I spent last Thursday, Friday and Saturday in Montreal at the inaugural meeting of the Canadian Women Artists History Initiative (CWAHI), where something startling, puzzling and disappointing happened.
CWAHI, based in the Art History Department at Concordia University, is a project aimed at bringing scholars together to promote research about Canadian women artists — those born before 1925 and who did most of their work before 1967 and who were overlooked in survey texts and courses on Canadian art history, and who have been neglected by galleries and other institutions and consequently rarely known to the general public.
On the last day of the meeting, I read the Globe and Mail during the lunch break, and saw an obit for Dora de Pédery-Hunt. She died on 30 September at the age of 94. She had been a major Canadian sculptor who produced medals primarily (although not exclusively). You may not have heard her name, but you’ve seen her work — she sculpted the image of the Queen that appears on Canadian coins minted between 1990 and 2003.
I returned to the final conference session early to mention Dora’s death to one of the organizers. Her response threw me: “I’m not going to announce her death,” she told me. “It’s all I can do to get through this conference.” She was clearly stressed, and anxious for the conference to go off without a hitch, which, as far as I could tell, it had done.
But how distracting or disruptive is a simple mention of the death of a leading Canadian artist — and at a conference devoted to the study of Canada’s women artists? The mind reels. As I walked away, the organizer allowed as how “that’s the kind of information we (CWAHI) need to keep track of.”
That’s Dora in the picture above in March 2003 when she was presented with the J. Sanford Saltus Award for Signal Achievement in the Art of the Medal by the American Numismatic Society (ANS). (She is flanked by Stephen Scher on the left, who endowed a lecture that is presented every year in conjunction with the Saltus Award presentation, and Robert Wilson Hoge on the right, the ANS’s Curator of North American Coins and Currency.)
The Saltus Award citation called Dora “one of the foremost, and most prolific, medallic sculptors of the 20th and now of the 21st centuries,” “a premier artist of Canada” and “Canada’s grande dame of medallic sculpture.”
I met Dora only once, about 18 months ago. I included some of her work on Ryerson University’s Kerr Hall in Faces on Places, my book on architectural sculpture in Toronto. (See picture below.)
She had heard about the book and asked to see it. I brought her a copy, and was then treated to a tour of her very cramped apartment in downtown Toronto. It was so full of photographs, sculptures in progress and completed work, that it was necessary to walk sideways. Her niece told me that Dora seemed to have projects planned for the next 20 years when she died.
I won’t repeat the story of Dora’s life here, which was extraordinary and well told in the obit by Sandra Martin in the Globe and Mail. If anyone from CWAHI swings by this blog, you might want to send an e-mail or letter to be read at her memorial service next month. It would make up for the puzzling refusal to seize the moment during the conference in Montreal.