Gardener, wife, mother, friend to art and artists. Born Sept. 21, 1921, in Vancouver; died on Jan. 3, 2014, in Vancouver, of old age, aged 92.
Every woman studies her mother-in-law, and I was fascinated by Sidney Shadbolt. Only a couple of years younger than my mother, and from the same Anglo-prairie stock, she seemed to belong to a milieu much younger. And considerably hipper.
Eddies of painters and potters and performance artists ran through Sidney’s home, a reconfigured farmhouse on a hill in East Vancouver. Her 80th birthday party at the Western Front, Vancouver’s artist-run centre for everything out there, was a loud and raucous compendium of the good, the great, and the very wicked in the city’s arts community over the last 45 years.
Sidney came from a storied family, who first arrived in Canada from Orkney, Scotland, in 1835 and came to include an archdeacon of Athabaska and her maternal grandfather, Sheridan Lawrence. Known as “the emperor of the Peace,” he famously challenged the monopoly of Hudson’s Bay Co. in the Peace River district in the early years of the 20th century.
Married right after graduating from the University of Manitoba, Sidney had three small children when she divorced her first husband, architect Charles Craig. In 1956, she took David, Jamie and Kate to spend a year in a remote fishing village in Mexico called Puerto Vallarta, to show them a less-privileged lifestyle.
At the time, Sidney looked like Theda Bara, or one of Man Ray’s models – dark hair in a blunt cut, strong brows, a direct gaze. Her kids ran through the village and along the beaches stunningly free, in a year that began, for each of them, lives that were anything but conventional.
Six years later, Sidney married Doug Shadbolt who went on to run and/or found three schools of architecture in Canada, ending at the University of British Columbia in the 1980s. Wherever she and Doug moved, Sidney made a garden. In the 1960s, Doug was at Carleton University in Ottawa; while clearing brush one afternoon in the back yard, Sidney heard a voice from the other side of the fence: “Hey lady, need a hand?” “Yes!” she cried. And over the fence flew the hand of a mannequin. James Bennett, 30 years younger than Sidney, grew to become a landscape designer and a lifelong friend. Together they created her final garden in Vancouver, an oasis hemmed by Greek columns and a high hedge, celebrated in the 1999 book Gardens of Vancouver.
The lines drawn by the artists and architects who came of age in Vancouver in the latter half of the 20th century ran right through Sidney’s home: from her husband Doug; to in-laws Jack and Doris Shadbolt; multimedia artist Bill Reid; architect Ron Thom; her video-artist daughter, Kate Craig; her sons-in-law, gallerist Hank Bull and painter Eric Metcalf; and the many others whom Sidney encouraged and befriended and drew in a charmed circle around her.
She fed them all and was amused by them all – her giggle at a transgressive statement was a river of warmth. Seemingly career-less, her life was nonetheless replete, filled with people, conversation, debate and a fierce pulsing energy that lasted 92 gorgeous years.
Elizabeth Nickson is married to Sidney’s son, Jamie.