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Inspirational, world-renowned sculptor found her footing in Orillia

Upcoming OMAH exhibit to celebrate life and legacy of Orillia's Elizabeth Wyn Wood in a way that will allow 'people to sense the person behind the art'

The Orillia Museum of Art and History (OMAH) is presenting a rare opportunity for local residents and visitors to learn about one of Orillia’s most respected and accomplished artists in its upcoming exhibition, Elizabeth Wyn Wood. 

“Ever since we acquired two pieces of Elizabeth Wyn Wood’s artwork last year, our goal has been to host an exhibition of her work,” explained Tanya Cunnington, OMAH’s art programming coordinator and curator of the upcoming show. 

Cunnington said she was awestruck when she first saw Wood’s sketches as part of the exhibition, Uninvited: Canadian Women Artists in the Modern Moment, at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection. 

“Her sketching style, using a black litho crayon, is so unique. Many were preparatory drawings for her sculptures. The way she has captured the beauty of the landscape is fascinating.” 

Cunnington’s inspiring experience resulted in OMAH deciding to purchase one of Wood’s landscape sketches for its permanent collection. Wood’s family donated a second sketch titled, First Trip, Honey Harbour.

“She is one of Orillia’s most exceptional and accomplished artists, with a remarkable and beautiful body of work,” said Cunnington.  “We hope that through this exhibition, people will be able to learn about the art and history of Elizabeth Wyn Wood, her connection to Orillia, and her impact as a professional artist.”

Elizabeth Wyn Wood was born in 1903 in Orillia, the youngest daughter of a family who ran a dry goods store on Mississaga Street. The family lived on Cedar Island before moving to their home on West Street, which is still owned by the family.

Wood went to school in Toronto, but spent weekends and summers enjoying Lake Couchiching, developing a love for the outdoors. 

She studied sculpture at The Ontario College of Art in Toronto where she was taught by notable artists such as Group of Seven members Arthur Lismer and J.E.H. MacDonald, along with sculptor Emanuel Hahn, whom she married in 1926. They had one child, Qennefer Wood-Hahn (Browne).

Wood is recognized as one of Canada’s first modernist sculptors and is known for her sculptures depicting the Canadian landscape. She also created portraits, figure studies and monuments, including the nationally-significant Welland-Crowland War Memorial (1939).

During her career as an artist and teacher, she was a strong advocate for the arts in Canada, and in particular, the recognition of women as professional artists. She was a founding member of the Sculptors' Society of Canada and instrumental in founding what is now the Canada Council for the Arts. 

“I can see why she was such an inspiration to many artists,” said Cunnington. “When she began her career, it was very rare for a woman to be a professional artist. I love that about her, how strong she was.”

Canadian artist, Barb Hunt, whose body of work includes a series of large steel dresses, was inspired by Elizabeth Wyn Wood. 

“I had a picture of her sculpture, Linda, on the wall of my studio for many years before I made my steel dresses,” said Hunt. “Linda looked like such a strong independent woman, and the fact that a woman sculptor had created this work was a huge inspiration for me. I wanted the dresses to feel strong like Linda. I also wanted to honour Elizabeth Wyn Wood and make a connection with her.”

One of Hunt’s steel dresses is now displayed at Lakehead University in Orillia. “I'm so glad my dress, which has a bit of Linda's spirit in it, is back home,” commented Hunt.

Many of Wood’s sculptures are at the National Art Gallery, the Art Gallery of Ontario and many other public places, including several in Orillia. Her relief sculpture, Leaping Deer, can be found in Victoria Park and her busts of Stephen Leacock and Harold Hale are located in the Orillia Public Library. 

Elizabeth Wyn Wood’s legacy in Orillia has continued to thrive in recent years. Her daughter Qennefer, along with husband Robert Browne (both deceased), moved to the area in their later years and contributed to the cultural life of the community in many ways.

The Orillia Regional Arts and Heritage Awards annually presents The Qennefer Browne Achievement Award to recognize outstanding contribution to the cultural life of the community. And Wood’s five grandchildren continue to encourage and support their grandmother’s legacy. 

“Our Elizabeth Wyn Wood exhibition is only possible because of the interest and generosity of her family. It will include several drawings, sculpture and personal items from the Browne family and her grandchildren,” explained Cunnington.  

“I am really excited about the exhibition and have loved having the opportunity to get to know and work with the family to make it happen,” said Cunnington. 

“I am hoping to tell a story. It’s important for people to sense the person behind the art, to learn about the hands that made it and see who she was.”

The Elizabeth Wyn Wood exhibition runs from April 29 to September 9, 2023, with an opening reception taking place from 1 to 3 pm on April 29. For details or more information about the artist, visit the OMAH website. 




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