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Serious illness helped Orillia artist became a renowned sculptor

Life and work of Elizabeth Wyn Wood, born at cottage on Cedar Island, explored as part of Orillia Museum of Art and History Speaker Series event

When the renowned artist Elizabeth Wyn Wood was growing up in Orillia, she fell seriously ill.

During her recovery, her mother, always a source of encouragement, gave Elizabeth a gift of plasticine along with books with images of classical art. Thus began the career of a famous Canadian sculptor.

At the Orillia Museum of Art and History (OMAH) Speaker Series on March 15, Sylvie Browne shared a marvellous pictorial and narrated biography of her maternal grandmother, Elizabeth Wyn Wood (1903-1966), renowned sculptor and Orillian, including many elements of her life that few admirers know.

Elizabeth Wyn Wood was born on Cedar Island, at the family cottage there. The main family home, Westward Ho, was located at West and Tecumseth streets and is still owned by the family.

In 1921, she began to attend the Ontario College of Art, where she was taught by Arthur Lismer, J.E.H. McDonald and A.Y. Jackson, members of the Group of Seven. One of her teachers was sculptor Emanuel Hahn, whom she married in 1926. They had one child, Qennefer Wood Hahn.

In 1908, Emanuel Hahn had bought an island in the Pickerel River area between Killarney and North Bay. Hahn Island became a destination where art was created by large groups of well-known artists.

Sylvie Browne recounted that the natural world of rocks, trees, water and sky was always a part of her grandmother’s figural drawings and sculptures, because of her time exploring the Canadian Shield between 1926 and 1939. During her life, Wyn Wood was well known for her small landscape sculptures. Always adventurous and creative, she created them with a variety of materials including tin, aluminum and marble.

A modernist from the beginning of her practice as a sculptor, she wanted to create monuments. Wyn Wood’s work was done using her birth name throughout her career as artist and teacher.

In 1934, she won a commission to create the last Great War (First World War) monument in Canada at Welland, Ont., depicting a soldier representing efforts at the battlefront, with a woman representing support on the home front. In the design of her monument of Lt.-Gov. John Graves Simcoe, it was important to her that she depict his wife, Elizabeth Gwillim Simcoe, whose sketches and journals evoke life in Upper Canada as she recorded it. This monument was erected in 1952 by the Niagara Parks Commission.

In 1935, her husband, Emanuel Hahn, designed an award-winning dollar coin, The Voyageurs, depicting a canoe paddled by a fur trader and an Indigenous man. Wyn Wood contributed her own design to the coin: an island, a tree with aurora borealis in the sky as a background to the canoe.

Many of Wyn Wood’s sculptures are in public places, including several in Orillia, in Toronto at the Art Gallery of Ontario and the National Gallery in Ottawa.

For her drawings, Wyn Wood used woven rag paper and litho crayon. The advantages of these media are that litho crayon can be sharpened and drawings made with it tend not to smudge as easily. Her surviving family continues to research and assemble Wyn Wood’s drawings. Although some of her drawings were sold for publication and to private collections during her lifetime, she kept many.

Sylvie Browne’s goal is to work with OMAH to make her grandmother’s drawing legacy better known. We look forward to a wonderful exhibition in the future.

If you missed Sylvie’s talk, click on this link to access OMAH’s YouTube channel to hear a recording of the talk.

Coming in April and May: 

On April 19, via Zoom, join Judy Humphries, head of the Gravenhurst Archives, who will share with us the fascinating evolution of the Ontario Fire College.

On May 17, via Zoom, join Michael Hill, former artistic director of the Mariposa Folk Festival and author of The Mariposa Folk Festival: A History, as he recounts the festival’s musical and financial ups and downs, and provides insight into the interesting people involved in staging one of Canada’s iconic cultural events.

To register for upcoming talks, click on this link or call Monica at 705-326-2159 or email [email protected].

Admission is free. Donations to OMAH are greatly appreciated.