Sculpting Hamilton: Public works and public relations.
Elizabeth Holbrook (1913-2009) was an internationally celebrated sculptor, but her first love was painting under the instruction of Hortense Gordon at the Hamilton Technical School in the early 1930s. Continuing to be molded by her instructors, Holbrook discovered sculpting at the Ontario College of Art (now OCAD) under classes by Emanuel Hahn, beginning a lifelong commitment to the medium. After graduation in 1935, Holbrook became Hahn’s assistant and created a bronze portrait of her mentor.
She returned to Hamilton the following year and began to receive commissions for public memorials, medals of honour and bronze bust portraits, a medium that gained her much recognition and reward. Holbrook created busts for international humanitarian Dr. James H. Robinson, as well as of local friends and artists, such as of Frank Panabaker, demonstrating the indiscriminate levelling of hierarchy through her work.
An opportunity to assist renowned Swedish sculptor Carl Milles at Cranbrook Academy of Fine Arts came in 1948 thanks to her connection to Hortense Gordon, who introduced them on a visit to Detroit. This pivotal moment taught Holbrook how to construct large scale sculptural projects that would prove useful in the following years.
In 1954, Holbrook designed eight stone relief sculptures for the facade of the old Federal Building located at 150 Main Street West, Hamilton (now a condo building). These art-deco inspired panels depict Canadian industry such as lumbering and farming as well as Canadian animals such as caribou and black bears. Reminiscent of frescoes by Diego Rivera, Holbrook highlights the working class and what we owe to nature in a publicly accessible space with rounded, stylized figures. At age 86, Holbrook was mentor to sculptor Christian Cardell Corbet, who was invited to restore the Federal Building reliefs in 2016. Corbet remembers, “I once asked her if there was a difference between a male sculptor and a female sculptor. She said that it was a ridiculous question, that no one could tell the difference when looking at the pieces. She schooled me quite a bit” (Sachem.ca).
In 1959, City Hall dedicated $75000 to purchase works by local artists to be housed in the new city hall building to be constructed on Main Street. A call-for-submissions was sent out for paintings, while six sculptors from the Sculptors Society of Canada were personally selected to submit works. Holbrook was invited to submit, but the winning prize went to E.B. Cox, a Toronto native and vice-president of the Sculptors Society of Canada. The long-list of paintings and sculptures were shown at the Art Gallery of Hamilton late that year, and were met with much criticism from the public who did not understand the modernist movements on display. Mayor Lloyd Jackson declared “The people of this city have made it abundantly clear that they want no part of this modern art… We can’t let the arty crowd run things” (Women’s Art Association: The First 100 Years, 66). This criticism caused City Hall to back out of its promise to purchase and display the selected artworks at the new building, causing a storm of backlash from all of the many slighted artists. Holbrook remarked to the Hamilton Spectator, “I feel like the last angry Hamilton artist. Perhaps we should join a union to protect ourselves” (Women’s Art Association: The First 100 Years, 66).
Despite early lack of support from the local government, Holbrook continued to be active in the Hamilton arts scene and to support upcoming artists, as a teacher at the Dundas Valley School of Art in the 1960s, at McMaster University in the 1990s, and as an active member of the Women’s Art Association of Hamilton and the Contemporary Artists of Hamilton. Her work can be found in public collections at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, the Art Gallery of Hamilton as well as numerous local institutions. Continuing her art practice well into her 80s, Holbrook unveiled a new work in 1996 – a larger-than-life bronze portrait of George Bernard Shaw – created for the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake.
Although she spent the majority of her life in the city, Holbrook admitted in a 1984 interview “Hamilton’s a tough place for an artist” (Climbing the Cold White Peaks, 164). Despite this viewpoint, Holbrook undoubtedly paved a way for generations of Hamilton artists following her rise to bring more public art to their city.
Credits and further reading
Hamilton Public Library: Elizabeth Holbrook
Hamilton Spectator: Elizabeth Holbrook’s panels
Hamilton Spectator: Historic Holbrook sculptures to stay on former federal building
Hamilton Spectator: Restoration of historic Hamilton sculptures begins
Wikipedia: Elizabeth Holbrook
Climbing the Cold White Peaks by Stuart MacCuaig, 1986
Women’s Art Association: The First 100 Years by Stuart MacCuaig, 1996
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