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Painter Rita Letendre excelled in the male-dominated world of abstract art – The Globe and Mail

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Rita Letendre, 2008.Courtesy of Gallery Gevik

At age 19, the painter Rita Letendre was working as the cashier in a Montreal diner and, when business was slow, she would occupy herself by sketching. One customer was so struck by her drawings, he insisted that she enroll at a school she had never heard of – Montreal’s École des Beaux-Arts – and actually deposited her at its front door. She lasted a year and a half, leaving after an instructor suggested there was no point attending an art show organized by the anti-clerical rebel Paul-Émile Borduas. She went anyway and discovered an art that spoke to her, launching her career as a second-generation member of Borduas’s Automatiste movement and one of Canada’s leading abstractionists.

Ms. Letendre died in Toronto on Saturday from blood cancer. She had marked her 93rd birthday on Nov. 1.

Ms. Letendre with Lode Star in 1970.Harry McLorinan/The Globe and Mail

Ms. Letendre, of

and French-Canadian heritage, grew up in poverty in and around Drummondville, Que. Her father, looking for work, moved the family to Montreal when she was 14, pulling her out of school to look after her younger siblings. In short, she was an unlikely candidate to become a dominant figure in the macho world of abstract painting. She owed her success to an independent and adventurous spirit, making her own way in the art world and remaking her career several times over, eventually emerging as a prominent Toronto muralist.

“Rita Letendre brought a freedom to abstract art that has and will continue to touch people’s hearts,” said Wanda Nanibush, curator of Indigenous art at the Art Gallery of Ontario and the organizer of a 2017 retrospective of the artist’s work. “She was a very rare modernist: an Indigenous woman working in what is often considered to be a white male field and her work was grounded in the metaphorical and spiritual qualities of light, darkness, colour and movement. Her colours vibrate and her paintings move. Everything that she was is on view in her work.”

Ms. Letendre identified as Indigenous on her mother’s side – her maternal grandmother was Abenaki – and recalled being teased at school for that reason.Handout

Ms. Letendre was born on Nov. 1, 1928, in Drummondville to Héliodore Letendre and Marie-Anna Ledoux, the first of their seven children. She identified as Indigenous on her mother’s side – her maternal grandmother was Abenaki – and recalled being teased at school for that reason. In a 2019 interview with the Montreal artist Caroline Monnet, herself part Algonquin, Ms. Letendre remembered her grandmother, who taught her to see beauty everywhere, sheltering her from a storm one summer day and telling her not to be afraid of thunder. She contrasted that reverence for nature with the religious attitudes of the Catholic Letendre family. Nonetheless, her father’s family was also believed to be of mixed ancestry, French-Canadian and Mohawk.

He was a mechanic and, in those tough Depression years, moved the family from town to town seeking work while her mother looked after a growing family. As a preschooler, after she caught her finger in machinery while her mother was busy with the baby, she was sent to live for several years on a farm with her maternal grandparents. Years later, she still recalled the bliss of wandering by herself in the woods and fields although, returning to her parents, she went on to enjoy school where she pursued her love of drawing. Her father eventually moved the family to Montreal in 1942; both he and his wife took factory jobs while Rita stayed home with the younger children, cooking and cleaning.

Rita Letendre. Victoire [Victory], 1961. Oil on canvas.Courtesy of Art Gallery of Ontario / Estate of Rita Letendre

In 1946, she escaped with a boyfriend in a short-lived relationship that produced her son, Jacques, born in February, 1948, and raised by Ms. Letendre’s mother. That September, she made her fateful move to the Beaux-Arts, quickly earning recognition – and scholarship money – at the school. Its conservatism, however, did not suit her. Introduced to the Automatiste circle by her fellow student and partner Ulysse Comtois, and encouraged by Mr. Borduas himself, she plunged into modernism and abstraction.

“Representation suddenly seemed to me like a crutch,” she said in a 1997 interview with the art critic Gaston Roberge. “I had discovered that the soul of a painting was not in the object represented but in the way it transmitted a sort of internalized emotion.” In those early years, that emotion for Ms. Letendre was chiefly rage against the limited and prejudiced world from which she had emerged.

Just entering the scene as Mr. Borduas published his explosive manifesto the Refus Global, which positioned a free, non-representational art as a powerful retort to the religiosity and paternalism of Duplessis Quebec, Ms. Letendre was not one of the signatories but she was deeply attracted by this call for liberty. She embraced what a critic had dubbed Automatism, in which the artist painted without premeditation, let alone sketching.

She began showing with the Automatistes, experimenting with strong colours and geometric shapes while maintaining soft and irregular lines. In 1955, she participated in a group show at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts but Mr. Borduas, who returned from self-exile in New York for the occasion, disliked her latest work, calling it too geometric and rational. She broke with the Automatistes and began associating with Les Plasticiens, who used more structured approaches to painting. The same year the artist Guido Molinari gave her a solo show in a bar where he organized the exhibitions and then at his own gallery in 1956. Ms. Letendre’s style showed elements of both groups’ influence but remained independent, often using heavy impasto and favouring effects of light and colour rejected by Les Plasticiens, whose work was hard-edged.

Rita Letendre. Daybreak, 1983. Acrylic on canvas.Courtesy of Art Gallery of Ontario / Estate of Rita Letendre

During these years, she and Mr. Comtois lived hand-to-mouth, taking jobs to support themselves, but eventually she began selling work and getting reviews. Recalling that period in a Maclean’s magazine essay in 1975, she said that her artist friends were too busy supporting each other to worry about gender roles, but that critics did say it was hard to believe her bold paintings were the work of a woman or suggested her softer lines were more feminine.

By the early 1960s, she and Mr. Comtois were financially established enough to travel to Europe, where their 15-year relationship fell apart. According to Ms. Letendre, the problem was that she was social and party-going while he was a loner. In Italy, she met the Russian-born Israeli sculptor Kosso Eloul, whom she would marry. After a brief return to Montreal, the couple moved in 1964 to Los Angeles, where he had a commission.

At the University of California, Long Beach, Ms. Letendre herself was commissioned to create a large mural and realized that her impasto style would not work at this scale. Instead of relying on the tension created by different thicknesses of paint, she would use light-coloured backgrounds to accentuate the collision of dark masses. So, she developed the flat, hard-edge style that would become her signature for the monumental murals and large canvases of the 1970s that feature vertiginously receding diagonal bands of colour and remain her most famous works.

“In the 1960s and 1970s, she was one of the few women artists awarded public art commissions, first in California and then many in Toronto, such as the Glencairn subway station installation Joy,” said Georgiana Uhlyarik, curator of Canadian Art at the AGO. “Ms. Letendre’s artworks, with their wedges of bright colours colliding into flashes of light, energized Toronto’s streets and interior public spaces with a glorious optimism and confidence that galvanized the city and its residents.”

Ms. Letendre with Phillip Gevik, 2010.Courtesy of Gallery Gevik

At one point there were 12 public art works by Ms. Letendre on view in Toronto, although today many of those large murals have been demolished or are blocked by surrounding buildings. Joy, the 1977 coloured skylight in Glencairn station, was reinstalled in 2014 and still casts its orange glow over the platform. Meanwhile California State University Long Beach has restored the mural she painted there in 1965 and is organizing a show of her work in January.

She and Mr. Eloul settled in Toronto’s Cabbagetown neighbourhood in a Victorian house stuffed with modern art, where they entertained many friends. Ms. Letendre only left the house after he died in 1995. She leaves her son, Jacques Letendre, and his wife, Monique Laroque.

Ms. Letendre, who had more than 60 solo exhibitions during her lifetime and was named an officer of the Order of Canada in 2005, continued making and showing art into her 90s. When Ms. Monnet asked her in 2019 what it had been like to be an artist in the 1940s in Quebec, she had replied simply “Ça n’existait pas.” There was no such thing. For more than 70 years, Ms. Letendre had made sure that there was such a thing and that it was her.

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From Venus to Medusa, How Art Codifies the Objectification of Women – The New York Times

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From Venus to Medusa, How Art Codifies the Objectification of Women  The New York Times



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'The Barge' takes on a second life as a public art installation on social media – Vancouver Sun

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The City of Vancouver said Wednesday that Transport Canada has received a plan to move the barge.

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The barge at English Bay shows no end of inspiring Vancouverites.

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One of the memes circulating online is calling the barge — which became grounded at English Bay during a severe storm last month — a public art installation.

On Twitter, Greg @goldenmulletman said Monday after a failed attempt to remove the barge, “Hey @CityofVancouver you should admit defeat and declare this barge an urban art installation.”

Someone who knows about public art is Barrie Mowatt, founder and president of the Vancouver Biennale , the region’s outdoor public art exhibition.

He said the barge isn’t public art, but could be.

“It is in the public and in its current position artful, but it’s not public art in the sense of how we define public art,” he said. “It does certainly draw people’s attention and get them connected with the space. It’s cool in that sense.”

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Mowatt said the barge could become public art if it was incorporated into a narrative about the former industrial heritage of False Creek, for example, and how the city has changed since. As well, he suggested it could be painted and turned into a mural, but in a way that didn’t look like graffiti.

“Yes, it could become an interesting piece of public art,” he said from Palm Springs. “As it is now, with good signage, it could create dialogue and engagement about what is public art.”

Not everyone agrees with the idea the barge is or could be public art.

On Wednesday morning, Jo-Ann Heinz cycled from Yaletown to English Bay and Sunset Beach to see the barge because a friend contacted her to say something was happening. Nothing did, even though a high tide and whitecaps on the water all suggested movement.

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“I’m just kind of curious to see how they get this monstrosity off the seawall,” she said.

Heinz said while the barge could be turned into a restaurant, she questioned the idea that it was already an example of public art just by its position on the rocks.

Heinz is a sailor who has been around the world and seen similar examples of wrecked vessels abandoned on the shore. She called them eyesores.

“This is an eyesore,” she said. “We’re in Vancouver. We should be able to figure out how to get this off the shore.”

It looks like the barge will be at home on English Bay for a few more days.

The City of Vancouver said Wednesday that Transport Canada has received a plan to move the barge from its owner.

“In the coming days, the barge will be assessed and repaired as needed in preparation for its removal,” the city said by email.

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A crane towed by a tugboat leaves English Bay on Wednesday after stormy weather put a halt to the latest effort to free the barge.
A crane towed by a tugboat leaves English Bay on Wednesday after stormy weather put a halt to the latest effort to free the barge. Photo by NICK PROCAYLO /PNG

The homophonic link between “Barge on the Beach” and “Bard on the Beach” has inspired a parody of a famous speech from the play Henry V by William Shakespeare.

Christopher Gaze, founder and artistic director of Bard on the Beach , Vancouver’s summer Shakespeare festival, said he thought of the play’s famous St. Crispin’s Day speech given by the king on the eve of the Battle of Agincourt. The speech was meant to inspire the outnumbered English forces to overcome the French.

In Gaze’s version, the speech is about the failure to float the barge away on the king tide that would have lifted the barge like “Noah’s flood.”

“This day is called the Barge on the Beach day/We that shall live this day and come safe home/Will stand a tiptoe when this day is named/And rouse us at the sight of the Barge on the rocks./West End residents that shall live this day and see old age will/yearly feast their neighbours/And say, tomorrow is the bedevilled Barge Day …”

Gaze said the timing focuses attention on Bard on the Beach, which returns to Vanier Park/Senakw next summer after being cancelled for two years because of the pandemic.

kevingriffin@postmedia.com

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Around Town: Art of Inclusion – Alaska Highway News

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Carmella Klassen paints a snowman in the window of the Fort St. John Association for Community Living’s Art of Inclusion studio on 100 Avenue. 

The art program began earlier this year, and recently moved into a standalone studio down the street from the ACL office, where members show up to sessions on Tuesdays and Thursdays to learn how to work with paints and pastels, linocuts and silkscreens, and other mixed-media techniques.

“I love art,” says Klassen, who has been taking part in the program since the beginning. “I make something new every time, and I want to learn how to do different things. Lorna is one of the best teachers I can think of.”

Klassen is referring to Montney artist Lorna Penner, who has been helping out with instruction since August. On Tuesday afternoon, Penner was working with Klassen and others on mixed-media self-evaluations and teaching them how to paint with pastels.

“It’s talking about how they feel when they do art. They’re very determined, they’re unique,” says Penner. 

Penner works with about four students per session, which she says is perfect. “We can really get into things very deep,” says Penner.

The studio recently held a printmaking open house for family and friends, and exhibited a COVID-19 show at Peace Gallery North earlier this year.

The program wraps for the holidays next week and will continue in the new year.

FSJACL-ArtofInclusion
Lily Rogova (left) and Victoria Nichols work on an art piece at the Fort St. John Association for Community Living’s Art of Inclusion studio. Matt Preprost

Email Managing Editor Matt Preprost at editor@ahnfsj.ca

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