Cast in bronze – Ruth Abernethy, the artist and her art
By Cece M. Scott cecescott.com
Ruth Abernethy’s multifaceted career has stopped at many creative stations. And, at each one, she’s proven herself to be an exceptional artist, musician and performer. Her first foray was with her family’s musical group – The Abernethy Family. Consisting of six family members, Abernethy’s mom played the accordion, she played the guitar, and the rest of the family sang and played various instruments. “We played mostly country stuff, everything from Charley Pride to Fleetwood Mac,” says Abernethy. “My parents were willing to have a lot of fun. I think that is something that we are missing today. We are all working so hard.”
By the age of 17, Abernethy was immersed in theatre. She was head of props, when she was only 21, for the Manitoba Theatre Centre (now the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre). “I was like a duck to water in the theatrical world,” says Abernethy. “I wanted to make symbols, which is really what my work is about.”
By 1981, Abernethy had moved on to the Stratford Festival, and it was here that she refined her method of mapping, and carving, figures. She completed her first bronze sculptures for the festival in 1997, entitled Raising the Tent, of two workmen, and a young girl with a dog.
Shortly after, Abernethy was commissioned to create a portrait of Glenn Gould – the internationally renowned Canadian pianist. This sculpture, situated outside the CBC Broadcasting Centre in Toronto, was the catalyst that launched her career. It quickly gained traction with another commission in 1999 to enlarge a small-scale sculpture of actor, Anthony Quinn. The original bronze sculpture was only nine inches tall, and it lacked Quinn’s definitive facial features. It was up to Abernethy to reimagine Quinn’s nude portrait, and cast the actor’s chiseled, well-worn features into a show-stopping profile. Quinn was intrigued with Abernethy’s skills, and invited Aberethy’s sons, Glen (now 26) and Alex (now 24), to his Rhode Island home to watch his portrait evolve.
Lucky for us, many of Abernethy’s works of art are part of the public domain. They present in such a way that that those passing by have no option but to stop, and revel, in the emotional intimacy that each sculpture elicits. Jazz virtuoso, Oscar Peterson’s portrait is located outside Ottawa’s National Arts Centre, and is crafted at eight per cent larger-than-life size. At any moment, you get the sense that the pianist will turn to his piano and play Sweet Georgia Brown.
Other Abernethy portraits on public display, include Canadian Prime Ministers; Mackenzie King, Lester B. Pearson and John A. Macdonald, as well Canadian actor and director, Al Waxman, and Queen Elizabeth II. “Meeting the Queen was a highlight,” says Abernethy. “She and Prince Phillip were remarkable in their sincerity, making it a real moment. It was surreal, and yet real.”
Each portrait that Abernethy sculpts is centred around the little eccentricities, and physical attributes, unique to each subject. Abernethy studies candid photos to ascertain the subject’s centre of balance, and to discern his/her public, and private, personas. For John A. MacDonald’s portrait, Abernethy explored why he usually sat down in a crowd, rather than place himself centre stage. It’s these subtle details that incite familiarity for both the sculptress and her audience. “It’s 80 per cent patience and 20 per cent aptitude,” says Abernethy. “And while the 20 per cent matters, it’s about the 80 per cent – the effort that allows people to attain their goals. Much of what I do is a pragmatic, patient observation. Three dimensional work takes so much time. I am making structures that will last 10,000 years.”
Now 58, Abernethy has often been billed as the youngest artist, and the only Canadian artist, to participate in various disciplines and exhibits. She was the first Canadian artist to exhibit in both Sculpture- By-The-Sea in Sydney, Australia (2004), and Sculpture in Context in Dublin, Ireland (2007). She was the only Canadian artist short-listed for the Beijing Olympic Sculpture contest in 2008, and received an Award of Excellence for her submission. “I always felt that I had more than enough talent to pay my way.”
Reflecting on an absence of women’s portraits, Abernethy released her Canadiana Collection in 2004, which spoke to a broader, social narrative through a compilation of handmade lace, textiles and stainless steel. Intrigued by deep-rooted perceptions of traditional brides being miserable or powerless, she created Nuptials #1, #2 and #3. The first 10 pieces of the collections were shown together in 2007 at Stratford’s Gallery 96, and five pieces of the Canadiana series are now housed at the ROM. “I wondered why we were having skewed conversations about marriage that were rooted in procreation, or the bride being akin to personal property,” says Abernethy. “Could we not, instead, have a conversation about perfect partnerships? And the beauty of watching two people do something together, that is more than the sum of their parts?”
In 2016, Abernethy wrote Life and Bronze: A Sculptor’s Journey (Granville Island Publishing). In 2018, she received a Honourary Doctor of Laws Degree from Wilfrid Laurier University.
Her husband, Mark Smyth, lives in Vancouver, and Abernethy splits her time between there and Wellesley, Ont. Smyth builds prototype equipment for stem cell research. Smyth also has a crab apple business in Shakespeare, Ont., called Appleflats. “I am so connected with my family that I’m not dependent on my work. I have two sons who I am immensely proud of, and a husband I adore.”
Moving her studio to her great room has been advantageous. The natural light helps with her waning eyesight, and the wood stove keeps the room warm, which is preferable for the sculptress’ hands. “It’s more about my knees. I am finding it harder to get up and down. I can see a time when I won’t be able to do what I do now. But that is a few years out,” says Abernethy. “What I do never gets easier; I just get familiar with how difficult it is.”
Abernethy relies on her assistant to handle her social media and communication tasks, and finds that she can’t work the long days that she used to. Supporting, and encouraging, up-and-coming artists is very important to her. “At some point,” says Abernethy. “My contributions become the making of opportunity for other people.”