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Unheralded Artists Back

Mary Filer, Partial Adventures in Space 1

Mary Filer, Partial Adventures in Space 1 (n.d.), laminated and antique clear and
shelled float glass

The Life and Art of Mary Filer

by Christina Johnson-Dean

Mary Filer, Mystique de Eros

Mary Filer, Mystique de Eros (2008), glass

Mary Filer, urban geometries

Mary Filer, urban geometries (n.d.), glass

Painting and sculpture merging in “cold” glass? That’s what the trailblazer Mary Filer (1920-2016) pioneered in the burst of urbanism in late 20th century Vancouver. The Prairie-born Filer, a Gold Medallist in nursing, developed her artistic skills with the Group of Seven’s Arthur Lismer, becoming McGill University’s first BFA in 1950. After competing graduate work with the renowned educator Victor Lowenfeld at Penn State University, Filer added art education and large-scale mural creation to her repertoire, creating The Advance of Neurology, a 142-foot mural for the Montreal Neurological Institute. Teaching art at McGill University, Penn State and New York University was creatively stimulating, but Filer was often left with little time for her own art.

In 1956 she left the US to be a full-time prolific artist in the UK. There she painted, made prints, exhibited and was inspired by new approaches to glasswork, especially at the new Coventry Cathedral. Due to the invention of float glass (even thickness and flatness made by floating molten glass on molten metal) and strong epoxy glues (from the airplane construction industry), artists were freed from the leaded glass windows of the past. Filer began by layering colours of polyester resins and then new and recycled glass to create images – becoming a painter in glass.

Mary returned to Canada in the late 1960s, with Harold Spence-Sales, McGill University’s School of Architecture professor, who started Canada’s first program of urban planning. From Montreal to Victoria and finally Vancouver, this sexy and uber-creative couple were an active part of transforming art and architecture into an integral part of urban development. Filer became a sculptor in cold glass. Some works were small, infused with light; others were large coloured and layered brilliant murals, created to enhance huge architectural spaces. As a husband-wife team, Mary and Harold were strongly connected to Simon Fraser University, supporting its programs. The downtown Harbour Centre’s lobby features a large glass panel installation of Vancouver with its downtown and two main universities.

Filer’s story also parallels the history of the glass art movement, which began in the 1960s, in the US, and with the first post-secondary glass program in Canada at Sheridan College. Since then glass art has grown into many permutations, including hot glass (blown, lampworking, hot casting), cold glass (laminated, leaded, sandblasted, etched), and warm glass (fusing, slumping, kiln casting). As artists formed groups to advance their profession, Mary Filer was always supportive; respected for her innovations and guidance, she was called “Our Lady of the Shard.”

As Filer reached her zenith as an artist in cold glass, she was recognized with an honourary doctorate from Simon Fraser University, an Allied Arts Silver Medal from the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada, and election to the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts in 2005. During her lifetime, she had more than 160 exhibitions. Filer’s work is in the permanent collections of the National Gallery of Canada, Vancouver General Hospital, Toronto Art Gallery, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, Burnaby Art Gallery, Confederation Art Centre and Simon Fraser University. 

This article is based on the book of the same name, which is ninth in the Unheralded Artists of British Columbia series (Mother Tongue Publishing), which illustrates and explores the lives and art of important but previously undocumented BC artists from the 1900s through the 1960s.

This article is based on the book of the same name, fifth in the Unheralded Artists of British Columbia series (Mother Tongue Publishing), which explores the lives and work of important but previously undocumented BC artists from the 1900s through the 1960s. The books are available at the Vancouver Art Gallery Shop, the Royal BC Museum and other venues, as well as from mothertonguepublishing.com.

Christina Johnson-Dean is working on UABC #9, The Life and Art of Mary Filer, due out in fall 2016.

 Sat, Nov 19, 2016