Prince Edward Island lost a powerful and passionate artist this week when Hilda Woolnough died. Below is an excerpt on the formidable Hilda Woolnough from Sandy Kowalik’s history of women in visual arts, part of the Advisory Council on the Status of Women/Interministerial Women’s Secretariat millennium women’s history project, First Hand: Arts, Crafts, and Culture Created by PEI Women of the Twentieth Century. First Hand was published online in 2001.
Hilda Woolnough has left her mark on Island art like no other. During her 30 years on the Island, Woolnough has been a teacher and tireless champion of artist’s rights and opportunities, serving on the boards of many professional provincial and federal arts organizations. She was a driving force behind The Phoenix Gallery, The Gallery-On-Demand, the Great George Street Gallery, The Arts Guild, and the Printmakers Council.
Woolnough has pursued her own work with equal vigour, constantly exploring new media. Her passion is for expressive line in drawing and printmaking but she has also created jewellery, weavings, and quilts. During the North American craft revival of the 1970s, she worked with traditional Island quilters, helping them to develop original, more contemporary designs.
This renewed interest in craft, brought about by the baby-boom generation’s reaction against the mass-production of the post-war period, found support on PEI. Craftspeople from far and wide were among the back-to-the-landers, and their wares found a ready market with the Island’s growing tourist trade. A handicraft school opened, later becoming Holland College’s School of Visual Art.
Hilda Woolnough was born into a creative family in 1934, in Northampton, England. Her mother, uncle, and brother were all painters; her father built and restored houses. In 1952 she began traditional training at the Chelsea School of Art in London, drawing from plaster casts and still life, developing strong discipline and technique. It was here that she first experimented with printmaking, a medium she has passionately pursued throughout her career. But it was with a specialty in painting that she graduated in 1955.
Woolnough immigrated to Canada in 1957, settling in Hamilton, Ontario. In 1965 she headed to the San Miguel de Allende Instituto in Mexico, where she studied experimental etching for two years, graduating with a Master’s of Fine Art degree in graphics. Back in London, she did post-graduate work at the Central School of Art and Design in metal techniques. After designing the etching and lithography departments at the Jamaica School of Art in Kingston, Jamaica, Woolnough found her way to PEI. Together with her husband, UPEI professor, writer and publisher, Reshard Gool, she formed part of the nucleus for a vibrant arts community.
In 1999 Hilda Woolnough received the Adrien Arsenault Senior Arts Award for “contribution to the arts in Prince Edward Island” and was elected to the Royal Canadian Academy. Her work is in many public and private collections including the Montreal Museum of Fine Art, the Art Gallery of Ontario, and the Canada Council Art Bank.
Woolnough most often works in series, exploring an idea fully, guided by both intellect and intuition. Nature and the human form provide a starting point, but she moves beyond the representational to a deeper, more universal expression.
“I’m interested in evolution of plants, land, the world,” Woolnough once said in a 1989 interview. “There are stages in the growth of the brain that are reptilian or flower-like. They’re proof that we are all the sum of our parts, like the land or sea.”
This interest in evolution embraces the development of myth and human culture and the process of transformation, themes she has explored throughout her career.
- Sandy Kowalik, 2001