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A head for figures

Winnipeg sculptor Eva Stubbs' rough-hewn works capture universal experiences

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In the mid-1950s, a Hungarian-born woman who had come to Winnipeg as a wartime Jewish refugee tried to enrol in the University of Manitoba's art school as a mature student.

She was already close to 30 and had a young son.

The registrar, an older man, turned her away. "He said to me, 'Oh, my dear, go home to your husband and child. You don't need this,'" Eva Stubbs recalls.

But Stubbs -- whose married name at the time was Eva Wolinsky -- persisted and got accepted. She graduated and became a respected sculptor in an era when only a handful of Canadian sculptors were female.

She divorced (leaving the prominent Wolinsky family), worked as a teacher, remarried, had another son, and is now a widow and grandmother. Through it all, she persevered with her personal vision, often depicting mothers, children and families in rough-textured sculptures that echo primitive art-making.

"I just did what I wanted to do, and worked hard," says the diminutive artist, still feisty at age 85. "I wish I could have another 20 years to do more."

Stubbs, who still has a studio in the Silpit Building, is being honoured at the Winnipeg Art Gallery with a survey exhibition spanning more than 50 years of artistic output: 1954 to 2008.

Eva Stubbs: The Rough Ideal has a free public opening tonight at 7 p.m. and is on view until March 20. Curated by the WAG's Andrew Kear, it consists of more than 60 sculptures and works on paper, the latter mostly nudes. Three works belong to the WAG. The rest are on loan from private, public and corporate collections.

This is the first time Stubbs has laid eyes on some of the works in decades, and it's her first career-spanning show. Friends and family are coming from across Canada and as far away as Japan and Italy for the opening.

"It's wonderful. It's an amazing experience I never thought I'd have," says Stubbs, who recently moved to an Osborne Village highrise after living in Fort Richmond for 45 years.

Kear titled the show The Rough Ideal. He says Stubbs' work "reaches into a well of universal human experience" and offers a kind of human ideal. But it's not the noble or divine ideal seen in the perfectly smooth sculptures of antiquity.

Many of Stubbs' human figures made of fired clay are stained, gouged, streaked, mottled and scratched -- often in ways that surprise her when they emerge from the kiln. They resemble ancient, damaged objects unearthed in archeological digs. They speak of both human fragility and the capacity to endure.

"We come from the earth. We return to the earth. Our histories mark us," says Kear.

One of Stubbs' most acclaimed works, Standing Figures (1983), depicts two women with that kind of scarred texture. The artist based it on frightening childhood memories of the Spanish Civil War, when she saw aggressive women armed with guns.

Stubbs doesn't label herself a feminist, but women's experiences have been central to her work. A large series of charcoal drawings called Frieze (Nude Series) (1994-95) shows phases of pregnancy and ends with the mother connected to the grown child by a string.

Stubbs says she tries not to be too personal or specific in her work. "At first, a lot of artists are very introspective, and I guess I was, too. Then you realize that some of the things you have gone through, or suffered with, happen everywhere."

She doesn't like to explain too much, preferring that viewers have their own interpretations. "It comes out of me, but everybody's reaction is different."

A sculptural installation that still raises conservative eyebrows is Multiples (1995). It's a mushroom-like "family" of 14 phallic and womb-like forms. Stubbs has said the work is partly about scientific developments in reproduction and their ethical implications.

In the 1990s, media mogul Izzy Asper commissioned Stubbs to create bronze panels for the iron gates of his house on Wellington Crescent. The house and gates are no longer there, but eight small panels on Asper themes such as music, business and Judaism are displayed in the WAG show.

The gate handles show a family scene of Izzy, wife Babs and children David, Gail and Leonard. Look closely, and you'll see that Gail is holding something.

"The daughter is carrying the scales of justice," says Stubbs, hinting that she might be a little more feminist than she's letting on.

alison.mayes@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 16, 2010 D1

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