VRRRROOOOM email@example.com_county.toronto.globe_and_mail 2006-03-18 published
Tom HODGSON, Artist And Athlete: (1924-2006)
The last surviving member of the Painters Eleven group that introduced abstract art to Toronto was an anti-academic who favoured spontaneity over skill. He was also a champion canoeist
By John CHAPUT, Special to The Globe and Mail, Page S9
Tom HODGSON grew up on Toronto's Centre Island near Hanlon's Point, a locale named after the legendary 19th-century rower Ned HANLON, but chose canoeing as his water sport. That proved wise as he became a Canadian Olympian on the water and even symbolic in his lifelong occupation as an artist. Whereas a rower gazes back on the water he has spanned, the paddler always looks ahead.
Technically a master of representational fundamentals, Mr. HODGSON enjoyed a long career in advertising, could paint striking realistic portraits, and picked up extra money doing courtroom sketches. His quest as an artist, however, was to find new means to express creativity, even if it meant suppressing skill and rebelling against an establishment he regarded as stifling.
"He thought the most creative people were the young who weren't influenced by anything," says daughter Lise SNAJDR. "My father was a skilled draftsman, but, in a way, he was against skill because it was all stuff you picked up from life experience. He was left-handed, but he went through a period of drawing only with his right hand in an attempt not to be too skillful. As it turned out, he developed an ambidexterity that proved to be another skill.
"His painting was spontaneous -- everything he did was -- but he wanted it to look that way. He could be free and liberal with paint, and put his feelings into a work."
Described by some as "anti-intellectual," Mr. HODGSON was, in fact, a deep thinker who would be better described as anti-academic. "He had his own ideas," says artist Gary MILLER of Peterborough, Ontario "He had great admiration for Willem de Kooning, but he didn't want to just cater to someone's opinion. He was stubborn and, because he was anti-academic, there was a movement to squelch Tom."
In his book Creativity Is Change, Mr. HODGSON declared skill to be "in some ways the antithesis of creativity, a sort of disrespect for man's time, and certainly for his individualism&hellip
"Creativity is curiosity, concern, trial and error, invention, not knowing, discovery. Skill is knowing how to do something…. The essence of creativity is uniqueness."
Mr. HODGSON was sometimes dismissed as a "jock painter" because many couldn't see athleticism and aesthetics harmonized in one personality. He won more than a dozen national titles at the juvenile and junior levels, and then nine more as an adult. In 1952, he took eighth place at the 1952 Helsinki Games in the 1,000-metre tandem with Art Johnson. At the Melbourne Games in 1956, he placed ninth in the 10,000-metre tandem with Bill Stevenson.
Standing just under six feet tall and weighing about 140 pounds, Mr. HODGSON was a whirlwind in the studio, his frenetic energy bustling as if his body was struggling to keep up with his train of thought. Although articulate, he could lapse into a stutter that affected his speech in childhood but was brought under control through therapy he took early in his professional life.
Mr. HODGSON's first serious painting was done from 1943 to 1945 while he was training as a pilot and gunner in the Royal Canadian Air Force. The Second World War ended and he was discharged before he could be assigned to combat, but he made numerous renderings of military life and later donated them to the War Art Museum. He first achieved artistic prominence a decade later as one of the Painters Eleven, the association of Toronto avant-garde painters who challenged artistic conservatism and gave the city its first healthy dose of abstract modernism. With Jack BUSH, Oscar CAHEN, Hortense GORDON, Alexandra LUKE, Jock MacDONALD, Ray MEAD, Kazuo NAKAMURA, William RONALD, Harold TOWN and Walter YARWOOD, they broadened the scope of Canadian art through mutual support and group exhibitions from their 1953 formation through their gradual fragmentation and dissolution from 1956 to 1960. Their affiliation was more professional than theoretical; they used disparate approaches and had no aesthetic commonalities.
Works of the Painters Eleven grew in demand and value in the '60s, but just a little too late for Mr. HODGSON to take full advantage of it. Short of materials at the time, he painted over some of the canvasses that could have brought in good money. Bad luck also struck in 1993 when a fire at his cottage destroyed many of the works he had stored there.
As a senior instructor at the Ontario College of Art, he was in the forefront of outrage at the upheaval of the school brought about by the policies of new president Roy ASCOTT in 1971-72. As a tenured professor, Mr. HODGSON was able to keep his job while many of his colleagues were fired, only to quit himself within a few months. Ironically, he was one of only two people on staff who had opposed the institution of tenure at the Ontario College of Art in the 1960s.
"Tom believed in the process of creativity as one of constant change and in the freedom of artists," says Mr. MILLER, then a student at the Ontario College of Art. " ASCOTT and later Royden RABINOVITCH were from the New York school, very radical and modern, and they were telling students their work was garbage. So Tom broke away, formed the Z School, and took half the student body with him."
As protests go, it was symbolically powerful and a practical failure.
"The Z School lasted about six months," recalls Don MORRISON, an artist and illustrator who was Mr. HODGSON's long-time friend and business partner. "You can't very well have a school without a structure or bureaucracy."
Mr. MORRISON and Mr. HODGSON shared studio space, first on Church Street across from St. James Cathedral, then in a warehouse on the corner of Dufferin and Bloor. Those were also venues for Drawing Night in Canada figure classes held every Thursday. The classes were conducted as the antithesis of the typically sombre gathering of sketchers and painters around a nude model.
"Usually at classes like that, it's like listening for a pin to drop," Mr. MORRISON says. Drawing Night in Canada was different. "These were noisy, vocal, 10 to 18 artists talking and joking. Anyone could grab a cold beer for 50 cents. The model would talk back and tell stories, too."
Inevitably, Mr. MORRISON wearied of the back-lane access to the warehouse and told his partner he'd prefer a storefront studio.
"A storefront?" Mr. HODGSON retorted. "I need a storefront like I need a hole in the head." In a matter of weeks, they had two storefront studios, one of them facing the historically infamous but architecturally engaging Mental Health Centre at 999 Queen Street West.
"Tom was impulsive, just like his painting. He would do exactly what he wanted," Mr. MORRISON says. "He built a swimming pool in the backyard of every house he owned. He would attempt to do almost anything. One day, he had a plumber come to his home on MacPherson Avenue because of a leak and the plumber said a lot of digging was necessary to get at the incoming line in front of the house. When he told Tom what it would cost, Tom said: 'I'll tell you what, I'll dig it myself.' After he had dug this enormous hole, I told Tom: 'Well, it may have been a lot of work to dig, but it'll be easy to fill in.' 'I don't want to fill it in,' he told me. 'I'm going to build a ramp so I can drive my bike right under the front porch and into the basement.' He had three motorcycles -- a BMW, a Husqvarna, and a Can-Am. So he built the ramp.
"It didn't occur to me that if he took the ramp to come in the basement, he'd use it to get out, too. I was renting on the second floor, and the first time he revved up one his bikes -- VRRRROOOOM! I jumped right out of bed."
Mr. HODGSON's energetic and impulsive nature, bohemian cultural surroundings and enjoyment of good times were an ideal formula for trouble in a man ripe for midlife crisis. He had a number of lovers and ended his first marriage to Wilma HODGSON before settling into a peaceful lifestyle with his second wife, Catherine GOOD. They moved to Peterborough in 1990. A few years later, he began to display the first signs of Alzheimer's. He was the last surviving member of the Painters Eleven.
Thomas Sherlock HODGSON was born on June 5, 1924, in Toronto. He died on February 27, 2006, near Peterborough, Ontario, of Alzheimer's disease. He is survived by his sons Mark, Rand and Timothy, daughters Lise Snajdr and Kara Warburton, and sister Jane HODGSON. He was predeceased by his wife, Catherine.
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