Every now and then, too infrequently for my liking to be sure… a hidden artist and her work comes into your radar, work of an artist that has had very minimal prior exhibition or promotion. We all know someone who writes, performs, creates – perhaps mostly in private, and many of these creators prefer the anonymity of their forays – at best, share with only a small circle of friends and family. But occasionally the universe conspires – or pure chance – deems that the time is ripe for such an artist’s wider exposure or appreciation. It happened in regard to Vincent van Gogh, who may never have sold a painting in his career, or in a less famous (for now) example, the secret photography of Vivian Maier (1926 -2009), a street photographer whose massive unseen body of work only came to light when it was discovered at an auction at the end of her life.
So it is with this almost pop-up exhibit of London, Ontario’s very own (and Poland’s) Robinson (1927 – 2021) and her almost invisible artistic contributions – career if you will. Some of her art is on display for a very limited time at Satellite Gallery in London until August 20.
Robinson’s “real” career was not about drawing and painting, per se. She was a research scientist that came up with a discovery leading to a Vinca alkaloid drug treatment for childhood leukemia… and that’s only one of her backstories. She also survived two Nazi concentration camps before getting a chemical engineering degree at Sweden’s Nobel-Karolinska institute just prior to immigrating to Canada in 1951.
You can read all about her story, her time at Western University’s Collip research facility neatly documented in her autobiography Heaven, Hell and Purgatory. It is a wonderful read, full of too many interesting observations she makes on the twists and turns she encountered; pleasant and memorable in the “heaven” section, the obvious hell of the Nazi concentration camp, and on to a temporary holding place, if you will, in her period of scientific education training in Sweden.
This book was lovingly encouraged by her editor, Dr, Jacalyn Duffin, a hematologist and scholar, Professor Emerita of the History of Medicine at Queens University. Coincidently, Duffin’s father served in the RCAF with British forces and was present at the liberation of Bergen-Belsen in the spring of 1945, and… liberating Robinson and her mother. It’s a… small world.
“Halina was a generous, sensitive and pragmatic person who delighted in the beauties of the world and of science, the mystery of friendship, and the quirkiness of life,” says Duffin.
“She never forgot the horrors of the war, was ever grateful and surprised for her survival, and determined that it should never happen again. She made a tremendous but utterly unrecognized contribution to medicine with her observation of the white-cell-killing properties of the vinca alkaloids; yet she accepted her obscurity philosophically, happy that the products were saving the lives of many children.”
While the contributions Robinson made in the medical world are well documented in her bio, it is a tad odd that she makes little mention of her artistic passions and painterly endeavors. Why is that?
Robinson’s book only gives us a scant glimpse of that side of her talents. There’s mention of solo and group exhibitions she participated in various galleries and libraries in Southwest Ontario, but the evidence is otherwise absent that Robinson cared too much about such exposure to her artistic life.
The work we do get a glimpse of is quite deliciously… style-wise… hard to pin down, to a common denominator: one moment she is working on a series of various people she encountered in her early days in her new country of Canada, as with Face From the North.
It seems this work was part of a series Robinson made of random people she encountered in her early days in Canada: Not quite fluent in English just yet, she said that she listened to people in public, studying their faces as they spoke as both a means to grasp the new language but also the nuance of facial expression as people conversed.
Other pieces suggest she’s channeling Wassily Kandinsky at times, but no matter. There are countless watercolours and woodcut prints that suggest otherwise. Robinson had no definitive style. The body of work mostly suggests playful enquiries into how a subject, captured, can be.
“It’s nice to see, it’s playful,” says London artist Jeff Wilmore at the opening reception of the exhibit. “And it has an intelligence to it. There’s a seriousness too in her work. And… it’s work that to my eye at least looks like it did not have to endure the pressures of being a professional exhibiting artist. She could do what she wanted and not worry about, ‘am I keeping up with the latest stuff, am I relevant?’ I like that.”
I ask Wilmore if there is any sense of influences and, or, a consistent style.
“You can see a lot of Russian Constructivism, you can see that. Also, it’s… modern, in the true sense of the word, good old-fashioned modernism.“
“But,” art critic Nida Home Doherty interjects, “I don’t see that in her woodcut prints.”
I agree with her, the woodcuts are stand-alone pieces and perhaps, some of the best work.
Full disclosure: my mother is also Polish born – with similar childhood experiences as Robinson, and the depiction of these almost naïve portraits of rural Polish farmers and there agrarian life going into the days of WW2 are already very familiar from my mother’s stories.
“It’s darker work,” adds Wilmore. Which he means both literally and figuratively. There’s a deep sense of Robinson both fondly recalling her childhood, and also, lamenting the utter destruction of that way of life in the war years.
But Robinson also presents a more benign, beautiful and contemplative view of the world, specifically in several watercolours. At this show and sale, a legal worker says he purchased a specific piece, a marshy landscape of cat tails and bull rushes and birds that he’ll hang in his office waiting room so that clients might take a time out from the anxiety of legal affairs. It seems clear that Robinson was also aiming at, and delivering, art as therapy.
Moira McKee is the enthusiastic curator of this exhibition. She explains what most drew her interest and attention to presenting Life/Forms.
“Halina lived a most remarkable life,” says McKee. “Not only did she witness horrific atrocities, experiencing unimaginable hardship at a young age, but rose to make meaningful contributions to society that continue to have a lasting impact on countless lives today—this instinct allowed her to trust and develop an artistic process with humanity at its very core.”
McKee mentions a few specific examples. “Counting Sheep (1984) is both whimsical and dark. The inclusion of Whistler’s mother from his Arrangement in Black and Gray no. 1 (1871) as a subject will forever remain a mystery as Halina’s work was rarely derivative in its subject matter. To me, it’s a meditation on aging and redundancy—the composition underlining austerity while referencing a life cycle in the form of sheep, wool, yarn—the repetition of process, a knitter of the passage of time.”
“Rife with symbolism, Enchanted Forest (1984) exists within an extraterrestrial realm where ethereal, fan-like forms billow and spread beyond the trees below. This piece feels incredibly mystical and optimistic, referencing a spiritual life that extends beyond earth. It’s fascinating that Counting Sheep and Enchanted Forest, so vastly different in tone, were produced within the same year.”
Robinson wasn’t working completely isolated from the community in London. She was also an avid supporter of the local art scene and she volunteered at Museum London over the years.
“She was an exceptional, competent and generous volunteer,” says former Museum London director Nancy Poole. “She always had something very intelligent to say.”
One can see why that might be, because aside from her life experiences and scientific work, Robinson was very active pursuing both art history and practice over many decades. She took classes with the esteemed Clare Bice in the evenings at Beal Secondary School. But beyond that we don’t know too much about her passions and interests beyond what we find here on display. There is mention in an artist’s profile found in her estate that she loved to draw as a child, and yet she did not pursue the usual arc of an artist’s career.
“My long-lasting memory of Halina Robinson was of an elegant, beautifully dressed
lady with a Polish accent, who with her husband Russ joined many of our family
celebrations including Christmas, Easter, birthdays and baptisms,” says Mary Thuss, a friend of Halina and an executor of her estate.
“I was in awe of the fact that she and her Mother survived two concentration camps during WWll, and miraculously were reunited with her Father after the War. When visiting the Robinson home on Rollingwood Circle, the first evidence of Halina’s talent as an artist was a mural painted on the wall in the front entrance, mimicking a stain glass window with vibrant colours of reds, oranges, blues, yellows and greens.” I was able to spend time with Halina in her art studio marveling at the hundreds of her art pieces she had catalogued and stored. Some of my favourite pieces are her watercolours depicting rural landscapes and often farm houses or churches. She completed a series of paintings with vibrant colours portraying happy family gatherings and events which are also some of my favourites. Her goal was for her artwork to outlive her, and bring joy to those who would have the opportunity to experience her work.”
A friend comments that Robinson’s remarkable dual talents and aspirations as both scientist and artist speak to a life well-lived. “Finding a fulfilling second career,” says Brian Kearney, “is something we should all aspire to.” Exactly. And also quite charming and significant is that her communication through her art was not exactly a second career. It was, seemingly, just pure passion to share her perceptions and leave a different type of legacy of what it was for her – to live a life. Her life.
“Halina’s paintings represent a full and incredible life journey,” says Gerry Thuss, Halina’s friend and executor behind this exhibition. “Her pieces range from dark and brooding that reflect her experiences in the concentration camps to the rich and vivid colours of her painting landscapes, the country side or a flower along the roadside. With some of her work you are able to sit back and let the visual sensation overtake you and yet with others Halina has moved you in a way that requires you to reflect on the images that she has portrayed.”
Speaking of moving: There’s a conclusion, denouement in Ted Dykstra and Richard Greenblatt’s musical comedy play, Two Pianos, Four Hands. The play is a bit of enquiry into whether pursuing artistic expression is worth the effort. It is not… for everyone. The pianists in the play reflect on the artistic experience, the ambition and talent required to create or perform at the top level, and whether one finds the holy grail along the way in one’s creative career.
At the end of the play, they present an epiphany: Not every artist can crack the top levels of fortune and fame. But…no worries. They pose this question: Is it not good enough to just be the best pianist in one’s city? Never mind the country. Or, just the best artist in one’s neighbourhood, on the block?!
I can think of a multitude of examples from the hundreds of musical creators for whom this applies, but… it’s fairly universal in the arts in general.
In other words, in Halina Robinson’s case: It’s okay to just be the best painter on Rollingwood Circle in Orchard Park within little ole London, Ontario. That, more than suffices.
We might all aim to live our own lives accordingly. And that’s just one of many important takeaways from peeking into the world of Halina Maria Czajkowska Robinson.
Vincent Cherniak writes in London, ON
Halina Robinson: Life/Forms
Satellite Project Space
August 9-19, 2023