McMaster Studio Art Program

Setting Precedents: Art and Art History at McMaster University 1950 – 1999.

Story by Kim Ness.

Imagine the anticipation of Harvard educated, newly graduated Naomi Jackson. An artist, skilled linguist, translator, former curator at the National Gallery of Canada, and noted scholar of the art, poetry, and drama of Ernst Barlach, she was also the first Canadian female art historian to earn a PhD. Her many and most recent achievements had been recognised in 1951 with an appointment at McMaster University to re-establish its Department of Fine Arts, Canada’s first, started in 1933 through the support of the Carnegie Institute but closed in 1943 due to the war.(1) The challenges that faced her were great. In addition to undergraduate courses, she also taught art practice and in a continuation of the tradition of community engagement set in the 30s, to conduct evening art appreciation classes.(2) A daunting prospect made all the more challenging when, as a result of an error during an emergency tracheotomy shortly before her arrival in Hamilton, her vocal chords were partially severed leaving Dr. Jackson with a small, raspy voice thereafter. She maintained this demanding schedule for some time, periodically enlisting a student to read her lecture notes aloud. Eventually, however, she approached President George Gilmour and asked to be relieved of the evening classes. He advised “Miss” Jackson that since Herman Levy enjoyed those classes she would carry on in that capacity.

Carry on she did. A friendship with Herman Levy ensued, based on a shared interest in German language and in art. His longstanding support for McMaster, first initiated in the 1930s, was of a practical nature in the 50s with the provision of funds for slides, projectors and instructional materials. The culmination of his philanthropy was to be realised forty years later, after extended friendships or association with a number of University faculty and staff, with the 1984-85 donation of his art collection, (quietly announced in 1987) subsequently followed by a Bequest of funds to the University for art acquisitions announced in 1992.(3)

Naomi Jackson also initiated a wide range of affiliated activities – art related performances, mural painting, outdoor sketching trips, regular exhibitions in Mills Library by contemporary artists or from the National Gallery and the Royal Ontario Museum, in addition to talks by Arthur Lismer, A.Y. Jackson and the like. This pattern was to be continued in various configurations in subsequent decades. Relatively small class sizes, close relationships with students and amongst faculty colleagues also came to be a model and lasting source of strength throughout the programme’s history.

When Naomi Jackson left for Ottawa in 1958, a Byzantine specialist, Erica Cruikshank, (PhD Courtauld Institute, London) was hired to lead the Fine Arts Department. Although her term at McMaster was short in duration, (she left in 1960 for further study in Islamic art) her impact on the development of Fine Arts at McMaster was long lasting. Charged with finding her successor, she had determined some time earlier, hard as it would be to sell, that it was time to add an artist to the Department. Erica Cruikshank hired George Wallace.

Appointed in 1960, George Wallace (Trinity College, Dublin and West of England School of Art, Bristol) played an influential role in the development of Fine Arts throughout most of his 25 years at the University (4) and to the development of the McMaster art collection. Post retirement he participated in the Levy Bequest Purchase programme 1992 – 97. In the 1960s he taught both art history and studio classes. Known to have said that Universities were inappropriate settings for the training of artists, better suited for the preparation of teachers, over the decades he nevertheless inspired many. His demonstrations of printmaking held particular appeal, “converting” a number of students from other disciplines to take up the study of art history or art making, or to move from art history to studio practice. (5) He was a sculptor, printmaker, and the creator of drawings and latterly paintings. Charismatic and charming for many who encountered him, at times imposing and declamatory in approach, he had a presence on the campus and in the community.

Portrait of George Wallace taken by Jim Chambers c.1981 in Wallace’s Dundas welding studio.

By the early 60s transformation had been initiated at McMaster. The arts figured prominently during this period and Fine Arts faculty played a role in many aspects of the changes underway. Wentworth House, intended as a cultural, recreational and intellectual centre for students, opened in 1961. Its Art Committee received an annual allocation of funds for acquisitions and an active committee comprised of students with a Faculty advisor, George Wallace, purchased art, organised exhibitions, arts and film festivals. According to alumna Mary Joyce : “Students were encouraged to participate in this work through the Wentworth House Art Committee, a group that got to travel to Toronto regularly in Wallace’s exotic oleo hydraulic Citroen station wagon, to tour the galleries, searching for new works for this collection. I was honoured to serve as its chairman for two years, years we transported from Toronto in a red truck, arranged, titled and hung 35 etchings in the Wentworth House Lounge: David Blackwood’s first solo show. During these years we decided to purchase the painting Dinnertime on the Prairies by Kurelek, looked through portfolios of original rare prints and drawings of Kollwitz, Rouault, Ensor, Beckman and others.… It was a rare time of deeply humanist education through art.” (6)

In 1961 the President’s Art Committee was also created. George Wallace served on that Committee together with the University Librarian and an interdisciplinary cross section of Faculty members. Their purpose was to acquire works of art, in particular prints, to initially serve as a teaching resource. They would become part of the larger University art collection.

Paul Walton (PhD Harvard) joined McMaster shortly after George Wallace and in 1962 he became the first Chair of the Department. A modernist who published on subjects as diverse as John Ruskin’s drawings and watercolours to the enduring mythology and cultural legacy of the Group of Seven, he remained well informed about contemporary art-making practice and continued to publish well into retirement. Honoured as a Professor Emeritus, Paul Walton was also distinguished with an invitation to serve as a member of the Visiting (Acquisitions) Committee of the National Gallery of Canada.

Quiet, modest and seemingly conservative, at least in appearance, he and George Wallace served as foils to one another. Over the years they frequently alternated in service as Chair of the Department, art acquisition committees and as Director of the Gallery. Throughout the 1960s in particular, Paul Walton helped to shape the Department of Art and Art History as it would come to be identified. Under the direction of Dean of Arts E. Togo Salmon, (7) Paul Walton contributed to the development of what was known as the new Arts complex. (This included what became Chester New Hall and Kenneth Taylor Hall.) Until the opening of Arts II, later re-named Togo Salmon Hall, studio art – primarily drawing – was taught in the Drill Hall, printmaking in a Quonset hut, while art history classes occurred in Gilmour Hall.

When the new Togo Salmon Hall opened in 1967, its art studios boasted a printing press through the generosity of Herman Levy, as well as facilities for bronze casting. An Art Gallery had also been conceived as an integral component of the complex. Directly accessible from the Arts Quadrangle, immediately adjacent to the studios and in close proximity to the art history seminar rooms and lecture halls, it was intended to provide students with access to works from the art collection to augment formal study and to provide a public exhibition programme. The opening show featured the Sam and Ayala Zacks Collection of contemporary abstract art – an interesting choice given the figurative and landscape emphasis that would dominate studio instruction for several decades. (There were 7 curators who worked in the Gallery for varied periods of duration from 1967 until 1984 (8) when it became directly linked to the office of the Dean of Humanities. It would later become an autonomous unit within the academic stream in 1991 and be re-named the Museum of Art in 1992.)

With the physical expansion of facilities, the faculty complement grew as well. Sculptor and self-described portraitist John Miecznikowski (Cranbrook Academy of Arts) taught sculpture and bronze casting from 1966 to 1980. Medieval art historian Bryan Mangrum (Princeton) joined the Department in 1964. He served as the Gallery’s first Curator from 1967-68 then resumed teaching. Artists like Tony Urquhart had short term teaching positions. Eugene Marseglia, (PhD Johns Hopkins) historian of Renaissance architecture, joined the Department in 1965 and continued until 1974. The recipe for a cocktail named in his honour, the “Eugenio” was published in Mother Earth Living magazine in 2006. While at McMaster he served one term as Chair.

Significant growth of the Department occurred in the 1970s. The programme was renamed Art and Art History early in the decade. Painter and printmaker Don Carr, (University of Chicago) producer of highly detailed, symbolically charged images, joined the Faculty in 1971, as did allegorical, figurative and landscape artist Hugh Galloway (Edinburgh College of Art). Landscape and figurative painter Lorne Toews (Indiana University) taught from 1976 – 83. Seventeenth century art history specialist Glenn Scott (PhD Princeton) was hired in 1970 at a precociously young age. Passionate and flamboyant for Hamilton standards of the day, he inspired many students throughout his career that ended suddenly in 1996, even convincing steel and brewery workers to pursue study of the arts. Northern Renaissance specialist Inga Morris (Munster) taught from 1972 – 1978. Venetian Renaissance art historian Warren Tresidder (PhD University of Michigan) joined the Department in 1974. He was instrumental in the creation and ongoing development of an outstanding art and art historical research and reference library within the Mills Memorial Library holdings. Early Renaissance art historian and Sienese scholar Hayden Maginnis (PhD Princeton) started in 1978. Notable among his numerous publications were Painting in the Age of Giotto: A Historical Reevaluation and The World of the Early Sienese Painter. Scott, Galloway and Maginnis were all to serve terms as Chair. Leatrice Mendelsohn Goldfine (PhD Institute of Fine Arts, NYU) an Italian Renaissance specialist taught from 1980 – 82. Striking in terms of the appointments of art historians for much of the 1960s and 1970s is the number of Italian Renaissance specialists. Most would also teach a smaller number of modern art or architecture courses. Katherine Dunbabin (D.Phil University of Oxford) from the Classics Department taught courses in Greek and Roman art history from the 1970s onwards.

Painting by McMaster teacher Lorne Toews, "Portrait of Hugh with Skeleton", 1994. Oil on canvas, 18 x 22".

Summer courses in Italy and France occurred in the first half of the 1970s, led by Eugene Marseglia and Glenn Scott, augmented the curriculum and provided experience of European culture in addition to formal studies of art and architecture. New York trips with Bryan Mangrum and to the National Gallery of Canada with Inga Morris further provided tangible experience of objects studied in classroom settings. The decade also included a public lecture by Princeton Rubens specialist, and noted McMaster alumnus, John Rupert Martin, an Art Club initiated public lecture by Nathan Stolow from the Canadian Conservation Institute in Ottawa, as well as two international scholarly symposia. The first, dedicated to a celebration of the 500th anniversary of the birth of Michelangelo drew leading Michelangelo and Renaissance scholars from the Vatican, Germany, Britain and the US and garnered a New York Times article: “In Ontario, They Come and Go Speaking of Michelangelo.” (9) The organising committee included Art History colleagues and faculty from a cross section of campus wide disciplines. The second, organised by Warren Tresidder, attracted international specialists in the field of art historical methodology and practice including philosopher Roger Scruton. Memorable too was Paul Walton’s 1976 unannounced fifty minute long Dada performance and lecture as part of the Modern Art survey course. Initially bewildering for students, his conservative façade was somewhat diminished.

McMaster students at the Fountain of Turtles during a summer abroad course in Rome, Italy, 1974. Courtesy of Libby Toews.

During the early 1980s Montreal printmaker and sculptor Anne Kahane (Cooper Union, New York) taught in the studio programme as did sculptor Marguerite Larmand (York University). Hayden Maginnis became Chair for several years in the early part of the decade. New directions were initiated in 1983 with the appointment of sculptor Graham Todd (San Miguel de Allende, Mexico) as well as painter and printmaker Judy Major-Girardin (University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa). Progressively in the studio programme there was an increased emphasis on the exposure of students to a breadth of exhibiting artists, to dealers and the art market, and to the development of skills appropriate for a career as an artist. Collaborative projects were undertaken with the Art Gallery such as the annual Canada Council funded Visiting Artist Series, a variant of which has carried on to the present. The Department was represented on the organising committee for the SSHRC funded Non-Conformist Art from Eastern Europe Gallery based Symposium and related exhibition, a project of The Inter-Departmental Committee on Communist and East European Affairs, as well as the joint 1987 Anatomy, Art and Art History and Art Gallery Centennial celebration series of campus wide exhibitions and lectures The Naked and the Dead.

According to artist Paul Cvetich “The 80s were a fabulous time to be in the art programme at McMaster. Graham and Judy were new to the programme, you [Kim Ness] and the McMaster Museum were starting the rapid expansion of the collection and the visual arts worldwide seemed to be gaining exponential exposure. Our class, with Paul Ropel-Morski, Judi Burgess, Lisa Wohrle, John Kinsella, Fred Bilanzola, Paul Enright, Janice Kovar, Jackie Huget, Catherine MacDonald, Sandra Crissante, Reneé Wetselaar, Jeff Pattinson… we were on fire. Hugh Galloway, Don Carr, lonesome George Wallace were great and the art history professors were fabulous as well. For me in particular, Paul Walton was open to a non-academic response to my independent study of Joseph Beuys. In my “Beuysian” understanding of Beuys’ thoughts and work, I declared our whole interaction, Paul Walton’s and mine, a work of art. I made all of my papers works of art, and my final presentation a performance piece. I picked Paul up at his home in Westdale. I had an old BMW motorcycle with a sidecar, and I will never forget looking at Helen Walton’s expression of horror as I helped Paul into it. We drove out to Greensville and I gave him all of my theories about Beuys and the credibility of his “Stuka” story. We ended up at the studio I was sharing with Simon Levin in an old building off of Wentworth Street North. A mirror was hanging in the corner from which he had to read my final paper in reverse. (Oh yeah, I had hooked up jumper cables from an old factory to his pant legs.) After declaring “this will not do”, he proceeded to read the paper from the mirror. Paul was great and we continued to meet yearly up until his death.” (10)

Paul Walton's 'Beuysian' performance, photographed by Paul Cvetich, c.1980s.

It was also the decade of the “Young Contemporaries” (11) group of McMaster student artists and the Dik Van Dycks band. Judy Major-Girardin along with Graham Todd and multiple art students contributed to the community based 1986 Hamilton Now exhibition in the former central Public Library (now Family Courthouse) and the later GO show in the former James Street North VIA/GO rail terminal now Liuna Station.

Judy Major-Girardin, Kim Ness and Graham Todd at a McMaster studio art student exhibition.

Increasingly from 1990 onwards, courses in modern and contemporary Art History were added to the curriculum. A seminar course about the history, purpose and philosophy of art galleries and museums was first introduced in 1986. Robert Belton (PhD Toronto) taught modern, contemporary and Canadian art history in the early 1990s. Niamh O’Laoghaire (PhD Toronto) joined the Department in 1992 and taught modern, contemporary and Canadian art history courses until 1999. At the same time short term and contractually limited appointments augmented art historical offerings and for studio a new range to the course offerings from a more conceptual orientation as with Lee Paquette (Nova Scotia College of Art and Design) as well as technical innovation with printmakers Alan Flint (Concordia University) who taught for 6 years in the later part of the 90s and Jean Maddison (Royal College of Art) from 1993 – 96.

Throughout the 1990s there was a heightened emphasis on the already pre-existent focus toward students’ acquisition of refined art historical research skills. It is not surprising that McMaster Art History graduates were regarded as well prepared on commencement of graduate study at other Canadian universities and at times accorded special preference. The approach was paralleled with a developing emphasis toward research based studio practice and the Art and Art History programme overall placed importance on the development of critically oriented visual and cultural analytical skills. Studio critiques came to be increasingly ambitious, often running into the small hours of the morning, as when prolific Matthew Varey presented 25 paintings for review. A joint programme between Dundas Valley School of Art and the programme was also investigated and tested on a short term basis.

McMaster student Matt Varey (now Art Director of Etobicoke School of the Arts). Photo provided by Vesna Trkulja-Stevens.
McMaster student Cynthia Hammond. Photo provided by Vesna Trkulja-Stevens.

With the relocation of the Art Gallery to the newly created central Museum of Art, part of the vacated space in Togo Salmon Hall was reconfigured to provide exhibition space for the Department. The opening of the new McMaster Museum of Art with dedicated permanent collection galleries, as well as space for temporary exhibitions, meant art and art history students had dramatically increased access to the collection, while classes could be taught in the facility and behind-the-scenes access provided for collections consultation. End of year graduating student SUMMA exhibitions were presented in the main exhibition galleries. According to Judy Major-Girardin: “ … access to exhibitions, artists and the collection, but also work placements, volunteer opportunities and insight into a high calibre arts institution where they [students] worked with specialist staff, all played a meaningful role for students and contributed to the academic programme.” (12)

From 1992 – 97 several members of the Department served on the Museum’s Acquisitions Committee participating in decision making for the Levy Bequest programme – Niamh O’Laoighaire, Glenn Scott, Judy Major-Girardin, and Hugh Galloway all served various terms.

Towards the mid and into the later part of the decade, as funding models to Universities were changed and new strategic planning processes and reviews were undertaken at McMaster, heightened interdisciplinary linkages and collaborations were initiated across and within faculties. Accordingly, the first course offerings of a new academic entity, the School of Art, Drama and Music, appeared in the undergraduate calendar in 1996. SADM also included the newly created Multimedia Department for several years. In 1999 SADM was renamed The School of the Arts (SOTA).

In reflecting on several decades of association with the Department of Art and Art History, Judy Major-Girardin echoed sentiments expressed by graduates from the studio programme from the 1980s and 1990s, art history graduates from the 1970s as well as faculty members from the programme’s earliest days : “ …one of the most distinctive and continuous aspects of the programme has been the small and tight knit community that has been maintained over the years, where students know their faculty well, work closely with peers, and share work, ideas, research projects, informal conversation and food on a daily basis … a working environment where close personal and professional relationships are common.” (13)

Vesna Trkulja submitted this photo of herself and her peers showcasing the wearable art Vesna made for her 1994 graduating (SUMMA) show. From left to right: Beatrice Ekoko, Vesna Trkulja, Angela Anderson, Prof. Jean Madison, Sue Galts, Alessandro Tomesetti, Mervi Salo, Christina Nurse, and Penelope Hammond.
Student poster for SUMMA show, 1988.
Student poster for SUMMA show, 1994.

A testament to the quality of an academic programme is the success of its students. Without question another of the distinctive aspects of the Fine Arts, Art and Art History, SADM and SOTA programmes at McMaster has been the consistently high calibre of its graduates and the impressive breadth of further education and the careers that so many of these graduates have pursued. From the 1930s onwards into the 21st century an undergraduate education in the visual arts at McMaster helped to foster the development of art historical scholars, university academics and administrators, curators and art museum professional and technical staff working in Canada and internationally across a spectrum of public institutions from small community museums to the National Gallery, internationally recognised art conservators, private gallery owners, dealers and consultants, community arts educators, teachers and specialist education consultants, government advisors, cultural sector volunteers and patrons, a physiotherapy colour research specialist, social research planners and of course successive generations of practicing professional and exhibiting artists. John Rupert Martin, Robert Hubbard, Brydon Smith, George Loranger, Judith Nasby, Jenny Shepherd, Edi Yeomans, Catherine MacKenzie, Steven Kostyshyn, Doug Moore, Barbara Cooper, Marguerite Larmand, Jim Chambers, Bryce Kanbara, Robert Yates, Bob Mason, Lynda Jessup, Patricia Kozowyk, Catherine Gibbon, Jaqueline Huget, Marilyn McKay, Mary Romeo, David Somers, Lorna Somers, Ruth Dwyer, Kathryn Brush, Cynthia Hammond, Dan Banko, Victoria Long-Winka, Christina Sealey, Ehryn Torrell, Matthew Varey, Karen Hogue, Natasha Mazurka, Libby Toews, Brad Isaacs, Rae Bates, Christopher McLeod, Charles George … the list goes on and the names are far too many to mention. A mere articulation of a few does injustice to the many graduates of the programme, to the nature of their experience and to the commitment of the faculty who inspired and encouraged an analytical and critical understanding of visual culture, the artistic process and the fundamental contribution of the arts to education and society.

About the author: Kim Ness graduated in 1977 from the Art and Art History programme at McMaster. Following completion of postgraduate study at Edinburgh University and the University of Toronto she worked at the National Galleries of Scotland, the Art Gallery of Ontario and also taught at Edinburgh University, York University and the School of Graduate Studies, University of Toronto for the Masters of Museum Studies programme. From 1984 onwards she worked as the Curator and then Director and Curator of the McMaster Art Gallery/McMaster Museum of Art. From 1986 she also taught in the Art and Art History programme until the commencement of a medical leave in 2003.

(1) For a brief history of Fine Arts at McMaster University up to 1950 refer to Kim Ness, The Art Collection of McMaster University (Hamilton, McMaster University Press, 1987) pp. 1-4; Charles Johnston, McMaster University, Volume 1 (Hamilton: McMaster University Press, 1976); Carrie Vassallo, The Early Years of Art History in English Speaking Canada: McMaster, Toronto and Queens Universities circa 1930-1945, Masters Thesis, University of Western Ontario, 2001
(2) Same as above
(3) For information about Herman Levy, his collection and the Levy Bequest refer to him now, The Levy Legacy (Hamilton: McMaster University Press, 1996); Ihor Holubizky, A Cultivating Legacy (Hamilton: McMaster Museum of Art, 2017) and to the McMaster Museum of Art section of the Hamilton Arts Council Cultural Legacy website
(4) For a more detailed biography and discussion of George Wallace, his art and influence refer to the separate section on George Wallace on the Hamilton Arts Council Cultural Legacy website
(5) Examples are long serving National Gallery of Canada curator Brydon Smith who, amongst other distinguished acquisitions, sparked controversy with the purchase of Barnett Newman’s Voice of Fire painting; nationally and internationally successful painter and printmaker John Hartman; regional and nationally recognized artists Bryce Kanbara, Bob Yates and Catherine Gibbon.
(6) Mary Joyce, Edmonton, posting on George Wallace’s obituary and condolences webpage accessed through Legacy.com
(7) Edward Togo Salmon was a historian of Samnium and to see Romanized Asian of Italy, who served as Dean of Arts and was a close friend of Herman Levy
(8) The Curators were Bryan Mangrum, Ian Vincent, Barry Morrison, Brian Crowe, David Taylor, Stephen Lamia, Kim Ness
(9) March 10, 1975 New York Times article, In Ontario, They Come and Go Speaking of Michelangelo
(10) Email correspondence between Paul Cvetich and Kim Ness March 2019
(11) For more information on The Young Contemporaries and The Contemporaries refer to the separates section on the Hamilton Arts Council Cultural Legacy website
(12) and (13) Email correspondence between Judy Major-Girardin and Kim Ness March and April 2019

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