and career took off as a goldsmith and jewellery designer. I was offered a job in Gold Beach, California,” he said during the opening of the exhibit April 5.

In 1987, he returned to Vancouver, was hired by a company and started to design luxury jewelry pieces.

Out walking one day he was looking to fill his home with art. He entered a collectables shop in Vancouver and saw a painting by Cornwall of her Jones Lake Ranch in the Cariboo.

“I fell in love with it and had to have it,” he recalled, adding he had never heard of Cornwall before. “There was very little information published about her, so I phoned her and we spoke at length on the phone.”

Nothing came from that conversation, mostly because there were things happening in his private life.

During that time he decided to go to art school and chose Langara College in Vancouver.

“I took a sabbatical for two years from fine jewelry making and got a diploma. I was bankrupt emotionally by the end of it, but I did really well.”

Going to art school made him a better jewelry designer and he started winning awards, he said.

One day in a thrift shop in the early 1990s he found another one of Cornwall’s paintings and that’s what instigated him wanting to contact her again.

Former Station House Gallery executive director Diane Toop arranged for Matthews to visit Cornwall at her ranch.

“That’s how it all started,” Matthews said. “From there our friendship developed.”

He continued wanting to learn more about her life and loved listening to Cornwall tell him about the famous artists who came to the Onward, including A.Y. Jackson, Joseph Plaskett and Zeljko Kujundzic.

“She would entertain these artists that spurned from her mom’s knowing of A.Y. back in the late 40s,” he said.

Wanting to help promote her art, Matthews was successful in his pursuit for the Westbridge Fine Art Auction House to represent her.

“I phoned Sonia and said, ‘guess what, I got you a gallery.’”

Cornwall’s daughter Mary Cornwall attended the Station House Gallery opening as well as her daughter Natalie Borkowski with her family.

A retired school teacher, Mary fondly remembered accompanying her mom on painting excursions.

“I actually was quite a fan,” she said. “We took trips together. I’d drive and we’d go somewhere and mom would do the painting.”

Mary lived at the Onward until she was 10 and then Jones Lake Ranch until she went away to school.

She returned to teach for a year to gain experience, but never left.

In the early 2000s there was an exhibit of Cornwall’s work at the Westbridge Gallery and the opening was jam-packed, Matthews recalled.

To start things off, he purchased one of her paintings titled Canoe Creek Village, which is part of the exhibit.

Later the gallery owner told him he could have sold that painting 10 times that night.

Eventually Matthews became Cornwall’s studio assistant and would travel up from Vancouver to her ranch four times a year to clean and organize her studio.

“Her husband Hugh was a magnificent man,” Matthews recalled. “He’d be sitting in his chair and I’d be bringing paintings up from the sub basement and he’d say, ‘I haven’t seen that one in many years Sonia.’”

After a few years she started calling Matthews to find out when he was coming to visit next.

“She’d tell me she had a bunch of new paintings she wanted to talk about. It became our routine and that for me, became an education,” he said. “It was the highlight, learning from an artist who was patient with me and allowed me to critique her work. I learned so much.”

Just before Cornwall’s death in 2006, he was on his way to Europe.

Cornwall had sent Joe Plaskett, who was living in Sussex, England at the time, a letter of introduction and Matthews was planning to go visit him.

“I was so upset with her death and dealing with grief that I never went,” Matthews said, noting he was assigned by the family phone Plaskett and let him know Sonia had passed.

Thanking everyone for attending the opening on Matthews said it warmed his heart.

“Sonia’s legacy, in the pieces I’ve collected, lives on. In the last several years, I’ve added to my collection. If I see a piece at auction I’ll either buy it or advise people about it.”

In 2014, he retired from designing and making jewellery and began painting.

Fort Berens Estate Winery in Lillooet bought his first painting, which is hanging beside one of Cornwall’s paintings in the exhibit.

“There’s a relationship between the two,” he said of the two pieces. “This is her vista from Jones Lake Ranch and that’s the vista from my outside upstairs deck down the Fraser Valley. There’s a link. There’s a liquidity that’s going on there.”

The exhibit continues through until April 27.

READ MORE: Cowan, Cornwall legacies celebrated at Station House Gallery

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Monica Lamb-Yorski

About the Author: Monica Lamb-Yorski

A B.C. gal, I was born in Alert Bay, raised in Nelson, graduated from the University of Winnipeg, and wrote my first-ever article for the Prince Rupert Daily News.
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