Canadian sculptors inspire GG-winning poet: “The torso as a code for beauty”

The museum guard on duty likely had no idea of the potential hazard posed by poet Arleen Paré when she visited an exhibition of sculptures by Ontario artists at the National Gallery of Canada. Paré, stopping dead before the display, so longed to touch the neo-classical works in marble by Florence Wyle and Frances Loring that she later wrote a poem inspired by the moment, called “The National Gallery: Unguarded I Would Have Caressed Every Surface.” This poem is just one in Paré’s newest collection The Girls With Stone Faces (Brick Books, 2017), which vividly re-imagines the sculptors’ lives and artistic commitment, bringing their mastery back into light.

Paré, whose collection Lake of Two Mountains won the 2014 Governor General’s Award for Poetry, is well-versed in Canadian art history, but she was unfamiliar with nearly-forgotten twentieth century sculptors Wyle and Loring.

Frances Loring, Grief, 1918, cast 1965, bronze, 51 x 50 x 26.5 cm; 35.7 lbs. Purchased 2001. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: NGC


As Paré learned when she read Rebecca Sisler’s 1972 biography The Girls, Wyle and Loring, both American-born, had met at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1906 and become fast friends. They later moved to Canada, where they each achieved artistic acclaim and counted famed Canadian artists such as A.Y. Jackson and Fred Varley among their friends. They lived in a deconsecrated Toronto church for most of their adult lives, sharing both studio and bed for fifty years. Although the biography avoided the question, it seemed obvious to Paré that the sculptors were a couple. Her curiosity heightened, Paré thought, “Oh yeah, I need to write about this.”

Thus began further research, including an informative tour of works in the Gallery’s collection. Paré also viewed works by the artists at the Canadian War Museum and the Art Gallery of Ontario and read a later biography by Elspeth Cameron.

Paré then began writing what would become The Girls With Stone Faces. Beyond their artistic practices, the book also re-imagines their struggles to survive on artists’ earnings and the intimate relationship she believes they shared, which would have been considered radical at the time. She also wrestles with art’s — and humanity’s — traditional ideas of beauty and with women’s roles as artists and art subjects.

Florence Wyle, Torso, 1930, carved 1931-1932, marble, 100.6 x 52.3 x 35 cm. Purchased 1933. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: NGC


In a five-part sequence on Wyle’s Torso (1930, carved 1931–1932) Paré takes on the history of art, love, eroticism, feminist icons from Jeanne d’Arc to Russian punk rock group Pussy Riot, and the sculpted female form — lacking limbs or head — as a standard of beauty. Despite the controversy of the form, Torso was one of Paré’s favourite pieces: “It was very raw-looking marble, it looked more like flesh. She’s such a technician, such a smart artist, and yet what is it saying that I thought this torso was beautiful? There’s nothing that this body can do. It can’t think, it can’t walk.”

Frances Loring, Inuit Mother and Child, 1938, carved 1958, limestone, 193 x 53.3 x 73.7 cm. Purchased 1960. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: NGC


Paré’s engagement with the duo’s work isn’t only political: it’s also visceral and empathetic. Loring’s Grief (1918, cast 1965) captured for Paré the struggles the two sculptors faced as they aged. Loring’s 1958 sculpture Inuit Mother and Child (1938, carved 1958), meanwhile, inspired the poem “Her Name was Ana Mangurin,” in which Paré engages imaginatively with the Inuit subjects Loring portrayed. “The model for the sculpture is named,” says Paré. “She’s an actual person. I thought this was important. And I wanted to include this piece because of the association with the Inuit galleries, especially because the Inuit galleries were filled with sculptures and carvings that would have been Loring/Wyle contemporaries.”

The Girls With Stone Faces also ushers readers into the Gallery itself and into close contact with other works that might not, at first, seem to have any connection with Loring and Wyle. For example, Marc-Aurèle de Foy Suzor-Coté’s bronze sculpture Caughnawaga Women (1924) was literally outside the room where Paré first saw Loring’s and Wyle’s works. In her poem “On the Way In, Three Women in Bronze,” Paré extracts meaning from that proximity. Suzor-Coté’s figures are, “Against all odds, rushing there, / tacking their bodies against the history of storm.” This is an elemental battle that we can easily relate to the personal and professional battles Loring and Wyle waged.

Davidialuk Alasua Amittu, The Aurora Borealis Decapitating a Young Man, c. 1965, dark-grey stone with brown veins, 23.2 x 29 x 14 cm. Purchased 1992. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: NGC


In the “The Lure of Light,” a poem responding to Davidialuk Alasua Amittu’s The Aurora Borealis Decapitating a Young Man (c. 1965), Paré writes, “A legend must be exact. / A lesson, a terror, the angles of stone cut with fastidious care.” This fierce poem depicts the danger in thinking “you are better / than light, the sinuous flow” and casts a haunting glow over the lives of Loring and Wyle. The poem begins, as does the book, to rescue from the shadows the powerful legacy of their inextricably linked art and lives.  

Frances Loring’s Grief (1918, cast 1965) is currently on view in the National Gallery of Canada’s Canadian and Indigenous Galleries.

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