SCULP­TOR BRIDGED THE ART-SCI­ENCE DI­VIDE

The Globe and Mail (BC Edition) - - OBITUARIES - MARTIN MORROW

Her del­i­cate pros­thetic work would go on to in­form her ex­pres­sive fig­u­ra­tive sculp­tures, which evinced an in­ti­mate un­der­stand­ing of the hu­man form.

Be­fore her ca­reer as an artist, she made her mark in the field of medicine, found­ing the first clinic for head and neck pros­thet­ics at Toronto’s Sun­ny­brook Hos­pi­tal in the 1980s

She­lagh Rogers has a funny lit­tle story about her good friend, the Cana­dian sculp­tor Adri­enne Ali­son. It was 1980 and the two young women, who’d met sev­eral years ear­lier as un­der­grad­u­ates at Queen’s Univer­sity in Kingston, were hik­ing Van­cou­ver Is­land’s rugged West Coast Trail. “It was my first time hik­ing and I was woe­fully un­pre­pared,” re­called Ms. Rogers, the vet­eran CBC Ra­dio host. “I didn’t even have treads on my bor­rowed Greb Ko­di­aks.” Un­daunted by her pal’s lack of prepa­ra­tion, Ms. Ali­son found a so­lu­tion. “The first night, Adri­enne took my boots, got out her Swiss Army knife and carved treads in them.”

This was long be­fore Ms. Ali­son turned her hand to cre­at­ing pub­lic mon­u­ments, most no­tably the War of 1812 me­mo­rial on Par­lia­ment Hill. But her bit of im­promptu boot-sculpt­ing speaks not just to her skill, but to her char­ac­ter. “Adri­enne was al­ways push­ing to do things bet­ter, to make things bet­ter for other peo­ple, to by­pass ob­sta­cles,” Ms. Rogers said. “She was the most can-do per­son I’ve ever known.”

Ms. Ali­son died on Nov. 24 in Toronto af­ter a twoyear bat­tle with breast cancer, at the too-young age of 64. But in her time, she racked up enough achieve­ments and packed in enough liv­ing for at least two peo­ple.

Aton­cedark­lyel­e­gan­tand­dy­namic, Ms. Alison­was a Re­nais­sance woman who bridged the art-sci­ence di­vide. Be­fore her flour­ish­ing ca­reer as a sculp­tor, she made her mark in the field of medicine. In the 1980s, she founded the first clinic for head and neck pros­thet­ics at Toronto’s Sun­ny­brook Hos­pi­tal. There, she sculpted life­like re­place­ment parts for pa­tients who suf­fered from fa­cial dis­fig­ure­ment.

She also de­signed the first stan­dard head forms to test chil­dren’s ath­letic hel­mets and ap­plied her train­ing in anatomy to build the in­struc­tional Bionic Woman for the On­tario Sci­ence Cen­tre. She even dab­bled in the movies, cre­at­ing false eyes for David Cro­nen­berg’s 1988 hor­ror-thriller Dead Ringers.

Her del­i­cate pros­thetic work would go on to in­form her­ex­pres­sive­fig­u­ra­tives­culp­tures, whichevincedan in­ti­mate un­der­stand­ing of the hu­man form. They were also the prod­uct of some­one who glo­ried in the phys­i­cal­ity of life. When not in her stu­dio, Ms. Ali­son could be found hik­ing, bik­ing, ski­ing, run­ning a half­marathon in Ice­land or kayak­ing on her cher­ished Ge­or­gian Bay. Her body was as rest­less as her mind.

“She had this fe­ro­cious en­ergy,” said her ad­mir­ing younger sis­ter, Karen Ali­son. “She al­ways had 50 mil­lion things hap­pen­ing – she never sat still.”

Born on July 10, 1954, in Toronto, Adri­enne Mary Is­abel Ali­son was the first child of engi­neer Gor­don Ali­son and ar­chi­tect Alice Ayer – both keen artists in their spare time. Alice favoured wa­ter­colours, Gor­don worked in oils, and they spent their sum­mers paint­ing at the fam­ily cot­tage on an is­land in Ge­or­gian Bay. As kids, Adri­enne and her sis­ter tagged along. “We’d all troop out with our paint­boxes and sit out on the rocks and paint,” Karen Ali­son re­called. “Even back then, Adri­enne showed clear ev­i­dence of a high level of artis­tic abil­ity.”

If her par­ents ex­em­pli­fied an equal in­ter­est in sci­ence and art, her fe­male rel­a­tives were role mod­els for her med­i­cal ca­reer. Her grand­mother, Is­abel Ayer, was a found­ing physi­cian of Women’s Col­lege Hos­pi­tal in Toronto. Her aunt, Ruth Ali­son, was an on­col­o­gist at Toronto’s Princess Margaret Hos­pi­tal and the first fe­male pres­i­dent of the Cana­dian Cancer So­ci­ety.

Gor­don Ali­son’s peri­patetic work took the fam­ily to Mon­treal, back to Toronto and then to New York, where the girls spent their teenage years. Af­ter grad­u­at­ing from high school, Adri­enne re­turned to Canada to take an art-his­tory de­gree at Queen’s Univer­sity and study fine art at Toronto’s Cen­tral Tech­ni­cal School. She fol­lowed that with a sci­ence de­gree, be­comin­go­ne­o­fa­hand­fulof­s­tu­dentsin­whatis­nowthe bio­med­i­cal com­mu­ni­ca­tions pro­gram at the Univer­sity of Toronto’s med­i­cal school. The anatomy classes, in­clud­ing the dis­sec­tion of a hu­man ca­daver, would later be­come in­valu­able to her as a sculp­tor.

Af­ter do­ing a med­i­cal-pros­thet­ics in­tern­ship at the Univer­sity of Michi­gan, she re­ceived a schol­ar­ship in 1982 to launch Sun­ny­brook’s restora­tive pros­thet­ics depart­ment. She de­vel­oped and ran the clinic for 10 years, cre­at­ing a range of pros­the­ses in or­der to re­build faces and re­store lost ears, noses and eyes.

“She did amaz­ing work,” said Ralph Gil­bert, a re­con­struc­tive sur­geon and her col­league at Sun­ny­brook. He said her job didn’t just in­volve sculpt­ing­parts, bu­tal­soin­t­er­act­ing­with pa­tients who were suf­fer­ing the emo­tional trauma of se­ri­ous de­for­mi­ties.

“You have to be in­cred­i­bly com­pas­sion­ateinthose­cir­cum­stance­sand­she­wasa mas­ter at that. Pa­tients loved her.”

The clinic was the first of its kind in Canada. “She was state-of-the-art,” said her close friend, Ski Tele­mark founder Holly Ble­f­gen, who was then work­ing as a re­search as­sis­tant in Sun­ny­brook’s trauma unit. “I was fas­ci­nated by her work and she was fas­ci­nated by mine, and we hit it off.”

The two women also shared a sense of ad­ven­ture. In the sum­mer of 1983, they em­barked on a four-week cy­cling trip through the back roads of Ja­pan. They rode pro­to­type moun­tain bikes sup­plied by the Kawa­mura Cy­cle Com­pany, which had yet to be seen in the West. The women, in turn, were ex­otic to the ru­ral Ja­panese. “We of­ten had a mo­tor­cade of po­lice and oth­ers fol­low­ing us, who had never seen for­eign­ers travel in that part of the world,” Ms. Ble­f­gen re­called, laugh­ing.

By the time she left Sun­ny­brook in the early 1990s, Ms. Ali­son was mar­ried to ven­ture cap­i­tal­ist Loudon Owen (whom she later di­vorced) and had two small chil­dren. The fam­ily re­lo­cated to Lon­don, where Ms. Ali­son – who had al­ready be­gun do­ing small com­mis­sioned sculp­tures – jumped into the art form with both feet. She stud­ied sculpt­ing at Kens­ing­ton and Chelsea Col­lege and the Heather­ley School of Fine Art and sculpted on site at the Vic­to­ria and Al­bert Mu­seum. She rev­elled in the city’s great mu­se­ums and art gal­leries.

“She just thrived in Lon­don,” said her old­est friend, Mar­got Tush­ing­ham, who was liv­ing in Bri­tain at the time. Ms. Tush­ing­ham found the fam­ily a flat in South Kens­ing­ton and in­tro­duced Ms. Ali­son to the Chelsea Arts Club, where she ended up hob­nob­bing with the likes of rock gui­tarist Mark Knopfler from Dire Straits.

Upon re­turn­ing to Toronto in the late 1990s, Ms. Ali­son set up a stu­dio, taught on the side and be­gan to es­tab­lish her­self as a lo­cal artist. Her pri­vate com­mis­sions, in­clud­ing many charm­ing por­trait busts of chil­dren, soon led to more high-pro­file work. In 2003, she cre­ated the clas­si­cally in­spired bronze stat­uette for the ACTRA film and tele­vi­sion awards. The fol­low­ing year brought pub­lic sculp­tures of two his­tor­i­cal fig­ures: her bronze torso of ed­u­ca­tor Bishop John Stra­chan at the Univer­sity of Toronto’s Trin­ity Col­lege and her bronze bust of re­former Robert Gourlay in the city’s St. James Park.

In 2009, she was tasked with en­vi­sion­ing the al­most-for­got­ten 19th-cen­tury Toronto pub­lisher and politi­cian James Beaty. She sculpted a larger-than-life statue of a youth­ful, en­er­getic Beaty based on the only ex­ist­ing pho­to­graph of her sub­ject, in his old age. It stands in a court­yard in down­town Toronto.

Her great­est chal­lenge, how­ever, came when she won the fed­eral com­mis­sion to cre­ate Ot­tawa’s $2mil­lion War of 1812 me­mo­rial. Ms. Ali­son’s work, en­ti­tled Tri­umph Through Diver­sity, pays trib­ute to the many anony­mous he­roes of that strug­gle. Its seven bronze fig­ures in­clude a First Nations war­rior, a Royal New­found­land Reg­i­ment in­fantry­man, a Métis mili­tia­man and a Que­bec Voltigeur sol­dier be­ing ban­daged by a fe­male nurse. Ms. Ali­son said that she in­tended the piece to sym­bol­ize “the in­cred­i­ble con­tri­bu­tionof­di­verseCana­di­ansan­doura­bil­i­ty­towork­to­gether to achieve re­mark­able out­comes.”

She was awarded the com­mis­sion in the sum­mer of 2013 with a de­liv­ery date of fall 2014. “The time­line was un­be­liev­ably tight,” Ms. Ble­f­gen re­called. “We had to go down to the stu­dio if we wanted to see her.” She sculpt­ed­from­live­mod­els­dressed­in­his­tor­i­cally­ac­cu­rate cos­tumes and called upon fam­ily to help. Friends of her son, Cal­lum, mod­elled for two of the fig­ures and her daugh­ter, Ali­cia, posed for the nurse.

The three-by-four-me­tre mon­u­ment, set on Par­lia­ment Hill across from the Na­tional War Me­mo­rial, was un­veiled at an of­fi­cial cer­e­mony on Nov. 6, 2014. Only a few months ear­lier, Ms. Ali­son had un­veiled an­other ma­jor work – her stir­ring seven-foot statue of First World War hero Gen­eral Sir Arthur Cur­rieatMu­se­umS­trathroy-Caradocin Strathroy, Ont.

The mon­u­ments re­flected Ms. Ali­son’s deep love of her home­land – but then so did her whim­si­cal sculp­tures of beavers, moose and Canada geese. “She un­der­stood the icons of Canada,” Ms. Ble­f­gen said. “She had great na­tional pride.”

Dur­ing her fi­nal strug­gle with an ag­gres­sive breast cancer, whichshe­foughtwith­her­cus­tom­aryvigour, it was na­ture she turned to for respite. She spent her last two sum­mers at the fam­ily cot­tage she’d known since child­hood. “It was the only place she re­ally found so­lace,” Ms. Tush­ing­ham said. “We’d just sit to­gether and watch the dawn light up over the Bay.”

Ms. Ali­son died at Toronto Gen­eral Hos­pi­tal from liver fail­ure as a re­sult of her chemo­ther­apy. She leaves her chil­dren, Ali­cia Owen and Cal­lum Owen, and her sis­ter, Karen Ali­son.

Her most ob­vi­ous legacy is cast in bronze and stands in full pub­lic view, but Ms. Ali­son also left a more dis­creet one in the art­ful pros­thetic sculpt­ing she did to help her Sun­ny­brook pa­tients. In the words of Ms. Tush­ing­ham: “She made a huge dif­fer­ence to so many peo­ple.”

DEB­O­RAH BAIC/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Adri­enne Ali­son is seen in her stu­dio work­shop in 2009 with a 10-foot model of the statue she sculpted of 19th-cen­tury Toronto pub­lisher and politi­cian James Beaty. The statue stands in a court­yard in down­town Toronto.

HOLLY BLE­F­GEN

Ms. Ali­son pauses for a photo dur­ing a four-week cy­cling trip through the back roads of Ja­pan with a close friend in 1983.

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