Elizabeth Wyn Wood: a Canadian sculptor in the collections
One of Canada’s first modernist sculptors, Elizabeth Wyn Wood became known for her sculptures depicting the Canadian landscape. Born in 1903 in Orillia, Ontario, she attended the Ontario College of Art from 1921 to 1926, where she studied under sculptor Emanuel Hahn (whom she married in 1926) and Group of Seven members J.E.H. MacDonald and Arthur Lismer. The National Gallery of Canada holds nearly sixty works by the artist, as well as various letters and ephemera in the Gallery's Library and Archives collections.
By 1930, Wood's unique aesthetic prompted art critic Blodwen Davies to describe the artist as “perhaps the most advanced and adventurous sculptor working in Canada.” Wood's 1928 relief sculpture Passing Rain was among the first of her works to be acquired by the Gallery. Originally produced in plaster, it was then commissioned in marble when the artist was just 26 years of age. The sculpture is an early example of her modernist style applied to landscape. Passing Rain immediately gained acclaim and won her first place – which she shared with Montreal artist Sylvia Daoust – in the 1929 Willingdon Arts competition.
At the same time, Wood began experimenting with the human figure. Gesture (1927), also part of the Gallery's collection, uses dramatic diagonal lines and a simple silhouette to depict the human form, reflecting her modernist approach. Wood also produced bas-relief sculptures, traditional portrait busts and large-scale public monuments, including the 1939 Welland-Crowland War Memorial.
The purchase of these two early works marked the start of correspondence between Wood and the Gallery, which would continue throughout her professional career. The collection of letters in the NGC Archives spans 1933 to 1958, and consists predominantly of exchanges with Harry Orr (“H.O.”) McCurry, the Gallery’s then-director. Wood’s correspondence reveals her dedicated presence in the world of sculpture and her fervour for promoting the work of Canadian sculptors – both locally and abroad. The letters also offer a glimpse into her personal life, and the extent to which this is intertwined with her artistic oeuvre, as she reflects upon or seeks advice from McCurry regarding various initiatives.
Throughout her correspondence, Wood reveals herself to be a charming and dedicated presence in the world of sculpture. As part of a series of back-and-forths in the spring of 1937, she writes about the commission of a birchbark canoe as a birthday gift for her husband Emanuel (whom she calls “Mani”). In one of her letters she sketches an example of what she envisions, which McCurry helps to source.
Wood's granddaughter, Sydney Browne, recalls that by 1937, Wood "had already spent more than a decade paddling the rivers and lakes of the Canadian Shield, sketching the formations of rocks and trees that inspired her sculptural landscape work. These studies in form, clarity and simplicity became leitmotifs of her work; many of these sketches are now also in the Gallery's collection. Wood returned to these northern waters each summer with Hahn, often inviting colleagues including Carl Schaefer, Paraskeva Clark, Will Ogilvie and Charles Comfort."
The Archives also holds material related to the Sculptors’ Society of Canada, co-founded by Wood in 1928 along with Frances Loring, Florence Wyle, Alfred Laliberté, Henri Hébert and Hahn. The Society was established to nurture young talent and promote Canadian sculpture nationally and internationally. This involved organizing and circulating exhibitions, some in collaboration with the Gallery. As a result, the files include material related to some of the Society’s earliest exhibitions, which generated installation photographs, correspondence with artists, shipping records, checklists and exhibition catalogues. Wood served as the Society’s president for several years and helped support, develop and raise the profile of Canadian sculpture. As Browne points out, "this advocacy at the national level led to Wood’s participation as Canadian delegate to UNESCO’s first general Conference on the Arts in 1946, and fuelled her efforts to establish a national association for the arts – ultimately achieved through the establishment of the Canada Council."
Among the Gallery's other holdings is the artist file for Wood, comprising various clippings and ephemera about her career. It includes material related to the controversary surrounding the Winnipeg Cenotaph competition in 1927, for which Wood’s sketch earned praise from the Board of Assessors, who announced it as the winning design. The announcement, however, was retracted one month later by the Winnipeg War Memorial Committee. Although the Committee offered some halfhearted reasons as to why Wood was ultimately rejected, many believed that the sudden reversal was spurred by the Committee’s realization that she was married to German-born Hahn (who himself had been in a similar controversy two years earlier, having won the first round of the same competition, before it was decided that the winning artist should be British or from a British-allied country). As a result of Wood’s elimination, several artists – including Loring, Wyle, William Somerville and even Wood herself – wrote articles in her defense, all of which are in the file.
The various collections on the artist in the Library and Archives help illustrate Wood’s enduring advocacy for the medium to which she dedicated much of her life, and her impressive career as a sculptor, teacher and lecturer. Artist Charles Comfort, director of the Gallery from 1959 to 1965, noted in his eulogy to Wood: “The death of Elizabeth Wyn Wood on January 27th, 1966, has removed from our midst a distinguished Canadian Sculptor and a vital and imaginative personality. … All of her work, no matter how large or how small, has a monumental simplicity. Simplicity is not an end it itself, but Elizabeth Wyn Wood’s simplifications are magnificent attempts to bring order and control into an environment of distraction. Her search for the image in the material, her purification of form and contour, reveal a spirit of great nobility and composure. … The Canadian art world mourns a great artist and I, personally, the loss of a valued and lifelong friend.”
Works by Elizabeth Wyn Wood will be presented in Uninvited: Canadian Women Artists in the Modern Moment, on view at the National Gallery of Canada from March 3 to August 20. For details on the Gallery's Library and Archives opening hours, see the Access page. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.