Irena Vormittag

Story by Megan Pedersen.

The following was written in collaboration with McMaster University’s Art History 4X03 course, Winter 2020. Lead by Dr. Angela Sheng and BCL’s Alexis Moline, students conducted first hand research on their chosen subjects and many had the opportunity to meet with the artists in person. BCL gratefully appreciates the care and dedication the students demonstrated in forging personal and engaging stories in collaboration with the artists in their Hamilton community.

Irena Vormittag is an active Polish-Canadian artist (post WWII-present) whose abstract expressionist pieces have earned her merit within the Hamilton art scene. She is well known for being one of the founding members of the Hamilton Artist’s INC. Her surrealistic paintings and mixed-media installations inspired by her life experiences, travels, and emotions are what have made her a prominent figure within the Hamilton artists’ community.

Vormittag was born in Krakow Poland and immigrated to Canada after the second great war when she was only twelve years old. She followed her mother, father and sister to start a new life in Canada. The family lived in various Canadian cities but landed first in Quebec. After a year, her family moved to Niagara Falls, Ontario where her parents would live until they passed on. It wasn’t until 1966 that Irena moved to Hamilton, Ontario. After she completed her post-secondary education, she studied at the Dundas Valley School of Art. There, Irena was able to focus on developing her craft from her instructor and benefited from her mentor, David Chavel. It was Chavel that would encourage her to enroll at the Ontario College of Art.

In 1974, Irena began studying in the experimental program at the Ontario College of Art. During this time she had the opportunity to study abroad in New York City for 3 months where she was able to learn more and practice her discipline. After studying in this program for a few years, Irena developed a large portfolio that she wanted to show to the public in and around Hamilton. In 1975 while Irena was still studying at the OCA, she became a founding member of the Hamilton Artists Co-op, an artist run, not-for-profit gallery. It is currently known as the Hamilton Artists Inc. She worked closely with other founding artists such as Bryce Kanabra, Cynthia Hill, and Sam Robinson to help create a venue that would promote the manifestation of the arts and creative practice in the Hamilton area.

Founding members Irena Vormittag, Frank Thistle, Sam Robinson and Bryce Kanbara helping to paint the new space for the Hamilton Artists' Co-op, September 19, 1976.

As Vormittag and other founding members in the Co-op showed more local artists’ works, it began to invite the interest of others and expanded their community on a broader scale. Artist’s friends, colleagues, the public, and even keen individuals from across the country flocked to the Co-op to see what these artists were doing and how they had created an artist-run institution unlike any other.

In 1980, Irena moved to New York City where she would live for two years. By chance, she met a group of Canadian Indigenous artists who produced performances that were written and based in Ontario. Intrigued by what they were doing, Irena was invited into the group and they returned to Ontario. She worked with them throughout their productions of their plays in various Native communities. It was around 1984 that Irena first met members of the Cree people during a production at the Harbour Front Centre in Toronto. She lived in Toronto with the Cree people while planning her next steps of her artistic career. The artists also worked as a helper within the Cree community at the Wandering Spirit School based in Toronto. Irena came to many realizations during this time that she spent with the Cree people. They helped her to open her mind to spirituality, and learn more about herself, her experiences and how to translate these things in her works.

One of the most notable experiences of this time she spent with the Cree people occured during a portaging trip in Algonquin National Park. During this expedition, Irena and four others in her vessel were struck by lightning. This near-death encounter caused Irena to have an outer-body experience where she remembers “her spirit floating over her body and looking down in fascination.” “Awesome, awesome, awesome,” were the only words uttered from her mouth during this supernatural-like state. This informed one of her larger paintings where she depicts a white shadowy figure floating around on the painted canvas.

Irena Vormittag. "Lightning". 1990. 244 cm x 106 cm, acrylic on canvas. Courtesy of the artist.
Irena Vormittag. "Untitled". 2000. 244 cm x 213 cm, paper and plexiglass. Courtesy of the artist.

Vormittag remained living in Toronto until 1986, where she showed her works inspired by her time in New York City, and from her time living with the Cree people. Her imagination and experiences from her travels can be seen in all of her grandiose paintings. Stories of her past, ideas on her spirituality, sexuality and emotions are infused into the paint in which she works with. The artist only creates when she feels inspired to do so by her emotions and even dream like inspirations.

Since 1986, Irena has been living north of Toronto in Arcadia. She continues to paint and show works in Hamilton, Toronto and at the Arcadia Co-op Gallery in which she was a founding member of, like the Hamilton Artist’s Coop. She often helps curate shows of younger artists just as she did while young and working at the Hamilton Artists’ Co-op. Irena and other founding members of the Hamilton Co-op also continue to show their works in a collective show every two years at the Hamilton Artists INC to this day. Irena is also the curator of the Vormittag Biennial Invitation Show, which in 1999 was the sixth group show on exhibition.

Click here to view Megan’s powerpoint on Irena Vormittag.


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