Artist, individualist, father, grandfather. Born on March 9, 1953 in Toronto; died on Nov. 12, 2013, in Newcastle, Ont., of a heart attack, aged 60.
Michael Clay’s youth in Scarborough, Ont., was filled with boyish escapades such as snare trapping, stealing apples and hopping freight trains. But despite growing up in a loving family, his was not an easy childhood. He was the second and last child of Jack and Lillian Clay, whose first son died at the age of three, shortly before Michael was born.
Michael was 12 when his mother died of cancer and he was fostered for several years while his father, a Second World War veteran, struggled to regain his mental health. Michael eventually returned home to attend high school and work part-time to help support their household. When he was 17, his father died by suicide, and Michael lived independently while completing high school. During his tumultuous formative years, many people opened their homes to Michael and he remained deeply appreciative of their kindness his entire life.
A natural, self-taught artist, Michael began carving wood sculpture in 1972, while working in a number of jobs to support his young family. A serendipitous 1974 Toronto meeting with noted Canadian sculptor E.B. Cox launched a lifelong friendship – and Michael’s career as a stone sculptor. The two shared road trips, as well as a love of art, stone and vodka martinis.
Michael exhibited at various art shows and was invited to become an artist-in-residence at Scarborough’s Guild Inn in 1980. During his 13 years there, he created stone sculpture that is found in public spaces and private collections. He focused primarily on contemporary human and animal forms, working in materials such as limestone, alabaster and serpentine. He collaborated with E.B. Cox on a variety of installations and was commissioned for restoration work for the Canadian Heritage Foundation, museums and governments.
When his marriage ended, his “cottage” at the Guild Inn became Michael’s home, as well as his studio and gallery. It was a hub for artists and friends and the scene of many a bacchanalia. Weekend visits with sons Michael Jr. and Jeremy were filled with camping on the beach at the Scarborough Bluffs, treks in the woods, archery practice, and love. Because Michael never forgot the fear of displacement, his door and his heart were open to anyone who needed a bed, a shower or a beer.
In 1991, Michael and I began a romance that lasted the rest of his life. He renovated our first home in Lindsay, Ont., and continued to create beautiful art. Diagnosed with hepatitis C in 1995, he underwent a two-year series of debilitating drug treatments that cleared the virus. With his health reclaimed, we travelled in the United States, Canada and Europe.
We moved to Newcastle, Ont., in 2003 where, for the next decade, we hosted many joyous occasions for our families and friends. With love, imagination and not a few profanities, Michael restored our 1853 home. He also carved sculpture, crafted furniture and rode his beloved motorcycle. Sadly, he will never work in the studio he had almost completed at the time of his death. He is, and will be, missed but his memory lives forever through his artistic legacy.
Judi Saliba is Michael’s wife.