Helen Sovereign

Helen Sovereign: Life, Inspiration and Art

A little white house on the corner of 6260 Guelph Line in Upper Lowville is where I started my life. My Dad, Tom Ramshaw, raised hens for eggs across the road from the little white house. The building was the former head office of the Nelson Township Telephone. The day before I was born my mom, Nancy Ramshaw got locked in in the hen house. She called and called for help but to no avail. Mom took matters into her own hands and climbed over the half door. Another story about 6240 Guelph Line was a day when Dad shut down half of Guelph Line at a time to dig a trench across the road to lay a pipe that would bring water from our home to the chickens. In the mid-1940s traffic was as scarce as ‘hen’s’ teeth and no big back up of vehicles as we experience today. 

Our family moved from the little white house on my second birthday. Mom and Dad bought a farm at 2300 #8 Side Road from Annie and Charlie Peer. The farm had been in the Peer family for a few hundred years. The farm was situated in the big valley between Rattlesnake Point and Mount Nemo. In my preschool years my Dad took care of me while my mom taught school at Cedar Springs one room school house.  Dad and I shared many hours taking care of livestock in the old post and beam barn, planting crops and harvesting crops such as hay, wheat, oats, and apples. During harvest season I sat and played from a shady safe spot in the fencerow watching my Mom and Dad. Often in the barn I sat on the steps leading to the hayloft. Memories of cattle, pigs and horses loomed in the dust of the monumental space. The horse stalls were beside the steps and horses became my best friends. Chickens were in pens outside on the hill side. Days for killing chickens was always a bit traumatic, but that was farm life. My memories of bucolic days on the farm are a treasure for me and give me a close association to the land at Lowville.

A couple of mishaps in the barn happened when I got too curious. The first was teetering on the edge of the horse watering trough. I guess I was looking at my reflection in the water and went a little too far. Dad came just in time to save me as my face was in the water. The second mishap was a fall from the high beam upstairs in the barn. I had climbed straight up the ladder. The style of the ladder that is built in beside the beam. I was checking to see if hens laid their eggs in the hay mow. As I turned on the beam I fell into the mow from a great height. Dad found me unconscious. A doctor was called, and I was all in one piece, just a bit dazed.

Once a week our neighbour Annie peer came to churn butter and make lunch for Dad and me.  At twelve o’clock Annie would say ‘your Dad likes to eat on time”. Annie Peer would turn the big wooden barrel over by hand until the cream separated into butter. The churn was kept in our back kitchen. It was probably too large for their smaller home. I always called her by her full name. The Peers were always like our family. When Dad came from Saskatchewan in 1927 after he stayed with his Aunt Florence and Uncle Willet Coulter on Walkers Line. He later took a job at Howard Sand and Gravel in Aldershot and boarded with Charlie and Annie’s daughter Eleanor and son-in-law Tom Scheer. My Mom would pick berries there during the summer.

My Dad, Charlie and Annie Peer, my dad’s brother, and many of his friends are buried in Lowville United Pioneer Cemetery on Britannia Road. They and their families are many of the founding men and women who settled the Lowville area. At the time of writing, my mom turned One Hundred on March 1, 2021, and lives in Oakville.

When I turned six, I traveled with Mom to Cedar Springs School where Mom taught eight grades. In the fall we’d rake leaves into piles, divide into teams and hide someone in the leaf pile for the other team to guess who was hidden. I attended grade two at Kilbride School. Mom taught the senior grades in the upper level of the two-room school.  During noon hour we’d play “anti over the shanty”, tossing a ball over the woodshed to the opposing team. In late summer we’d collect horse chestnuts to make conker from the nuts tied with string and try to smash the opponent’s conkers. In the winter we’d skate on the nearby pond. I loved skating so much and had stayed on past the bell for the afternoon classes.

For grade three and four I walked down #8 Side Road and met friends to walk the remainder along Guelph Line to Lowville School. The one-room school was situated along side the Twelve Mile Creek. We accessed the school from the upper village by the one hundred and one steps and across the swinging bridge. There aren’t exactly one hundred and one steps but that’s how the locals described it. At noon in the spring, we’d play on the icebergs floating in the creek. One time I slipped on a berg and got wet. The grade eight girls took me into the school to help hand my brown stocking, etc. near the wood fired furnace. They told the teacher I’d fallen in a puddle. No questions asked. Senior grades looked out for the junior grades during playtime. From grade five to eight I rode the school bus to Fairview, a consolidated school on Britannia Road. We had a great softball team, and I pitched the final game helping us to win the Halton School Baseball Championship. Baseball was a popular sport in Lowville and other rural communities. People would meet at the Lowville General Store and climb on a school bus to be driven to ball games in rural Ontario. 

In 1965 Richard Sovereign and I were married. We’d met at United Church Young Peoples. He was from Aldershot and the family farm had been sold to accommodate the 403 interchange. Richard had been doing custom farming for farmers in the town of Burlington and beyond. We started our life together at 6449 Guelph Line where we farmed for over forty-five years. He tilled, planted, harvested, dried the grain, and trucked out the stored crop in the winter months along with keeping the machinery repaired. Beside our farm he rented a total of one thousand and four hundred acres from Palermo to Waterdown. I looked after our two children Beth and Tom.

From 1970-1992 I worked as a functional potter operating 1847 Farmhouse Pottery. The pottery was named for our house which was built in 1847. I created many dinner sets and individual pieces applying earthenware clay and wood ash from our farm. The local earthenware and clay and wood ash melts to a glaze when fired at high stoneware temperatures. The glaze decoration application referenced my rural landscape. My most profound influences and inspiration came from living for over sixty years in the rural setting of Lowville. The crops of wheat, oats, soybeans and corn we grew along with my antique farm tool and hardware collection, and the sublime landscape provided material and inspiration for my art practice.

After a graduate year at Sheridan School of Craft and Design in Oakville in ceramics, I went on to study Fine Arts at the University of Waterloo from 1990- 1995. On the way home from a trip to New York City with the University of Waterloo we stopped to visit Storm King a four hundred acre sculpture park in the Hudson River Valley. I was so excited to see sculpture in the landscape and suggested to my husband that I wanted to turn our farm into an outdoor sculpture park. Fortunately, we had a large pond surrounded by a grassy area. The farm crop material was at hand and not costly to create sculpture. There were nineteen sculptural forms and a golden avenue of straw. Fourteen forms of ten feet tall and five forms placed on the ground. I invited friends, people from university, and the art community. The rest is history. From 1995 to 2005 I went on to create ten art installations by the pond.

Drawing and individual sculptures at the farm were shown in the Granary Gallery. I created Farmscape I, II, III, and IV.  Other installations for the Art Gallery of Burlington, Art Gallery of Hamilton, Carnegie Gallery Dundas and John Aird Gallery Toronto followed. From 2003 to present I exhibited at Bryce Kanbara’s you me gallery Hamilton. Also, in 2003 to celebrate The Art Gallery of Burlington’s twenty-fifth anniversary Marjorie McDowell and I created a collaborative work which was purchased by the City of Burlington to give to Itabashi Japan, our sister city. In November 2019 to January 2020 the Art Gallery of Burlington gave me a forty-year retrospective titled Living Off Land.

While traveling in Manitoba we visited the childhood home of author Margaret Laurence. On her desk I read part of an address she gave to a university. It spoke to me and all I had been creating in my art practice. She states, “All art is a product of the human imagination. It is, deeply an honouring of the past, a perception of the present in one way or another, and a looking towards the future; art is reaching out, an attempt to communicate things which most concern us seriously in our sojourn here on earth. Art by its very nature of necessary expression, is an act of faith, an acknowledgement of the profound mystery at the core of life.”

Contributing Author: Helen Sovereign
All photos courtesy of Helen Sovereign except for No. 8 Side Road