Thanks go to Anna's youngest sister for the following biographical sketch.
Anna (Friesen) Elias was born January 3, 1937, to Jacob and Maria Friesen, in the village of Rhinefeld, Manitoba. She grew up on a small mixed farm in this small Mennonite community alongside 7 siblings and a number of friends and classmates, experiencing the typical life in these southern Manitoba Mennonite villages.
While life was challenging in her youth and what would now be considered semi-poverty, in the material sense only, was the order of the day, farm life was good. There was always something to eat - wild plums, crab apples, and cherries to preserve, a huge garden to see the family through the winter; and there was a coal stove to keep warm. Never afraid of hard work, she lugged the coal scuttle more than her fair share. One Sunday, being very annoyed with her brothers for their lack of promptness, she stayed home from church to dig a fresh pit for the outhouse. She did not announce her intentions; the job was mostly done by the time the rest of the family came home. To polish the floor, her little sister came through for her; she dressed in wool ski pants and Anna dragged her over the freshly waxed floors. When things needed doing, she did them, and now.
Her flair for the dramatic and the artistic showed up early in her life. At age five her dad considered her too young to start school, but the young lady persisted. She had to meet some requirements, like counting to one hundred. No sooner said than done, and her father consented, so off she went to begin her formal education. That first year she was required to play the part of Schuettlekoepfen in the school Christmas concert. This required her to shake her head vigorously but silently, which worked well with her doll-like appearance and the mop of ringlets Mother insisted on for such prestigious occasions. Crayons were always her favorite present, a portent of things to come. Her penchant for teaching manifested early. She loved reading, and in short order taught her little sister to read. Her flair for drama was a constant source of delight to that little sister, who listened in rapt horror as “the Highwayman came riding, riding, riding…”! Her passionate nature, her interest in things scientific, and her love of teaching served her and her students well.
Her first years as a teacher began in southern Manitoba in the Mennonite villages of Meath, Halbstadt, and Stuartburn. These were eventful growing years for her. Her students were always inspired to learn. She eventually moved for further training to Vancouver and then on to northern BC communities of Klemtu and Prince Rupert. These settings later became the subject of some of her artwork.
1972 proved an eventful year for her. An old romance blossomed into marriage to her old best friend, Jake Elias.
Eventually the couple moved back to Manitoba, settling near Altona on a park like 15 acre century old homestead near Buffalo Channel. This home and landscape became more beautiful as the years passed by, thanks to Jake's polished woodworking skills and their combined labours and innovations. This picturesque setting was to provide inspiration for much of her art, and for her husband's photography. The two of them loved to rove the countryside looking for subjects for the camera and paintbrush. Anna's only formal art training was a Famous Artist correspondence course and the occasional artists' workshop, and for the most part, she taught herself. Her dad had artistic interest and leanings as well, so some of this was no doubt passed on to her. She worked hard to improve her skills, and this was rewarded as evidenced by improved paintings year by year. Her work included oil paintings, charcoal, acrylics, watercolours, but also photography, a hobby which she pursued along with her Jake and their son, and which netted her some awards.
Eventually she gave up teaching altogether, with her last schools being Rosenfeld and Prairie Mennonite, to concentrate on the artwork. To help pay the bills, she took up framing with Jake's help. Their home was a captivating place to visit. There was an artist studio that Jake had converted from an old chicken coop, with trellises for vines, Anna's flower gardens were arranged through the eyes of an artist, the house was a delightful mix of vintage homestead, the smell of fresh baked whole grain breads, the smell of paint, and so forth. The photography of all three family members, Jake's fine furniture, and Anna's paintings were everywhere, with always some new work of art to catch the eye.
Her work was displayed at various times and places, in local malls, at the Mennonite Heritage Gallery in Steinbach, Manitoba, at the Conservatory at Assiniboine Park, and at the Manitoba Legislature. She was a member of the Manitoba Society of Artists.
When she was diagnosed with cancer, her husband at that time having already struggled with cancer for a few years, her painting became a joyful diversion. She no longer painted for anything but the sheer love of it, often not bothering to make copies of her latest works. Her artwork is scattered across the continent and also abroad. The family was skeptical about her ever finishing the last of the commissioned portraits, of two little brothers, but she finished it, loving every minute of the work. This was no more an easy task. By this time she suffered severely from Raynaud's disease, so that it was painful to pick up a brush and only possible on some days. Her final work was a whimsical piece (like so much of her work), a little goldfish with a history, done as a gift to a little girl with whom she was corresponding. This pen pal situation was delightfully therapeutic for Anna. Her little friend would get riddles, corrections, and suggestions for her art and writing, sent to her, in exchange for the letters she sent. These two also exchanged Scripture texts and poetry, something at which Anna was adept, even in Low German.
She grew up with a good grasp of Bible knowledge, that being her father's passion. In her later years, this too became her passion. Her art was dedicated to "reflect the glory of God," one of her favorite Scripture passages by which she worked and lived, being Philippians 4:8, "Finally brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things." Patrons were sometimes surprised when she refused to frame a piece of artwork that did not meet these qualifications, no matter how much she could have used the income.
After a protracted and difficult battle with cancer, Anna passed away peacefully in April of 2006, having set her heart on that heavenly hope that the Almighty extends to us (all those who have personally placed their faith alone in the finished work of the Creator, the Lord Jesus Christ, on the cross, for free and full payment of their sins, as taught according to the Scriptures). She was joined by her beloved Jake in that heavenly home, in November of 2008.
The remainder of her artwork is in the care of their only son, Jason Elias.
The following is the eulogy written by Anna's son and the curator of this museum at the time of her passing.
It is with a heavy and sorrowing heart that I sit down to write these, a few words (that no doubt will be poor and inadequate) in tribute to the wonderful saint of God that was and is my mother. While in my mind I know and understand that I will never see her again on earth, in my heart it still seems like it cannot be possible, that surely, when I come home next, she will be seated in the sunroom reading her Bible just as always, or that in the morning, she will get up to join me for breakfast, or that I will still need to pick up some remedy for her that will surely work, and she will recover. But as King David said of his infant son, she cannot come to me, but I will most certainly go to her, and that in a very brief time. Life is short and sad, but eternity is long and glorious.
These will merely be some ramblings as things come to my mind … she deserves far more, but all the great poets are gone, and at this time, this is the best I can do.
There can be no doubt that the things of the spirit were her chief concern. She prayed for me from the very beginning of my life, and continued to do so to her dying day. When I was 13 and entering grade 7, I spent half a semester in the public school. The material we were using for literature studies was questionable at best, and this was the main factor that led to our decision to continue my education at home. After all, when we moved to Manitoba in 1974, to the place on Roseville Road, she had prayed that we would be able to buy this place, in order to raise me in a quiet rural setting, where it would be possible to teach me the ways of God. My earliest memories of her involve her telling me stories of the Bible, and every night as I would pass my parents’ bedroom, she would be praying or reading the Scriptures. A major part of my home education was the daily listening to the radio program “Thru the Bible”, in which the late Dr. J. Vernon McGee would teach through the entire Scriptures in five years. We also attended Bible conferences whenever we could, in Indiana and Winnipeg. In later life, after her teaching career was done, she started a small picture framing business, and there too her concern for spiritual matters shone through; she was always finding ways to witness to her customers, and prayed for those she was concerned about. While she had many trials and disappointments in her life, there was always an effervescent and infectious joy that would bubble to the surface, cheering those around her as she sang hymns or whistled as she worked. She struggled, as we all do, with faith and assurance. But God gives grace, and in her last days she had absolutely no doubt of where she was going.
Another gift that she was blessed with, and in turn blessed those around her, was a deep, godly wisdom; as the apostle James describes it, “The wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be entreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy.” Her advice was not always welcomed, nor always followed, but it was always good, and she was always patient with others.
Her studies and her desire to follow God’s leading led to having a great love and concern for God’s chosen people, the nation of the Jews. She was deeply familiar with the prophetic scriptures, and understood their fulfilment in modern times, with the alignment of nations, the re-establishment of national Israel, and the other signs that point so clearly to the soon return of Christ, which is our great hope. This love was to find a practical expression in her last year on earth, in the form of a friendship with a little Jewish girl, the daughter of a good friend of the family who came to the Winnipeg Prophecy Conference every year. She took great delight in their exchange of letters, and would send her little poems that she wrote, prints of some work, and other tokens of affection. She had a great concern that the leaders of our church would, as the Scripture says, “rightly divide the word of truth”, and that the doctrine taught would be true and accurate.
She was the kindest, most generous, and most selfless soul I ever expect to meet. My friends were all treated as family. While she had great hopes and ambitions for herself, she always put others first, and while she wished she could be painting, she rather taught school or did picture framing to help the family finances.
She had a great love not only for others, but also for nature. A little example can be seen in the only thing I remember about a Grade 3 Science course that she wrote for the Manitoba Department of Education correspondence division. There was a little cartoon of a ladybug illustrating a paragraph that told the children, that if they found a ladybug they should not squish it, but rather bring it outside, for it was a friendly and useful bug. She loved nothing better than to go to Bird’s Hill Park, and wander around with us, with her camera, or sit down with a sketchpad and take inspiration from the natural beauty. Her flower garden was her particular care and pleasure, and much time was spent tending it.
And certainly no mention of my mother could be complete without speaking of her art. This was her way of responding to creation, and giving glory to God for the beauty she saw all around her. She often said that when she sat down in her studio, or in her upstairs workshop, and started to paint or sketch, time and the world became of no meaning. This losing herself in creating beauty was her great joy. It is always difficult for an artist to achieve recognition, but difficult though it may be, it seems that the desire for some recognition is an integral part of the artistic personality. Mom was no exception, and the fact that she seldom sold a work, and then not for much, was a discouragement to her. But this never stopped the desire for creation from welling out and producing yet one more little gem. While as the end of her earthly journey approached, she found less and less value in material things, and even said of her paintings that they were not worth much, they are the fullest expression of her personality, and are exceedingly precious to me. She often wished that she could create great works on grand themes, and was dissatisfied with her work for being too trivial and light-hearted. But this was her personality, and she could not help but express it. She found great delight in little things, in the way light played on a vase, in the momentary posture of a bird, in the colours of a bouquet. Her best work radiates a cheerful serenity that is her gift to us.
The last years of her life were very difficult ones. My father’s struggle with cancer was met and matched, but her own diagnosis about a year later was a heavy blow. She had seen what conventional treatments did to others, and was resolved not to suffer such indignities for what usually turned out to be very little gain. Therefore, she made a heroic effort to acquaint herself with matters of health, pathology, and the variety of natural treatments available. She was always a fighter, and was determined that the demon cancer would not get the better of either my father or herself. She was successful for four years, and even up to the last week of her life, held out hope for a new treatment that she was planning to try. It was, however, too late. Her breath was taken from her as her lungs degenerated, first slowly, then faster and faster, until on Monday, April 10th, even an oxygen mask could not stop her from gasping for air. She slept a little in the afternoon, but got weaker and weaker throughout the day. At 6:30, she heard the voice of her beloved Lord Jesus saying, “Rise up, my love, my fair one, and come away” – and entered into her rest, her heavenly hope, her glorious reward.
There are no words to express how greatly she will be missed. She was the driving force in our little family, the rudder, the anchor, the life and spirit. We now feel adrift and alone, but we know that the same Lord that sustained and led her, will lead us and support us. While the crushing finality of death seems overwhelming, we understand that this is but an illusion. There is no permanent parting for believers, and one day we will be reunited in the perfect joy of heaven and the very presence of the precious Lord who gave His life on earth, that we might have eternal life with Him.
I close with the words of the apostle John, and her fervent prayer, “Even so, come, Lord Jesus.”