Love, Struggle and Sharing
Story by Elaine Hujer.
Rivera and Kahlo (They cheated on each other);
Picasso and Gilot (They divorced);
Pollock and Krasner (She postponed her practice to deal with his alcoholism).
There are not a lot of upbeat stories that are told about famous artist couples.
Judi Burgess and Paul Ropel-Morski are, however, a hard-working and successful artist couple who have lived in Hamilton for most of their lives. They have been happily married now for 30 plus years and their relationship and individual practices give every appearance of continuing to grow and flourish.
The secret to their stable long term alliance?
Paul says, with a grin, “You can’t worry about not having any money.”
The two met as students in the Art and Art History programme at McMaster University in the early eighties. Paul had grown up in Hamilton and Judi, who was from Markham, had chosen McMaster for its beautiful campus and the studio programme with its emphasis on the human form. They sat next to each other in the studio on the first day school and became good friends for over a year before they dated – perhaps that is the reason for why their relationship has been so enduring.
Judi says, “Paul’s father was a graphic artist and Paul had already been taking a few art courses. So he seemed very knowledgeable and worldly to me.”
“Although,” she admits, “he did annoy me a bit when we went for coffee. We had our sketchbooks with us and he made fun of my drawings from high school. I guess they weren’t ‘edgy’ enough for him.”
Paul states emphatically, “I knew from the moment that I first saw her that I was going to marry her.”
The studio programme at McMaster had been instilled with new vitality during those years as the department had recently hired several youthful instructors. The teachers were only a few years older than the students and immediate bonding occurred. Judi and Paul became particular friends with Graham Todd, a universally loved and respected teacher of sculpture.
Judi recalls, “Graham and his wife Lorraine Samuel were huge influences on us.”
The older couple were both working artists who lived and worked in one of the massive warehouse-size studios at Queen and Parliament, close to what was to become Toronto’s trendy Distillery District. Paul and Judi visited them there and were “awed” by the huge work spaces.
After graduating in 1986 and marrying in 1988, they decided to search for a similar working/living space in Hamilton, a place that would be comfortable, flexible and affordable for a young couple just starting out and holding part-time jobs.
Fortunately, downtown Hamilton was entering a period of cultural renewal during the 1980s and early 1990s and there were many empty buildings with spaces available that would be suitable for artists’ studios. Over the next few years, the two continued their quest, criss-crossing the city.
Their first apartment was behind St. Joseph’s Hospital (“very noisy with construction, a difficult climb up the steep hill with bags of groceries”).
Then, a small house bought with an artist friend, on Foster Street, at the bottom of the escarpment. (Paul, who worked big, rented studio space downtown and Judi got a low-ceilinged “cave” in the basement – small, dark and cramped. She remembers painting “Dream” in that studio, a portrait of a woman all “scrunched up” and bent out of shape).
And, then – they lucked upon a huge studio space downtown, overlooking the oldest bar in Hamilton, the Balmoral (which has now been torn down), at Wentworth and King.
This seemed ideal at first, 2400 square feet with two window walls. Paul did the renovations in exchange for a good deal on the rent. And, Judi says, “there were many parties here and a lot of art making – both painting and printmaking.”
But, alas, reality intruded. The area was noisy with a fire station close by and a bar across the street fostered constant bar brawls. Clamorous late night arguments, with neighbours shouting at each other, echoed across an alley and – well – they moved, once again, in 1993, when they found a place in the North End.
This building was a fixer-upper that was originally part of a pickle factory, a corner store and deli. Languishing on the corner of Mary and Macauley Street, it had been boarded up for twenty years and was seedy and dilapidated to begin with. But there was a big, beautiful studio space – so once again, Paul rolled up his sleeves and began a series of strategic renovations, adding a new roof and plumbing. This time, the North End neighbourhood was more amenable to tranquil family life and the two ended up living there for 24 years.
How ever did they survive on part-time wages?
By living very frugally. They both learned to cook and rarely went out for dinner. They took advantage of the HSR and didn’t have a car until 1992. They scoured junk shops and bought used furniture. “It was a struggle,” says Paul.
It’s possible, of course, for artists to do some kind of work almost anywhere – in a dining room, on a patio, in a garage or basement, even outdoors. But storage for artworks is always problematic and a workable studio space makes everything so much easier and more convenient. The two learned to share and to improvise.
“We shared studio space”, Judi says, “but we have always had delineated areas for ourselves since approaches to our art couldn’t be more different… I would work meticulously and hours later [the artwork] wouldn’t look much different. [Paul] on the other hand, works more intuitively, with less planning, more expressionistically.
My work used to verge mildly on the expressionist side during the student years… Paul used to do figurative/objective work – over time he has gone pretty much strictly to abstract work, and, although I am experimenting more with pattern and form and less definitive subject matter, I would say my work still has a refined, illustrative feel to it.”
And she is quick to make the point that they have never worked collaboratively nor tried to make their work tie together for a show.
“We do actually both like a lot of the same artists whose influences are probably evident in our work but our takeaway from these artists is a completely different thing which is quite the beauty of individual creativity.”
One thing that they did agree on, in their individual practices, is the importance to change from one way of working to another so that their creative ideas do not become tedious or stale. Although both artists are primarily painters, Judi has tackled everything from printmaking to furniture painting to sculpture and Paul has pivoted from making large, narrative paintings and landscapes in oil to abstractions in acrylic.
Throughout the 80s and 90s, each followed their own path and they were fortunate to get commissions and participate in both solo and group shows in the many new galleries that had sprung up locally. But the really exciting event in their lives occurred in the early 1990s when Judi was surprised to find that she was pregnant.
“It was a shock,” she says. “We weren’t planning to have children. We liked the idea of being able to work part-time and live as cheaply as possible in order for us to have time to work in the studio.”
But as the old saying goes, life happens when you’ve made other plans, and the birth of their son Zachary brought about some significant changes.
Judi had always found work successfully, acquiring a series of steady part-time jobs over the years, but Paul’s employment had been more sporadic – doing installation work, taking odd jobs at galleries, working part-time at Amstel breweries – essentially working three or four months at a time and then taking time off to paint. Priorities changed with a baby in the picture and Paul began to seek full-time employment. When a position became available at Hamilton Scenic Specialty Inc., a company that creates sets and backdrops for films and theatre productions, he applied for the job and was hired – a serendipitous event, since the job turned out to be a perfect placement for him and provided him with a career that lasted for the next twenty years.
The arts community, family and friends were supportive and understanding. Judi was working at the Hamilton Artists Inc. at the time and was allowed to take the baby to work with her after only two months.
“The Board was very patient with me, “ she says, “and was progressive enough to let me bring the baby to work for seven more months.”
After that, family helped out, with Paul’s mom and step-mom willing to baby-sit.
And good friends formed an on-going cohesive background. Since university days, the couple had been part of an artists’ coalition, The Young Contemporaries, and several of these artists, along with other artists from the community, all seemed to be having children at the same time. A favourite photograph from 1996/7 includes artist Janice Kovar and her baby Emma, with Ben in the background, Judi and Zach, artist Ralph Caterini’s wife Filomena and their two girls Gabriela and Monica in the studio.
After the birth of Zachary, the prized studio space morphed into a multi-purpose room – studio, office, entertainment centre and dining room. It was a place for family celebrations, Christmas dinners and children’s birthday parties. When Judi began doing art facilitation and piano lessons it expanded into a music room where piano recitals were held and children’s sculptures were brought to hang, dry and prime.
Judi recalls, “It was very difficult because my part of the space was always so crowded and messy, it was a mammoth task to clean it up to fit in guests. There were times when it looked like an episode of ‘Hoarders.’”
Still, she states, “We wouldn’t have it any other way, as being parents has been such a wonderful experience – but it does make being an artist that much more difficult in terms of time and energy devoted to your practice..”
She notes that all of the Contemporaries’ children had extensive exposure to gallery openings and art events and, as a result, several of them are now studying art-related subjects at university. Zach, for example, has just graduated from the University of Waterloo and is continuing his education as an architect.
And Judi and Paul now have recently moved into a more manageable space, a sunny, art-filled bungalow on a quiet street – still in the North End. (“Where else?” asks Paul. “It’s close to downtown and five minutes from the water.”)
Looking back thoughtfully at those last decades of the 20th century, the two ponder their practices and lifestyle and discuss their differences with the slightly barbed comments of the long and comfortably married. Judi explains, “these days I work late, Paul goes to bed early. I get up late, Paul gets up early, and we have completely separate studio spaces.”
There have been on-going interior design battles:
“As two artists with contrasting design ideas, we rarely agree on how things should be arranged. Paul is the one with house-painting experience, but when our son got old enough… we waited until Paul went up north with the guys and [would] sneakily re-paint rooms and change furniture around. Paul would then return home and move artwork around – maddening! It’s a hobby of his to move art around so that we’re always looking at pieces differently – which I agree with in principle, but practically-speaking in terms of setting up a room in a way that looks aesthetically pleasing… it’s a nightmare. Paul looks at it from a curatorial perspective. I look at it as what in our collection balances and works in a room.”
Both of the artists have had shows in Toronto and have been reviewed in the Toronto papers. And yet they were never tempted to make the leap into the big city.
Paul says, “Well, partly it was economic. We were able to find spaces in Hamilton in the 80s and 90s that would rent for $300 or $400 per month. Unfortunately that’s just not possible now – those same places rent for $3000 or $4000.”
But it was also a period of optimism in Hamilton when minor exhibition assistance grants were easier to acquire and a whole community of art activists, gallery owners and artists’ collectives formed a web of support and camaraderie that kept the young artists going.
The couple’s plans for the future are very far from a slow-down to peaceful repose. Work remains a priority. Paul is intending to take two years off just to paint and Judi is pondering a whole new series of artworks. The partnership remains strong.
About the author: In the 1990’s, Elaine Hujer took time out from teaching art history to try her hand at freelance writing. Since then, no one has been able to shut her up. Her main focus has been on covering the visual arts, in magazines and newspapers, on the internet and in many catalogue essays; but she has also written about a wide variety of other subjects from book reviews to food and fashion and fun. She currently works part-time at the Hamilton Spectator, anxiously awaiting her dream assignment – researching and writing a comprehensive guide to the great hotels and restaurants of Europe.
The following oral history video was filmed in October 2018 at the Hamilton Public Library, central branch sound studio, for the Building Cultural Legacies project as part of a series of conversations between emerging and established artists, organized by the Hamilton Arts Council and the Hamilton Public Library and funded by the Ontario Trillium Foundation.
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