Elspeth Cameron’s
And Beauty Answers: The Life of Frances Loring and Florence Wyle
Cormorant Books, 2007

It certainly wasn’t something that a lot of women were doing in the early 1900s; girls weren’t lining up to become sculptors.

But Frances Loring and Florence Wyle did just that, meeting in 1906 in Chicago, where Frances had already been studying and sculpting for three years.

In Chicago, New York City’s Greenwich Village and, finally, in Toronto: The Girls (as they came to be known) were pioneers.

In the late 1960s, Alan Jarvis, would write: “The art of sculpture in Canada has been something of a poor cousin compared to painting. That it has survived at all, much is owed to two distinguished sculptors, who are also two great women, Frances Loring and Florence Wyle.”

And, yet, within and without Canada, largely because their style of sculpture fell out of favour in later years (with aesthetic philosophies swinging away from neo-classicism and towards modernism), their names are not as well known as one would think.

How quickly the past is forgotten. How quickly women today overlook those came before, those who forged the pathways that we younger women walk.

Nonetheless, The Girls were vitally important, whether because of the prominence of their public work in wartime sculptures, or their work in establishing the Sculptors’ Society of Canada in 1928, or simply because they were the “darlings of Toronto cultural life”.

Elspeth Cameron’s work picks up where a much shorter work by Rebecca Sisler (for which funding was suddenly pulled) left off.

Beyond that, there is very little information available on these fascinating women, and their presence in this city (to which they moved from NYC, despite their feeling that Toronto was a conservative and business-minded city) throughout their lives is virtually unrecognizable.

And Beauty Answers offers what a reader expects from a biography (e.g. dates, places, a list of works, details of the subjects’ younger years, photographs of parents and professional influences).

But it also offers the impressions of individuals who knew The Girls (particularly regarding issues of contention, like their sexual identities) to try to fill in the gaps, which might have been otherwise filled by, for instance, the letters they exchanged as young women — before they lived together — which had been deliberately destroyed.

From the perspective of women pioneering in the arts, And Beauty Answers is very interesting. The way that The Girls’ work was (and was not) supported by men in the field (whether in the world of sculpture directly or in the world of the arts in general, whether personally known to them or known by reputation only) is informative and infuriating.

The rumours of their identifying as lesbians also impacted their ability to gain overt funding and support.

They never publicly identified as lesbians, and not one of the 50 people who had been interviewed by Rebecca Sisler for her book believed them to be lesbians, but the exact nature of their relationship is something about which people still speculate.

Their relationships — with family members, teachers, fellow artists and creators, politicians, critics, and with each other — not only reveal a great deal about their personalities, but also about the time and place they inhabited.

Over the decades they spent in Toronto, they saw the climate shift substantially (from that of a very up-tight city — in which even transit workers could not work on Sundays — to a relatively free-spirited clutural centre) and alter along with broad historical events (e.g. The Great Depression, WWI and WWII).

As artists for whom money was always a concern, it’s particularly interesting to observe the impact that their ability to access funding had on their creative work during these times, and the evolving roles they played in their artistic community (the ways in which they contributed directly, by creating public works under commission, to indirect contributions, in the form of supporting younger — often female — artists).

Readers who are interested in gender issues, history/herstory, the art world (be it in Chicago, or Toronto, or, to a lesser extent, in NYC), in a multi-faceted approach to understanding creative and passionate partnerships? They will not be disappointed with And Beauty Answers.

On a more personal note, I found this book intoxicating. It brought together a variety of interests in a way which found me at exactly the right time.

In And Beauty Answers, Elspeth Cameron describes the small park which currently houses the sculpted busts that each woman created as a portrait of the other:

“The place does not speak of respect for anyone or anything. The park is otherwise empty. It’s hard to imagine anyone coming here on purpose.”

The thought made me overwhelmingly sad. So, shortly afterwards, I did just that: I went there on purpose.

I spent the better part of two days exploring areas of the city in which elements of their work can still be observed, and have a short list of locations yet to explore. (Here’s a link to an album of photographs from the various locations I’ve explored so far.)

There is something about connecting words on a page, part of your reading life, with something tangible in your own real life: it resonates in a way that I hadn’t anticipated, and that’s a good bookish thing.

Know what I mean?

PS If you want a taste of Florence and Frances, here’s a long chatty passage from Dora [de Pédery] who “remembers The Girls as two distinctly different characters”.

It’s a very personal recollection, but I think that it captures the spirit of Elspeth Cameron’s biography, which seems to be as much about feelings as facts.

“Miss Loring was the strong one. She had a beautiful Spanish face, and a beautiful voice, resonant like a fine organ. Everyone who talked to her noticed it. She was like a queen. Miss Wyle always called her ‘Queenie’. Miss Wyle was the poetic one. She wrote poetry, but whether she was writing or not, she was a poet. Her hair was so awful – like a boy. Her family didn’t want to talk to her. They were so straightlaced; ‘You can’t sing. You can’t dance,’ they had told her. She loved animals. One time when her old black-and-white cat Benjie (Benjamin Franklin) got stuck high up in a tree in their garden, she was convinced he was dying there. Finally, Miss Loring called the fire people. They came with big ladders. Miss Wyle was saying, ‘Be careful. Be careful!’ then Benjie turned around and came down just like that. They had to pay $5 for the fire department. They were wonderful. I loved every moment of them.”

Just as I loved every moment of this biography.