The year 1941 was pivotal for Sullivan. Her childhood friend, Pierre Gauvreau, introduced her to Paul-Émile Borduas. Although he had attended grade school for a total of only five years, Borduas was to become one of Quebec's most influential visual art teachers and thinkers. When Sullivan met him, he was teaching at École du meuble, a rival art school to École des beaux-arts. Sullivan became one of numerous young artists attracted to his views on painting and joined a group of students who met with Borduas outside of formal classes to discuss art and politics. Borduas urged his young colleagues to reject conformity. "The future remains unknown," he wrote in 1942, "but it will reveal its secret only to those who do not fear life, who give themselves generously to it, spontaneously transcending the past."
Sullivan's meeting with Borduas resulted in her inclusion as a member of an interdisciplinary group of sixteen artists who were christened the "Automatists" by writer Tancrède Marsil Jr. in the February 28, 1947 edition of the University of Montréal paper, Quartier Latin. The name aptly referenced Borduas' interest in the French Surrealists and the automatic techniques they used to let images and colours flow in their artwork without any preplanning. Similarly, the Automatists argued that art should be the spontaneous, subconscious expression of the artist, created without any preconceived ideas, self-censorship or revision. Eventually, however, the Automatists distanced themselves from the Surrealists' penchant for figurative illustrations of dream states in order to forge their own aesthetic because, unlike the Surrealists, the Automatists felt that the best way to access and liberate the subconscious was through non-objective forms.
Stylistically, the Automatists' work was generally more akin to the American Abstract Expressionists' paintings than to those of the Surrealists. What distinguished the Automatists from their counterparts south of the border, however, was a deliberate politicization of art far beyond the aesthetic. The Automatists' rebellion against traditional art was emblematic of a larger, more overtly political cause: the rejection of aesthetic and social conformity. The Automatists wanted to liberate the subconscious through the creation of abstract art and also to liberate Québec from the rigid traditionalism of the dominant religious and political institutions in their province.
The Automatists' open-mindedness and eagerness to discover the unknown were qualities that, not surprisingly, helped to make them adventurous internationalists, curious to engage with new ideas fermenting in other parts of North America and Europe during the 1940s and 1950s. Many in the group lived abroad for extended periods during these decades and Sullivan was no exception. (next page)
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