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January 25, 2008

Fascinating New Biography of Two of Canada's Pioneer Sculptors


I got my favourite book of 2007 for Christmas and with an interest in history and art couldn't put it down. Frances Loring and Florence Wyle, two young sculptors came to Toronto in 1913 and until their deaths three weeks apart in 1968, forty years ago this month, produced hundreds of fine pieces of Neo-classical sculpture. This definitive book on The Girls as they were called is by outstanding biographer Elspeth Cameron who has written books on several Canadian male literary icons before moving strongly into work on women. 

Cover of book by Elspeth Cameron, Cormorant Books 2007

The women, after living in other studios in Toronto, bought an abandoned church in mid town Toronto and established their home and studio there.  They were kindred spirits who lived together, worked together, and entertained together in what became a "salon" attracting many friends and supporters.  The likes of Group of Seven artists A.Y. Jackson and Arther Lismer, well to do patrons, developing art students and local people gathered there regularly. Besides being talented they were unconventional, entertaining, and generous. 

Much has been written on them including a 1972 book The Girls by fellow sculptor Rebecca Sisler a book I have read a couple of times.  The new book called And Beauty Answers (a line from Florence's  poem): The Life of Frances Loring & Florence Wyle (Cormorant Books) is 527 pages long with 150 pages of notes and 32 pages of photographs. Cameron has refined the art of biography and the book reads like a novel. The cover of the book shows the two artists in 1915 in a photo by famous early filmmaker Robert Flaherty. 

Another reason I liked the book is because I have a minor connection with the story that has maintained my interest in them over the years.  I saw their work recently at the McMichael Gallery and the Art Gallery of Hamilton and their work is available in various other locations including busts of each other in their memorial park near where they lived at St. Clair & Mount Pleasant in Toronto. 

Loring, who was 7 years older than Wyle, came from the well to do family of Frank Loring a successful mining engineer in Northern Ontario. Frances grew up in Cobalt and as she developed an interest in art studied and traveled in Europe for several years. When she attended the Chicago Art Institute in 1906 at age 24 she met 18 year old Florence. When they graduated they went to New York's Greenwich Village where modern art was beginning to appear.  They were committed to a realistic classical Greek and Roman style and came to Canada to work.  In a day when as Cameron says "men made art and women made babies" they were an anomaly in a man's field that required long hours of physical work.  In spite of some hard times they never took teaching or other regular work away from their studio. 

Loring was a large flamboyant woman in dress and personality and specialized in larger monumental works.  Her work doing monuments after world war one gave them a start and helped buy the church and a country acreage where they blossomed. Loring was also a natural leader and among other things was founder of the Canadian Sculpture Society which set high standards for sculptors. Wyles smaller pieces included some remarkable statues of workers in everyday life that the National Gallery has now. 

Their work can be seen by Googling their names on Wikipedia and elsewhere on the net. There is apparently a CTV television program giving a tour of their work pending later in January. Space does not allow for more detail on their rich lives. 

My Personal Connection 

As I mentioned I have a passing connection with the Loring-Wyles as they were called.  In 1952, at age 20, married and in my first teaching job my wife Eleanor, an aspiring artist, and I met a teacher in a nearby school who was an ambitious developing carver/sculptor.  In the spring of that year he invited my wife and me to go to Toronto to visit two sculptors he had contacted.  They turned out to be Frances and Florence and we spent an unforgettable afternoon with them surrounded by their work in various stages of completion.  They were generous with their time and strongly encouraged our friend and my wife and provided some catalogues and books of interest. 

Elly Mackey chatting with Globe & Mail Art critic Kay Kritzwizer at the opening of her exhibition in Toronto January 30, 1968.  Doug Mackey photo.

I moved to another school the next year but kept in touch with our friend and found that he was given support by the girls to attend the Ontario College of Art.  After his period at school he set up a studio and I recall a major exhibition of many of his pieces before we went on our separate career paths. 

My wife in the mean time, while raising four children, worked hard at developing her painting and drawing skills.  In the early 1960s she attended Teachers' College and got a job as head of the art department in a high school in Oshawa where I was teaching.  When I got a job in Toronto she went to art school there. 

In January 1968 Av. Isaacs, owner of the well established contemporary Isaacs Gallery offered her a solo exhibition of her unique color field paintings. Isaacs had his framer, well known artist William Kurelek frame them and the show opened on January 30th.  In an era when women were still secondary she was the only woman who exhibited at Isaacs that year and she had a sold out event. 

While preparing for the show, we heard that Florence Wyle had died.  Kay Kritzwiser the Globe & Mail Art critic interviewed my wife at her opening and the next night attended a memorial for Wyle.  The next day Kritzwiser ran a story in the Globe & Mail on the Memorial and the next day ran a story with two photos of my wife in the Globe & Mail.  Two days later on February 5, 1968 Loring died.  It was with mixed feelings that we enjoyed my wife's success at the cutting edge of modernism while the great exponents of neo classicism were passing. 

The Globe & Mail also ran a Loring obituary and an editorial titled The Girls in which they said in part "The strong, sensitive and capable hands of Florence Wyle and Frances Loring fashioned, over half a century, much that is worthy in the modest treasure house of Canadian art. Their deaths, within three weeks of each other, leave us saddened, yet grateful for the sustained energy and good taste which gave their lives fulfillment and left us so rich a legacy." 

In the 1968 end of the year wrap up on art in the Globe & Mail four artists including my wife (the only female) were featured.  There was no mention of Frances Loring and Florence Wyle. 

Champlain Cairn, with brass reliefs of Champlain's arrival at Lake Nipissing in 1615. D. Mackey Photos.

As a footnote to this story I recall recognizing a man in line in Canadian Tire in North Bay in the mid 1980s.  It was our sculptor friend from 1952.  We recalled that wonderful experience and how they supported him.  I asked if he was sculpting any more and he said he had gone on to other more lucrative things but had recently won a spot on the Champlain Cairn in Champlain Park on Premier Road in North Bay.  He died in 2001.  My wife and I visited the cairn recently, took the pictures shown here, and remembered with pleasure and some sadness these events.

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