Myfanwy Pavelic Spenser was born in Victoria in 1916. She died on May 7, 2007 in North Saanich. In 1984, she was made a Member of the Order of Canada and became a founding member of the Canadian Portrait Academy. In 1998, she won the F.H. Varley Medallion for Best Portrait of Pierre Elliot Trudeau.
Myfanwy was the child of Will and Lillian Spencer, both of whom fortunately recognized their daughter’s interest and gift in the arts. Music, drawing and reading were to become Myfanwy’s world. Unfortunately, she was struct by physical problems at a young age. First one knee became dislocated, and then the second, and finally at the age of fifteen she needed to get two knee transplants done in New York five months apart. These serious problems shaped her childhood. She spent many of her school years at home with a tutor, and often alone with her paino, books and paints. However, her parents expanded her knowledge of art by taking her on excursions to the finest art galleries and museums of Europe.
At the age of 8 she met the influential artist, Emily Carr. Carr invited Pavelic at the young age of 15, to show her drawings in an exhibition at Carr’s Peoples’ Gallery. Carr encouraged Myfanwy and became a source of strength for her.
Besides visual art, Pavelic had another love, music. In 1932 she began formal music education. Her love of music and talent as a pianist became increasingly significant but physical problems intervened. She lacked the necessary physical strength in her wrists. Fortunately for North Saanich and the world of art she turned her creative energies and abilities to drawing and painting.
Colin Graham, a resident of North Saanich and former curator of the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, has written:
“Myfanwy’s wrists compelled her to make a decision in favour of pencil and brush. This was fortunate in one sense since as a creator in her own right she has become a more significant person than she could have been as an interpreter of the works of others.”
During the 1940s Myfanwy travelled in Canada to help the Red Cross. She moved from place to place to make portraits of officers in the military who were overseas or who had not returned. The Red Cross received considerable financial resources from her volunteer work.
The bustling art scene of New York captured Pavelic’s attention during the 1960s and she worked there for a few years, while still spending the summers in a her home on Ardmore Drive, North Saanich, known as the Spenserwood Estate. Despite the wide range of experimentation at the time, such as Minimalism, Abstract Expressionism and Conceptual Art, it was portraiture and realism that would hold primary importance for Pavelic. Her interest in abstraction and minimalism influenced her formal use of colour. She combined simple shapes and loose colours to create her realistic impressions. Later in 1968, she experimented with collage and the reduction of complex images into simplified shapes. Her mixture of collage and realism created pieces that developed a deep sense of space through differing abstract and textured planes while still retaining the realistic image. Patricia Bovey explains Pavelic’s work as follows: “In her work she always searched for a simplification. The abstractions assisted her in conveying depth, complexity and full character of her subject with simplicity. Despite her interest in achieving that simplicity, however, she never became an “abstract” artist.
Between 1970 and 1990 celebrities came to Myfanwy’s Spenserwood Estate in North Saanich. Prime Minister of Canada Pierre Elliot Trudeau came twice and spent more than a week. Katherine Hepburn came several times. Yehudin Menuhin visited as well. North Saanich became the destination for the famous and wealthy, unbeknown to the public in North Saanich, because the visits were kept very hush-hush.
During all of these years Myfanwy cared for her handicapped daughter, Tesa, with love and devotion.
When Yehudi Menuhin saw the portraits of him by Myfanwy he said that he could feel the note that he was playing by looking at the way Myfanwy had painted his hand.
Menuhin wrote the following about Myfanwy in World Link, February 1987: “ Her two years in London working at the National Portrait Gallery brought to maturity her innate and powerful gifts: an incredibly precise visual memory and an ability to reveal on paper or cnavas the innermost thoughts, character and personality of a subject, penetrating their superficial appearance. Her art is not to see and observe, but to see through a person, to bring a compassionate sympathy to her subject, and to remain uncompromising in the standards of technical integrity she sets herself. The fluency and assurance in the way she works, that creative ability to translate in image, a mood, a state of being, is astonishing. Her drawing is superb, her use of colour impressionistic so vivid and intensly expressive.”
We are now going to present an adaptation of an interview between Curator Carol DeFina and Myfanwy Pavelic Spenser. The role of Carol DeFina is played by Sylvia Van Kirk and the role of Myfanwy Pavelic is played by Diana Chown.
Interview With The Artist
CD / Is it true that you taught yourself to draw?
MSP / Yes, I taught myself by using skeletons, because I felt it was absolutely essential for me. If I was going to simplify I had to know what was there first.
CD/ Does this relate to the idea you have mentioned in the past about painting from the inside out?
MSP / Yes, I think so. I have to know what is inside before I can work, but that is not entirely what I meant. I could do a hand in four strokes – but only if I know what is underneath. It is’nt the way your eyebrow grows or the eye sockets are that intrigues me. That interests me when I come to it but it is not the most important thing. What interests me is what happens inside you and where it shows up. How does it come through – perhaps the line by the mouth or around the eye. Then I start to see — little technical things but it is the inside that I start with, that inspires me.
CD/ What do you feel has been the most productive period of your career?
I suppose as far as the collage period, I had the most fun. Then the year or so when I was working on the portrait of Yehudi Menunhin. Granted I never wanted to paint a volin again but it did give me a lot of satisfaction, not because it was going to The National Portrait Gallery of London, but because I became really involved with the work itself – and naturally my feelings about Yehudi enterred into it. About a year and a half was spent on drawings and paintings before the final work was completed.
CD / Why do you think that you always come back to people in your work? For instance, landscape is such a strong theme in Canadian art. Even when you have experimented with abstract imagery or collage, you have always returned to figures.
MSP / Well, first, the idea of what I feel when I look out at that sea, or at those trees, the mountains, the sky, I don’t see any …….. ‘flaws’ is not quite the word, but it’s only because there are no edges to it— I wouldn’t attempt to hold it in.
CD / You mean you could not find a ‘frame’ or where to put a frame?
MSP / I don’t want a frame. I generally don’t like landscapes or seascapes because I can’t limit that distance to a canvas – I don’t like them cut off there. I would do drawings of little rocks because I felt that was something small enough I could tackle. The other was too vast for me and I feel so much about it. Now you could say, don’t I feel something like that about people? Yes, I do but it is not the same.
CD / Could you explain that to me?
MSP / I can try. I do not feel a distance in relating to people. For all of what they are is contained or generated within their physical boundaries – and it is the wanting to reach them – and is, I think, the reason I always return to figures.
Sometimes — very rarely, something takes over that makes painting worthwhile, and much larger than I am. It may be just a brush stroke or two… once or twice when working on the paintings of Yehudi I felt conscious of what he is inside – not what he was feeling but really what he is. Those rare moments bring painting close to what music means to me.
CD / Does it have to do with losing a sense of self? A kind of loss of self-consciousness?
MSP / Yes, it’s a stripping away until there’s something a little more… to use the word ‘pure’ sounds awful … but almost as if there’s nothing in between— all that artificiality – it’s as though you’re sort of peeled.
CD / So the comparable thing in painting comes when you lose the distance between what you are painting and yourself or would you say it is when you discover something and can transfer it to canvas?
MSP / It’s really both – and almost impossible to describe.
CD / And the rest of the time?
The rest of the time you struggle to go putting paint on canvas and sometimes you make an awful mess and other times you like that colour and you think now isn’t that awful and why can’t I do better and you turn it upside down and start again, but thank goodness for those little wee glimmers that come, maybe, once or twice a year.
CD / Myfanwy, you are really too modest. Your paintings of celebrities hang in galleries around the world……..