Compiled and edited by Libby Oughton
When I was asked by The Buzz to write about Hilda Woolnough, shortly after her death, I took my many fond memories of Hilda for a walk by the sea. As if written on the infinite horizon, I knew that one person (at least this one person) could never capture the essence, the complexity and vitality of Hilda. So in a conversation with her friend and neigbour Christine Stanley, we hatched the idea of asking some of her good friends to write short, personal tributes. And from these, that essence of the Hilda we loved might emerge, the earthy and the ethereal. We will all miss this grand, rich human being.
Silver Donald Cameron
Hilda Woolnough was a wonderful artist, an energetic activist, a loving mother, a penetrating critic, a glorious hostess and an exceptionally generous friend. I am grateful for her passage through my life in all these roles. But I will particularily remember the way she shared and amplified all these qualities in her joyful union with her life partner, Reshard Gool. For a certain period the two provided a roaring fire which warmed the whole cultural life of Prince Edward Island and beyond. With Hilda’s passing, that fire—already diminished by Reshard’s death—would seem to be extinguished. But in truth it still burns, in the work they did, and in our hearts, thoughts and memories.
Each time I have come to write something about Hilda, I get five seconds into the task and halt. Is it possible that Hilda is not at a poetry reading or drawing or dancing under the stars on the outdoor dance floor she constructed below her house and painted in vivid colours for her marvelous parties? Isn’t she somewhere organizing the Children’s Art Expo or keeping the province alert about the necessity of art at the centre of our lives? I knew Hilda when she and Reshard Gool hosted writers from across Canada. Their home in Charlottetown was an ongoing salon, a place where artists and politicians engaged in long and heated conversations. After Reshard’s death, Hilda continued to be at the centre of the Island’s conversation about arts, culture and politics. Hilda was sui generis. This Island will never be the same without her.
Wade MacLauchlan & Duncan McIntosh
On her first visit to our home at sunset on a mid-summer evening, Hilda noted the long shadows cast by the house and declared: “It's a viking ship!” That was Hilda: ingenious, witty, creative and iconoclastic. Shortly thereafter she produced a concept full of mythical and natural illusions that became our “Hilda-box.” When Hilda became a member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Artists in l999 (RCA), she quipped that this meant she was a “Real Crazy Artist.” In fact, Hilda was fiercely proud of her art,and worked tirelessly to promote art and artists. She carved her own bright path. She swam out of season, threw the best parties, and showed us all how to live—artfully.
When our eyes first met across the breakfast room, I did not know that Hilda was a brilliant artist, nurturer of the needy, mother and surrogate mother of many, selfless giver, endearing friend, lover, leader, guide, nature spirit, organizer, role model, fearless champion of justice and the arts, builder and creator, searcher for truth, healer, teacher, mentor, keen and penetrating intellectual enquirer, creative and prolific problem solver, sensitive gardener, lover of trees and all living things, an ocean nymph who swam with seals. Not consciously I didn’t. What I knew in that instant was that I was gazing at an outstandingly beautiful brave-scared little girl I had lived a life-time preparing to be able to protect and love.
Sometimes I called Hilda ‘The Empress’…always my good friend…sharing her spicy meals, discussing the river, the potato and her prints.
Walking in her protean garden through ever changing seasons.
Working to draw the sun and seeded earth for all seasons and weathers.
Dancing on her creations, howling at the full moon.
Knowing enough to die gracefully at peace.
Swimming out to sea.
When I first moved here, my local beach—Cape Traverse—was also Hilda’s favorite beach. We’d often swim far, then flop down on shore to watch the beach shrimps’ crazy dances. Two peas, two aquarians. We sat on many arts’ boards together. If fractious, a loud gleeful whisper from Hilda…time for the aquarian conspiracy. Recently we shared some sad times, dismantling the Printmaker’s studio. This broke a peice of Hilda’s heart, that we couldn’t make it work any longer. Already ill, she still spent hours and energy making sure the extensive print archives would have a future at Confed Centre. I’ll deeply miss my friend and her passion and courage that everything matters.
Ambika Gail Rutherford
Hilda, the artist, was innovative both technically and creatively. Her passion for the natural world, particularly the sea, showed in her choice of themes like ‘Fishtails’ and in ‘Timepiece.’ Her support of social justice issues shows in her series of drawings inspired by Guatanamo. She was a powerful draughtsman, particularily in her series of large drawings related to her husband Reshard, after his stroke. As a printmaker she was extremely inventive, using collagraphy & embossing with mixed media to create jewel-like surfaces—gold and rich dark colours (in ‘Timepiece’). In her early days here, Hilda worked as a jeweler. This was when I got to know and appreciate her as friend and inspiration.
For a small woman, Hilda was huge—such a large and energetic personality that she seemed to fill all available space. Everything she did, she did with passion. She lived, loved, worked and advocated with such intensity that I think of her as red! Hilda loved red and she wore the most wonderful shades of red. She was a beautiful woman who paid attention to you. She brought her intensity to her friendships and had the habit of asking me the most difficult questions and demanding answers! Hilda did more to help me confront my own devils than anyone else. She wasn’t satisfied with fudgy, waffly answers. She wanted the straight goods. Without Hilda her Rose Valley house feels large and empty. She’s left an enormous hole in the lives of those who knew and loved her. I will miss her.
Though Hilda created many memorable events it was the most recent times I shared with her that I treasure. Over the last months of her life, we spent time massaging, in the quiet knowing of what was next. We’d put on CBC jazz and we spent time. It was full, gentle, usually silent. It was a pleasure to see her, not difficult as one might imagine. She was an amazing force of unique perspectives, and a poignant sense of humour. I was grateful to be doing something that might be helpful, and in exchange I received a great gift. This Art Icon, who no doubt mentored many artists, mentored me in the art of dying well. She was wonderfully inspiring: my sadness is mixed equally with thanks.
Hilda was a Charles Kingsley ‘Water Baby’…when desperate to swim she’d share the pond behind her home with resident beavers. Any conversation might connect back to swimming. Hilda was always game to drop everything for a spontaneous adventure during our 33-year friendship, especially if water was involved. We’d often reminisce about a favorite to a New River Beach cottage, swimming daily beside loons in the frigid Bay of Fundy. Hilda loved festive gatherings in her cherished home. She set the party standards—ethnic cooking, outdoor dance floor, live music, costumes, friends. Her annual White Candle Dinner was my favorite—the table set with mirrors and many candles burning down to pliable and playable wax during food & poetry. Hilda always encouraged her friends to live every minute of life with passion and gusto.
The first time I saw Hilda was at the Canton Grill circa 1972, the only woman at a lively table of 10. She was spectacular—dark hair swept into an elegant chignon, red flower behind one ear…a queen. I remember thinking,’there’s a real woman. I want to be one too.’ The last time I saw Hilda was at the chemo clinic in November. Frighteningly thin, sporting a jaunty red toque she pranced and sang, gleeful she’d gained “two whole pounds. Cancer be damned.” She was ready to fly away with David to Costa Rica. “I’m living one day at a time,” she said, and was she ever, taking pleasure in everything. When it was time to go, she took delicious delight in kissing my guy Claude farewell.