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"BIE" 2003 Obituary


BIELER o@ca.on.york_county.toronto.globe_and_mail 2003-08-23 published
Artist focused on geometric shapes
Sculptor helped to design precast concrete panels that sheathe the University of Toronto Medical Sciences Building
By Carol COOPER Special to The Globe and Mail Saturday, August 23, 2003 - Page F8
Robert DOWNING thought that he needed lessons in order to become an artist. Entering a storefront studio in his hometown of Hamilton, he paid the $1 fee and was asked what he wanted to make. When he replied that he didn't know, the studio owner told him to come back when he did and gave him back his buck.
Turning to the door, Mr. DOWNING realized that whatever he did was in his own hands. Deciding upon this as the subject of a sculpture, he paid again and, in clay, fashioned a hand with a spike through it. Upon seeing the sculpture, the studio owner returned Mr. DOWNING's dollar, saying, "You don't need me. You know what you want to do."
A creator of sculptures, paintings, prints, photographs and digital art, Mr. DOWNING has died at the age of 67.
His work appeared in the Ontario Centennial Art Exhibit, the National Art Gallery of Canada Sculpture '67 Exhibit and at Habitat during Expo 67. In partnership with sculptor Ted BIELER, Mr. DOWNING designed the precast concrete panels that sheathe the University of Toronto Medical Sciences Building and, on his own, designed two of its interior concrete-sculpted walls.
In 1969, he was the first Canadian to have a solo exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in London.
His work is also found in the National Art Gallery of Canada, the Art Gallery of Ontario, the University of Saskatchewan's gallery and the Singapore National Museum among many others and were included in 77 exhibitions in seven countries. As well, he completed 16 commissions in three countries.
Largely self-taught, Mr. DOWNING, a one-time police officer, burst onto the scene during the late '60s with his Cube Series in aluminum and Plexiglass. A highly intellectual artist, who often explored sophisticated mathematical concepts in his work, he created 108 cube-related sculptures for the series. Seventy-four appeared in the Whitechapel show and the British Arts Council purchased one, The Cube Turned Inside Out Revealing the Relationship of the Sphere.
Mr. DOWNING's work remained centred on geometric shapes throughout his career. "I am one of those people who views geometry as a divine expression of integration between the physical and the spiritual," he wrote in a brochure. He attributed his interest in organic geometry to the works of sculptors Eli Bornstein and Tony Smith, and the Art and Technology Movement.
Despite his intellectual bent, spirituality figured large in Mr. DOWNING's art and provided his inspiration to pursue it. When he was a Hamilton policeman, he was relaxing after a shift. "I suddenly became conscious of the warm glow of a transparent rose-coloured light completely surrounding me," he wrote in his memoirs, Feeling My Way.
"I was still aware of my body, but I felt myself to be extended into and penetrated by this light, which simultaneously caused me to feel radiant pulsations of pure love. It was as though I, somehow, had transcended the physical plane and, for a brief moment of time, experienced a cosmic level of infinite bliss."
Thereafter, Mr. DOWNING felt a new sensitivity to life and found himself in an almost trance-like state when observing the world around him. He left the police force -- and his family -- to become an artist. He maintained, "I've been given to make art in celebration of life as a humble song of praise to the Divine Creator of All."
Mr. DOWNING was born on August 1, 1935, in Hamilton, one of two children of a Canadian Westinghouse labourer and a housekeeper. When he was young, the family lived in a tent while waiting for housing.
In early adolescence, bedridden with a bout of rheumatic fever, Mr. DOWNING discovered that he enjoyed working with his hands by threading macaroni and constructing lilac-shell pictures.
Leaving school at 15 with a Grade 8 education, Mr. DOWNING delivered telegrams before joining the Canadian navy for five years. There he worked in food stores and as a photographer. After the service, Mr. DOWNING joined the Hamilton Police Force.
Early in his art career, Mr. DOWNING became discouraged by his attempts to sell his work in Toronto. He hit the road, travelling to Montreal and then to Vancouver, where he sold his first sculpture in 1962.
Still seeking a direction, he moved with his second wife to California, where they ran an antique shop. Mr. DOWNING experimented with d-Lysergic Acid Diethylamide and yoga, and participated in a couple of shows.
Returning to Toronto, Mr. DOWNING approached Mr. BIELER, who taught at the University of Toronto, for instruction. With Mr. BIELER's encouragement, he began his exploration of the cube. "He used whatever was available to dig into this and then came up with some quite interesting stuff," said Mr. BIELER, now a professor at York University in Toronto.
Selling his house to pay for shipping his sculpture to Whitechapel Art Gallery, Mr. DOWNING ended up after the show emotionally and financially exhausted. To recover, he spent a year studying the sitar.
After the bubble of government funding for art during Canada's centennial period burst, Mr. DOWNING and other Canadian artists found themselves short of work and money.
"By the end of 1972, my commissions and sales of art had completely evaporated," he wrote in a preamble to his Fibonacci Series. The only job he could find was teaching at an Ontario private school.
Throughout his career, Mr. DOWNING taught at several institutions, including U of T, the Ontario College of Art and the Banff School of Fine Art, all the while living a hand-to-mouth existence. Still, despite a lack of money and critical attention, he created prolifically, in series that often overlapped, carefully recording his creative process and organizing his works.
During the '70s, influenced by Mr. Bornstein's work, Asian philosophy, crystals and numerology, he explored the hexagon, producing a trial printing set for children and his I'Ching Series, a notebook in which he placed a diary-like record beside a tangram (a Chinese puzzle consisting of five triangles, a square and a rhomboid) based on a computer printout.
While in hospital in 1974 with a heart attack, Mr. DOWNING worked with construction paper and scissors and formed a three-dimensional shape that led to the Fibonacci Series, also called the Nothing Series. The 24 solid-steel castings and eight metal powder and fibreglass life-sized sculptures reflect a system Mr. DOWNING said he discovered, of combining squares, equilateral triangles and pentagons. Some of the works' proportions contained the Fibonacci ratio. (In the Fibonacci sequence -- 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8 etc. -- each successive number is equal to the sum of the preceding two numbers.)
When discharged from the hospital, Mr. DOWNING was unable to pay his mortgage. He sold the house and moved with his third wife and family to California, where he lived from 1974 to 1978. He taught at California State College in Long Beach and continued with the Fibonacci Series.
Entering the '80s, Mr. DOWNING turned to conceptual/performance art. In conceptual art, the works themselves are not considered important, but are intended to examine the language and system of art. Performance art presents actual events as art to a live audience, as opposed to the illusions of events presented by theatre.
For the series Art Isn't? Mr. DOWNING used a Canada Council grant to solicit work from the presidents of Canada's top 500 companies. Asked by the council to reimburse the money because he had not used it to create art, Mr. DOWNING agreed to send a monthly cheque for 10 per cent of his income. The amount came to $2.
The Canada Council responded with a request for a bigger cheque and Mr. DOWNING complied. Using a photocopier, he enlarged a $2 cheque and sent it off.
"He was desperately honest and he would not put up with bullshit at all," sculptor and artist Gord SMITH said. "He stayed on top of the Canada Council.... He believed passionately in the culture and knew it was going down."
Also during the '80s, Mr. DOWNING produced many Documeditation works, which included Transentials in Space, the work he said in 1992 was the most significant of his life. Describing it as a visual literacy program, he spent two years developing the three-volume work.
Always an outspoken advocate for his calling, Mr. DOWNING helped to found Canadian Artists Representatives in 1967. Driven, brilliant, often difficult and prickly, he was frustrated by his inability to qualify for grants from the Ontario government. He lacked the formal training the government required and went to the offices of the Minister of Culture and Citizenship to state his case. Screaming, " This isn't art?" Mr. DOWNING hurled his portfolio to the ground. The minister's office called the police.
Mr. DOWNING described his Closet Art, from 1984 to 1987, as "an installation piece which outgrew the confines of two large storage closets and raised the question of how practical it was for a senior artist to continue playing the role of an unpaid custodian of earlier work that had long proven itself to qualify as legitimate cultural property."
He donated the works to the Art Gallery of Hamilton, counting the 250-page record of his negotiations with the gallery as a Documeditation. "Coming back to these [donated] works again and again one is reminded of the expansive scope of Mr. DOWNING's thinking, of the evolving nature of his practice," said the gallery's chief curator, Shirley MADILL.
Mr. DOWNING left Canada once again to make a living in the late '80s, working and teaching in Botswana and Singapore. Returning because of ill health, he spent his last years largely confined to his apartment. He found a creative outlet, producing computer-generated images, once again exploring geometric forms. In 1998, as artist-in-residence at the U of T, he developed a Web site containing a retrospective of his work.
Always outspoken, a quality that alienated many, in the spring of 2002, he published an Internet manifesto announcing his resignation as a practising Canadian artist. In it, he chastized business, government, galleries and academia for not supporting artists in general and him in particular.
At his death on July 22, Mr. DOWNING had not sold his work in Canada for the past 15 years. Still he continued to promote it, even receiving a posthumous rejection.
"Robert's first love was his art, and his life was his art, and that's the beginning and end of it," said his fourth wife, Mickey DOWNING.
Mr. DOWNING leaves his wife, Mickey, two ex-wives, children Michael DOWNING and Sara ROBINSON, and three grandchildren.

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BIEVER o@ca.on.york_county.toronto.globe_and_mail 2003-08-06 published
Linda STEARNS: 1937-2003
As ballet mistress and artistic director of the esteemed Montreal company, she nurtured personality, flair and a risk-taking approach to dance
By Paula CITRON Wednesday, August 6, 2003 - Page R5
In the cutthroat, competitive world of dance, Linda STEARNS was an anomaly. As artistic director of Les Grands Ballets Canadiens, she never played games or held grudges. Whether good or bad news, she bluntly told her dancers what they had to hear, and in return, her open-door policy allowed them to vent their own feelings. National Ballet of Canada artistic director James KUDELKA, who spent almost a decade as a member of Les Grands Ballets, likens her approach to wearing an invisible raincoat upon which unhappy dancers spewed their venom. At the end of their tirades, she would serenely remove the garment and say, "Now let's talk."
Linda STEARNS died at her home in Toronto on July 4, at age 65.
She was born into privilege on October 22, 1937. Her father, Marshal, was an investment broker; her mother, Helen, was heavily involved in charity work. The family lived in the posh Poplar Plains area of central Toronto, where Ms. STEARNS attended Branksome Hall.
Despite their wealth, the STEARNS children (Linda, Nora and Marshal) were expected to earn their own livings. Helen STEARNS had studied dance in her youth, but a career was never an option. When eldest daughter Linda showed a strong talent, history might have repeated itself had not Marshal Sr. set aside his reservations after seeing his daughter perform.
After graduating from high school, Ms. STEARNS went to London and New York for advanced training. It was the great Alexandra Danilova, one of Ms. STEARNS's New York teachers, who pointed the young dancer in the direction of the upstart Les Grands Ballets Canadiens. Ms. STEARNS joined Les Grands in 1961, and was promoted to soloist in 1964. In a Who's Who of Entertainment entry, Ms. STEARNS was once listed as joining the company in 1861, and she liked to joke that, at 103 years, she held the record for the longest time spent in the corps de ballet. In fact, one of Ms. STEARNS's hallmarks was her sense of humour, much of it at her own expense.
Les Grands was known for taking dancers who did not necessarily have perfect ballet bodies, but had personality and flair, a policy Ms. STEARNS continued during her own administration.
Although Ms. STEARNS had very unballetic, low-arched feet, she was a fine classical dancer. She excelled, however, in the dramatic repertoire: Mother Courage in Richard Kuch's The Brood, or the title role in Brydon Paige's Medea. In later years, while teaching and coaching, Ms. STEARNS wore high heels to conceal her hated low arches -- while showing off her attractive ankles.
Her performing career was cut short in 1966 when artistic director Ludmilla CHIRIAEFF recognized that Ms. STEARNS would make a brilliant ballet mistress, and by 1969, Ms. STEARNS was exclusively in the studio. In fact, giving up performing was one of the great disappointments of her life, although she did in time acknowledge that she had found her true destiny. Ms. STEARNS's astonishingly keen eye allowed her to single out, in a corps de ballet of moving bodies, every limb that was out of position. She could also sing every piece of music, which saved a lot of time, because she didn't have to keep putting on the tape recorder. Because of her intense musicality, Ms. STEARNS also insisted that the dancers not just be on the count, but fill every note with movement.
Ms. STEARNS loved playing with words -- she was a crossword-puzzle addict, for example -- and gave the dancers nicknames, whether they liked them or not. Catherine LAFORTUNE was Katrink, Kathy BIEVER was Little Frog, Rosemary NEVILLE was Rosie Posie, Betsy BARON was Boops, and Benjamin HATCHER was Benjamino, to name but a few. One who escaped this fate was Gioconda BARBUTO, simply because Ms. STEARNS loved rolling out the word "G-I-O-C-O-N-D-A" in its full Italian glory. The dancers, in turn, called her Lulubelle, Mme. Gozonga and La Stearnova or, if they were feeling tired, cranky and hostile -- and were out of earshot -- Spoons (for her non-arched feet) and even less flattering names. As reluctantly as she became ballet mistress, Ms. STEARNS became artistic director, first as one of a triumvirate in 1978 with Danny JACKSON and Colin McINTYRE (when Les Grands and Brian MacDONALD came to an abrupt parting of the ways;) then with Jeanne RENAUD in 1985 and finally on her own in 1987. She retired from Les Grands in 1989. Both Mr. JACKSON and Mr. McINTRYE still refer to Ms. STEARNS as the company's backbone.
These were the famous creative years that included the works of Mr. KUDELKA, Paul Taylor, Lar Lubovitch, Nacho Duato and George Balanchine. Les Grands toured the world performing one of the most exciting and eclectic repertoires in ballet. It was a company that nurtured dancers and choreographers, many of whom reflected Ms. STEARNS's risk-taking, innovative esthetic.
She also had time to mentor choreographers outside the company, including acclaimed solo artist Margie GILLIS. Her post-Grands career included writing assessments for the Canada Council, setting works on ballet companies, coaching figure skating, and most recently, becoming ballet mistress for the Toronto-based Ballet Jörgen. When she was diagnosed with both ovarian and breast cancer two years ago, she continued her obligations to Ballet Jörgen until she was no longer able, never letting the dancers know how ill she was.
Ms. STEARNS loved huge dogs -- or what Ms. GILLIS refers to as mountains with fur -- and always had at least two. Her gardens were magnificent, as was her cooking. Her generosity was legendary, whether inviting 20 people for Christmas dinner, or hosting the wedding reception for dancers Andrea BOARDMAN and Jean-Hugues ROCHETTE at her tastefully decorated Westmount home. After leaving Montreal, whether, first, at her horse farm in Harrow, Ontario, or at the one-room schoolhouse she lovingly renovated near Campbellville, northwest of Toronto, former colleagues were always welcome.
She continued to keep in touch with her dancers, sending notes in her beautiful, distinctive handwriting. Her love of sports never left her, and after a hard day in the studio, she would relax watching the hockey game. Religion also filled her postdance life, with Toronto's Anglican Grace-Church-on-the-Hill at its epicentre. Ms. STEARNS was very discreet in her private life, although another disappointment is that neither of two long relationships resulted in marriage or children.
Ms. STEARNS was always ruthlessly self-critical, always striving for perfection, never convinced she had rehearsed a work to its full potential. As a result, she never made herself the centre of her own story. Her homes, for example, did not contain photographs glorifying the career of Linda STEARNS. Only at the end of her days, as she faced death with the same grace with which she had faced life, was she finally able to appreciate how many lives she had touched, and accept her outstanding achievements with Les Grands Ballets. Linde HOWE- BECK, former dance critic for the Montreal Gazette, sums up Ms. STEARNS perfectly when she says that she was all about love -- for her Friends and family, for life, but most of all, for dance.
Paula CITRON is dance critic for The Globe and Mail.

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