Monday, August 03, 2015

off the grid: ghost city loring-wyle parkette

This installment of my "Ghost City" column for The Grid was originally published on October 30, 2012.

"Young Girl," Florence Wyle, 1938, located in the Loring-Wyle Parkette. Toronto Star, March 18, 2005. 
They were known simply as “The Girls.” For half a century, Frances Loring and Florence Wyle enjoyed a personal and professional relationship devoted to promoting sculpture as a vital art form. Their work graced venues ranging from backyard gardens to busy expressways. Loring and Wyle were regarded in their neighbourhood as eccentrics for their manly clothing, and were also known as the “Clay Ladies,” as they encouraged aspiring sculptors and introduced local children to fine art. One such child was Timothy Findley, whose father pointed to the women during a walk one day and told him, “One day you will remember these women, and you will understand how wonderful they are.”


Moore Park Loop, looking north, June 7, 1926. Photo by Alfred Pearson. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 16,  Series 71, Item 4339.
The Moore Park Residents’ Association appreciated their legacy. In the early 1980s, it was proposed that an inactive streetcar loop at the northeast corner of St. Clair Avenue and Mount Pleasant Road be turned into a small park honouring the sculptors. The Moore Park loop was built to serve the St. Clair line when it was extended east to Mount Pleasant in December 1924, then Eglinton Avenue a year later. The tracks were abandoned after a short-lived Mount Pleasant streetcar route switched to trolley buses in 1976, but the path of the rails is still visible in the middle of the St. Clair-Mount Pleasant intersection.

Opened in 1984, the Loring-Wyle Parkette sits a block north of the combined home and studio Loring and Wyle shared for nearly half a century. The house at 110 Glenrose Avenue was known as “The Church” because it was originally the Sunday schoolhouse for Christ Church Deer Park. The structure was moved east from Yonge Street several years before the pair purchased it in 1920. It became a centre of Toronto’s artistic community, where peers like the Group of Seven relaxed, discussed projects, and organized groups like the Sculptors Society of Canada. The Girls held regular Saturday night parties where guests enjoyed treats like scotch mixed with fresh snow and Wyle’s hog-calling demonstrations. The parties drew “a crowd of congenial people enjoying themselves in distinctive surroundings,” according to biographer Rebecca Sisler. “They were made particularly convivial and lively by the warmth and undemanding friendliness of The Girls. Those who attended the parties still claim they were the best in the country.”

Frances Loring and sculptor Florence Wyle standing among statues, January 21, 1950. Photo by Gilbert A. Milne. Archives of Ontario, C 3-1-0-0-666.
Loring and Wyle met as students learning neoclassical sculpting techniques at the Art Institute of Chicago around 1906. Five years later they established a studio in the Bohemian heart of America, Greenwich Village. While Wyle’s family objected to her career choice, Loring’s father, a mining engineer, provided financial backing and felt Wyle would be a steadying influence on his daughter. He was responsible for their move to Toronto around 1913, after shutting down The Girls’ studio while they were on vacation—he felt they were making little money and was never comfortable with the unconventional atmosphere of their new home. Loring moved to Toronto, theoretically to take care of her mother, and Wyle followed soon after. Perhaps making amends for his actions, Loring’s father funded their first local studio, above a carpentry shop at Church and Lombard Streets.

Among the projects the pair collaborated on was the Lion Monument, which served as the gateway for the Queen Elizabeth Way at the Humber River. Loring chose a “snarling, defiant, British lion, eight feet high!” as the focal point to symbolize Great Britain’s readiness to fight at the start of World War II, while Wyle worked on a portrait of King George VI and the future Queen Mother. The monument remains one of their most visible works, even if freeway expansion forced its move to nearby Sir Casimir Gzowski Park in 1975. Loring also created public works like the statue of Sir Robert Borden on Parliament Hill and a relief on the south wall of Exhibition Place’s Queen Elizabeth Building. Hundreds of their works are currently held by the Art Gallery of Ontario, on whose collection committee Loring sat during the 1950s.

The pair remained partners until their deaths within a month of each other in 1968, though their biographers question whether, despite sharing a bedroom for years, their relationship was physical. “Whether or not The Girls were lovers,” Elspeth Cameron wrote in her Loring-Wyle bio And Beauty Answers, “theirs was the closest emotional relationship either of them ever had. In Platonic terms, they were soulmates, as complementary to each other as Yin and Yang.” Their deep bond is reflected by the busts they crafted of each other early in their partnership, which stand today in their park.

Additional material from And Beauty Answers by Elspeth Cameron (Toronto: Cormorant, 2007), The Girls by Rebecca Sisler (Toronto: Clarke, Irwin, 1972), and the May 9, 1991 edition of the Toronto Star.

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