Ms Gertrude Kearns


Gertrude (Steiger) KearnsGertrude Kearns was appointed in 2019 as a Member of the Order of Canada “for her contributions to preserving and understanding Canadian war history as a contemporary artist.” She was invested in 2022. In 2019, she was named Honorary war artist at the Royal Canadian Military Institute.

Kearns was born in St John’s Newfoundland in 1950 during her father’s one year commission under Joey Smallwood to paint the former Speakers and Prime Ministers of Newfoundland pre-Confederation. The family (of eventually four) was back in their Toronto home by early 1951. Volunteer work at St Joseph’s Hospital in her teens created an indelible appreciation of institutional environments. In the sixties and seventies she questioned the myopic and prescribed anti-cop and anti-military mindsets of her peers. She completed her piano studies in 1973 at the Royal Conservatory of Music, University of Toronto with an Associate of the RCMT (ARCT) after which she considered composition, but chose visual art.

Basically self-taught, with no formal training, she has had an independent arts practice since 1980, initially in Rio de Janeiro (after a year of overland travel) then since 1982 once back in Toronto. It has included working relationships with several Toronto commercial galleries up to 2010. But with her growing focus on military subject matter, she has preferred to remain autonomous with her projects and associations. “It is hard to straddle two worlds that require real time in: the military and the contemporary art scene.” Despite her work being outside contemporary art trends and subject matter, it has been published, reviewed and critiqued by contemporary art writers, curators and practitioners. Inclusion in this community validates the work on a different level.

She never wanted to be a military artist persay. She has been drawn to defence subjects challenged operationally in relation to conflicts. This sometimes mute line between military and war art has been a driving consideration in all her work, which attempts to express contemporary defence sensibilities and urgencies, both as per the individual and collectively.  By 2002 she had researched conflicts for a decade and produced works mostly in relation to the Canadian Armed Forces. Considering The Gulf Crisis of 1990, the Balkans 1992 and 2000, Somalia 1993, and Rwanda 1994, these works were about ‘conflict and conscience’, providing a particular foundation for eventually working with personnel. Notably the Canadian War Museum started to collect her work in 1996. Via the Canadian Forces Artist Program (2003-2005) she was granted exposure to JTF2 in 2003, and was on some Reserve exercises from 2004, prior to an official war artist contract with Task Force Afghanistan in Kandahar late 2005- early 2006. Kearns produced six canvas paintings which are in various facilities including CFC and NDHQ.

Wanting to consider the mission more complexly, she focused on senior command as it offered particular thematic potential to consider the mission more broadly, and followed her earlier projects reflecting on leadership (e.g. Dallaire and MacKenzie). Her subsequent self-initiated independent series ‘The ART of COMMAND: portraits + posters from Canada’s Afghan Mission’ spanned 2006-2018. Continually adding more works, it exhibited nationally: first in 2015 in Toronto at Fort York Visitor Centre; in 2016 at Founder’s Gallery; The Military Museums, Calgary; 2017-2018 at Canadian Forces College. She has presented on the work at DHTC, at CFC, at RMC, to various arts associations, and in museum and university environments.

Kearns’ interspersed non-military abstract works have shown in Toronto since 1989, including Lehmann+Leskiw Fine Art, Headbones Gallery and Angell Gallery. Her works are published and collected internationally. In 2019 The Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, Washington D.C. acquired her portrait of US General David H Petraeus. Recent Canadian War Museum purchases include portraits of Lieutenant-General Jennie Carignan as Major-General, and Lieutenant-Colonel Trisha MacCleod.

Recent institutional commissions include portraits of The Honorable Bill Graham in 2023 for Trinity College (UofT), and The Honorable Hugh Segal, in 2019 and 2023, for Massey College (UofT). Kearns' latest work is on General Wayne Eyre, CDS, appearing in The Globe and Mail OPINION section June 1st 2024. Her work is currently in 'OUTSIDE THE LINES: women artists and war' at the Canadian War Museum.

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